I quit the Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln-Mercury Division. It had become clear to me that Mr. Muhammad needed ministers to spread his teachings, to establish more temples among the twenty-two million black brothers who were brainwashed and sleeping in the cities of North America.
My decision came relatively quickly. I have always been an activist, and my personal chemistry perhaps made me reach more quickly than most ministers in the Nation of Islam that stage of dedication. But every minister in the Nation, in his own time, in his own way, in the privacy of his own soul, came to the conviction that it was written that all of his “before” life had been only conditioning and preparation to become a disciple of Mr. Muhammad’s.
Everything that happens-Islam teaches-is written.
Mr. Muhammad invited me to visit his home in Chicago, as often as possible, while he trained me, for months.
Never in prison had I studied and absorbed so intensely as I did now under Mr. Muhammad’s guidance. I was immersed in the worship rituals; in what he taught us were the true natures of men and women; the organizational and administrative procedures; the real meanings, and the interrelated meanings, and uses, of the Bible and the Quran.
I went to bed every night ever more awed. If not Allah, who else could have put such wisdom into that little humble lamb of a man from the Georgia fourth grade and sawmills and cotton patches. The “lamb of a man” analogy I drew for myself from the prophecy in the Book of Revelations of a symbolic lamb with a two-edged sword in its mouth. Mr. Muhammad’s two-edged sword was his teachings, which cut back and forth to free the black man’s mind from the white man.
My adoration of Mr. Muhammad grew, in the sense of the Latin root word_adorare_. It means much more than our “adoration” or “adore.” It means that my worship of him was so awesome that he was the first man whom I had ever feared-not fear such as of a man with a gun, but the fear such as one has of the power of the sun.
Mr. Muhammad, when he felt me able, permitted me to go to Boston. Brother Lloyd X lived there. He invited people whom he had gotten interested in Islam to hear me in his living room.
I quote what I said when I was just starting out, and then later on in other places, as I can best remember the general pattern that I used, in successive phases, in those days. I know that then I always liked to start off with my favorite analogy of Mr. Muhammad.
“God has given Mr. Muhammad some sharp truth,” I told them. “It is like a two-edged sword. It cuts into you. It causes you great pain, but if you can take the truth, it will cure you and save you from what otherwise would be certain death.”
Then I wouldn’t waste any time to start opening their eyes about the devil white man. “I know you don’t realize the enormity, the horrors, of the so-called _Christian_ white man’s crime. . . .
“Not even in the _Bible_ is there such a crime! God in His wrath struck down with _fire_ the perpetrators of _lesser_ crimes! _One hundred million_ of us black people! Your grandparents!
Mine! _Murdered_ by this white man. To get fifteen million of us here to make us his slaves, on the way he murdered one hundred million! I wish it was possible for me to show you the sea bottom in those days-the black bodies, the blood, the bones broken by boots and clubs! The pregnant black women who were thrown overboard if they got toosick! Thrown overboard to the sharks that had learned that following these slave ships was the way to grow fat!
“Why, the white man’s raping of the black race’s woman began right on those slave ships! The blue-eyed devil could not even wait until he got them here! Why, brothers and sisters, civilized mankind has never known such an orgy of greed and lust and murder. . . .”
The dramatization of slavery never failed intensely to arouse Negroes hearing its horrors spelled out for the first time. It’s unbelievable how many black men and women have let the white man fool them into holding an almost romantic idea of what slave days were like. And once I had them fired up with slavery, I would shift the scene to themselves.
“I want you, when you leave this room, to start to _see_ all this whenever you see this devil white man. Oh, yes, he’s a devil! I just want you to start watching him, in his places where he doesn’t want you around; watch him reveling in his precious-ness, and his exclusiveness, and his vanity, while he continues to subjugate you and me.
“Every time you see a white man, think about the devil you’re seeing! Think of how it was on _your_ slave foreparents’ bloody, sweaty backs that he _built_ this empire that’s today the richest of all nations-where his evil and his greed cause him to be hated around the world!”
Every meeting, the people who had been there before returned, bringing friends. None of them ever had heard the wraps taken off the white man. I can’t remember any black man ever in those living-room audiences in Brother Lloyd X’s home at 5 Wellington Street who didn’t stand up immediately when I asked after each lecture, “Will all stand who believe what you have heard?” And each Sunday night, some of them stood, while I could see others not quiteready, when I asked, “How many of you want to _follow_ The Honorable Elijah Muhammad?”
Enough had stood up after about three months that we were able to open a little temple. I remember with what pleasure we rented some folding chairs. I was beside myself with joy when I could report to Mr. Muhammad a new temple address.
It was when we got this little mosque that my sister Ella first began to come to hear me. She sat, staring, as though she couldn’t believe it was me. Ella never moved, even when I had only asked all who believed what they had heard to stand up. She contributed when our collection was held. It didn’t bother or challenge me at all about Ella. I never even thought about converting her, as toughminded and cautious about joining anything as I personally knew her to be. I wouldn’t have expected anyone short of Allah Himself to have been able to convert Ella.
I would close the meeting as Mr. Muhammad had taught me: “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful, all praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all the worlds, the beneficent, merciful master of the day of judgment in which we now live -Thee alone do we serve, and Thee alone do we beseech for Thine aid. Guide us on the right path, the path of those upon whom Thou has bestowed favors -not of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor the path of those who go astray after they have heard Thy teaching. I bear witness that there is no God but Thee and The Honorable Elijah Muhammad is Thy Servant and Apostle. “I believed he had been divinely sent to our people by Allah Himself.
I would raise my hand, for them to be dismissed: “Do nothing unto anyone that you would not like to have done unto yourself. Seek peace, and never be the aggressor-but if anyone attacks you, we do not teach you to turn the othercheek. May Allah bless you to be successful and victorious in all that you do.”
Except for that one day when I had stayed with Ella on the way to Detroit after prison, I had not been in the old Roxbury streets for seven years. I went to have a reunion with Shorty.
Shorty, when I found him, acted uncertain. The wire had told him I was in town, and on some “religious kick.” He didn’t know if I was serious, or if I was another of the hustling preacher-pimps to be found in every black ghetto, the ones with some little storefront churches of mostly hardworking, older women, who kept their “pretty boy” young preacher dressed in “sharp” clothes and driving a fancy car. I quickly let Shorty know how serious I was with Islam, but then, talking the old street talk, I quickly put him at his ease, and we had a great reunion. We laughed until we cried at Shorty’s dramatization of his reactions when he heard that judge keep saying “Count one, ten years . . . count two, ten years -” We talked about how having those white girls with us had gotten as tea years where we had seen in prison plenty of worse offenders with far less time to serve.
Shorty still had a little band, and he was doing fairly well. He was rightfully very proud that in prison he had studied music. I told him enough about Islam to see from his reactions that he didn’t really want to hear it. In prison, he had misheard about our religion. He got me off the subject by making a joke. He said that he hadn’t had enough pork chops and white women. I don’t know if he has yet, or not. I know that he’s married to a white woman now. . . and he’s fat as a hog from eating hog.
I also saw John Hughes, the gambling-house owner, and some others I had known who were still around Roxbury. The wire about me had made them all uncomfortable, but my “What you know, Daddy?” approach at least enabled us to have some conversations. I never mentioned Islam to most of them. I knew,from what I had been when I was with them, how brainwashed they were.
As Temple Eleven’s minister, I served only briefly, because as soon as I got it organized, by March 1954, I left it in charge of Minister Ulysses X, and the Messenger moved me on to Philadelphia.
The City of Brotherly Love black people reacted even faster to the truth about the white man than the Bostonians had. And Philadelphia’s Temple Twelve was established by the end of May. It had taken a little under three months.
The next month, because of those Boston and Philadelphia successes, Mr. Muhammad appointed me to be the minister of Temple Seven-in vital New York City.
I can’t start to describe for you my welter of emotions. For Mr. Muhammad’s teachings really to resurrect American black people, Islam obviously had to grow, to grow very big. And nowhere in America was such a single temple potential available as in New York’s five boroughs.
They contained over a million black people.
* * *
It was nine years since West Indian Archie and I had been stalking the streets, momentarily expecting to try and shoot each other down like dogs.
“_Red!_” . . .”My man!” . . .”Red, this _can’t_ be you-With my natural kinky red hair now close-cropped, in place of the old long-haired, lye-cooked conk they had always known on my head, I know I looked much different.
“Gim’me some _skin_, man! A drink here, bartender-what? You _quit!_ Aw, man, come off it!”
It was so good seeing so many whom I had known so well. You can understand how that was. But it was West Indian Archie and Sammy the Pimp for whom I was primarily looking. And the first nasty shock came quickly, about Sammy. He had quit pimping, he had gotten pretty high up in the numbers business, and was doing well. Sammy even had married. Some fast young girl. But then shortly after his wedding one morning he was found lying dead across his bed-they said with twenty-five thousand dollars in his pockets. (People don’t want to believe the sums that even the minor underworld handles. Why, listen: in March 1964, a Chicago nickel-and-dime bets Wheel of Fortune man, Lawrence Wakefield, died, and over $760, 000 in cash was in his apartment, in sacks and bags . . . all taken from poor Negroes . . . and we wonder why we stay so poor. )
Sick about Sammy, I queried from bar to bar among old-timers for West Indian Archie. The wire hadn’t reported him dead, or living somewhere else, but none seemed to know where he was. I heard the usual hustler fates of so many others. Bullets, knives, prison, dope, diseases, insanity, alcoholism. I imagine it was about in that order. And so many of the survivors whom I knew as tough hyenas and wolves of the streets in the old days now were so pitiful. They had known all the angles, but beneath that surface they were poor, ignorant, untrained black men; life had eased up on them and hyped them. I ran across close to twenty-five of these old-timers I had known pretty well, who in the space of nine years had been reduced to the ghetto’s minor, scavenger hustles to scratch up room rent and food money. Some now worked downtown, messengers, janitors, things like that. I was thankful to Allah that I had become a Muslim and escaped their fate.
There was Cadillac Drake. He was a big jolly, cigar-smoking, fat, black, gaudy-dressing pimp, a regular afternoon character when I was waiting on tables in Small’s Paradise. Well, I recognized him shuffling toward me on the street. He had gotten hooked on heroin; I’d heard that. He was the dirtiest, sloppiest bum you ever laid eyes on. I hurried past because we would both have been embarrassed if he recognized me, the kid he used to toss a dollar tip.
The wire worked to locate West Indian Archie for me. The wire of the streets, when it wants to, is something like Western Union with the F.B.I. for messengers. At one of my early services at Temple Seven, an old scavenger hustler, to whom I gave a few dollars, came up when services were dismissed. He told me that West Indian Archie was sick, living up in a rented room in the Bronx.
I took a taxi to the address. West Indian Archie opened the door. He stood there in rumpled pajamas and barefooted, squinting at me.
Have you ever seen someone who seemed a ghost of the person you remembered? It took him a few seconds to fix me in his memory. He claimed, hoarsely, “Red! I’m so glad to see you!”
I all but hugged the old man. He was sick in that weak way. I helped him back. He sat down on the edge of his bed. I sat in his one chair, and I told him how his forcing me out of Harlem had saved my life by turning me in the direction of Islam.
He said, “I always liked you, Red,” and he said that he had never really wanted to kill me. I told him it had made me shudder many times to think how close we had come to killing each other. I told him I had sincerely thought I had hit that combinated six-way number for the three hundred dollars he had paid me. Archie said that he had later wondered if he had made some mistake, since I was so ready to die about it. And then we agreed that it wasn’t worth even talking about, it didn’t mean anything anymore. He kept saying, over and over,in between other things, that he was so glad to see me.
I went into a little of Mr. Muhammad’s teaching with Archie. I told him how I had found out that all of us who had been in the streets were victims of the white man’s society I told Archie what I had thought in prison about him; that his brain, which could tape-record hundreds of number combinations a day, should have been put at the sendee of mathematics or science. “Red, that sure is something to think about,” I can remember him saying.
But neither of us would say that it was not too late. I have the feeling that he knew, as I could see,
that the end was closing in on Archie. I became too moved about what he had been and what he
had now become to be able to stay much longer. I didn’t have much money, and he didn’t want to
accept what little I was able to press on him. But I made him take it.
* * *
I keep having to remind myself that then, in June 1954, Temple Seven in New York City was a
little storefront. Why, it’s almost unbelievable that one bus couldn’t have been filled with the
Muslims in New York City! Even among our own black people in the Harlem ghetto, you could
have said “Muslim” to a thousand, and maybe only one would not have asked you “What’s that?”
As for white people, except for that relative handful privy to certain police or prison files, not five
hundred white people in all of America knew we existed.
I began firing Mr. Muhammad’s teaching at the New York members and the few friends they
managed to bring in. And with each meeting, my discomfort grew that in Harlem, choked with
poor, ignorant black men suffering all of the evils that Islam could cure, every time I lectured my
heart out and then asked those who wanted to follow Mr. Muhammad to stand, only two or three
would. And, I have to admit, sometimes not that many.
I think I was all the angrier with my own ineffectiveness because I knew the streets. I had to get
myself together and think out the problem. And the big trouble, obviously, was that we were only
one among the many voices of black discontent on every busy Harlem corner. The different
Nationalist groups, the “Buy Black!” forces, and others like that; dozens of their step-ladder
orators were trying to increase their followings. I had nothing against anyone trying to promote
independence and unity among black men, but they still were making it tough for Mr.
Muhammad’s voice to be heard.
In my first effort to get over this hurdle, I had some little leaflets printed. There wasn’t a much-
traveled Harlem street corner that five or six good Muslim brothers and I missed. We would step
up right in front of a walking black man or woman so that they had to accept our leaflet, and if
they hesitated one second, they had to hear us saying some catch thing such as “Hear how the
white man kidnapped and robbed and raped our black race-”
Next, we went to work “fishing” on those Harlem corners-on the fringes of the Nationalist
meetings. The method today has many refinements, but then it consisted of working the always
shifting edges of the audiences that others had managed to draw. At a Nationalist meeting,
everyone who was listening was interested in the revolution of the black race. We began to get
visible results almost immediately after we began thrusting handbills in people’s hands, “Come to
hear us, too, brother.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us how to cure the black man’s spiritual, mental,
moral, economic, and political sicknesses-”
I saw the new faces of our Temple Seven meetings. And then we discovered the best “fishing”
audience of all, by far the best-conditioned audience for Mr. Muhammad’s teachings: the
Our Sunday services were held at two P. M. All over Harlem during the hour or so before that,
Christian church services were dismissing. We by-passed the larger churches with their higher
ratio of so-called “middle-class” Negroes who were so full of pretense and “status” that they
wouldn’t be caught in our little storefront.
We went “fishing” fast and furiously when those little evangelical storefront churches each let out
their thirty to fifty people on the sidewalk. “Come to hear us, brother, sister-” “You haven’t heard
anything until you have heard the teachings of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad-” These
Congregations were usually Southern migrant people, usually older, who would go anywhere to
hear what they called “good preaching.” These were the church congregations who were always
putting out little signs announcing that inside they were selling fried chicken and chitlin dinners to
raise some money. And three or four nights a week, they were in their storefront rehearsing for the next Sunday, I guess, shaking and rattling and rolling the gospels with their guitars and tambourines.
I don’t know if you know it, but there’s a whole circuit of commercial gospel entertainers who have come out of these little churches in the city ghettoes or from down South. People such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Clara Ward Singers are examples, and there must be five hundred lesser lights of the same general order. Mahalia Jackson, the greatest of them all-she was a preacher’s daughter in Louisiana. She came up there to Chicago where she worked cooking and scrubbing for white people and then in a factory while she sang in the Negro churches the gospel style that, when it caught on, made her the first Negro that Negroes ever made famous. She was selling hundreds of thousands of records among Negroes before white people ever knew who Mahalia Jackson was. Anyway, I know that somewhere I once read that Mahalia said that every time she can, she will slip unannounced into some little ghetto storefront churchand sing with her people. She calls that “my filling station.”
The black Christians we “fished” to our Temple were conditioned, I found, by the very shock I could give them about what had been happening to them while they worshiped a blond, blue-eyed God. I knew the temple that I could build if I could really get to those Christians. I tailored the teachings for them. I would start to speak and sometimes be so emotionally charged I had to explain myself:
“You see my tears, brothers and sisters . . . . Tears haven’t been in my eyes since I was a young boy. But I cannot help this when I feel the responsibility I have to help you comprehend for the first time what this white man’s religion that we call Christianity has _done_ to us . . . .
“Brothers and sisters here for the first time, please don’t let that shock you. I know you didn’t expect this. Because almost none of us black people have thought that maybe we were making a mistake not wondering if there wasn’t a special religion somewhere for us-a special religion for the black man.
“Well, there is such a religion. It’s called Islam. Let me spell it for you, I-s-I-a-m! _Islam!_ But I’m going to tell you about Islam a little later. First, we need to understand some things about this Christianity before we can understand why the _answer_ for us is Islam.
“Brothers and sisters, the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus! We’re worshiping a Jesus that doesn’t even _look_ like us! Oh, yes! Now just bear with me, listen to the teachings of the Messenger of Allah, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Now, just think of this. The blond-haired, blue-eyed white man has taught you and me to worship a _white_ Jesus, and to shout and sing and pray to this God that’s _his_ God, the white man’s God. The white man has taught us to shoutand sing and pray until we _die_, to wait until _death_, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter, when we’re _dead_, while this white man has his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars right here on _this_ earth!
“You don’t want to believe what I am telling you, brothers and sisters? Well, I’ll tell you what you do. You go out of here, you just take a good look around where you live. Look at not only how _you_ live, but look at how anybody that you _know_ lives-that way, you’ll be sure that you’re not just a bad-luck accident. And when you get through looking at where _you_ live, then you take you a walk down across Central Park, and start to look at what this white God had brought to the white man. I mean, take yourself a look down there at how the white man is living!
“And don’t stop there. In fact, you won’t be able to stop for long-his doormen are going to tell you ‘Move on!’ But catch a subway and keep on downtown. Anywhere you may want to get off, _look_ at the white man’s apartments, businesses! Go right on down to the tip of Manhattan Island that this devilish white man stole from the trusting Indians for twenty-four dollars! Look at his City Hall, down there; look at his Wall Street! Look at yourself! Look at _his_ God!”
I had learned early one important thing, and that was to always teach in terms that the people could understand. Also, where the Nationalists whom we had “fished” were almost all men, among the storefront Christians, a heavy preponderance were women, and I had the sense to offer something special for them. “_Beautiful_ black woman! The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that the black man is going around saying he wants respect; well, the black man never will get anybody’s respect until he first learns to respect his own women! The black man needs _today_ to stand up and throw off the weaknesses imposed upon him by the slavemaster white man! The black man needs to start today to shelter and protect and _respect_ his black women!” One hundred percent would stand up without hesitation when I said, “How many _believe_ what they have heard?” But still never more than an agonizing few would stand up when I invited, “Will those stand who want to _follow_ The Honorable Elijah Muhammad?”
I knew that our strict moral code and discipline was what repelled them most. I fired at this point, at the reason for our code. “The white man _wants_ black men to stay immoral, unclean and ignorant. As long as we stay in these conditions we will keep on begging him and he will control us. We never can win freedom and justice and equality until we are doing something for ourselves!”
The code, of course, had to be explained to any who were tentatively interested in becoming Muslims. And the word got around in their little storefronts quickly, which is why they would come to hear me, yet wouldn’t join Mr. Muhammad. Any fornication was absolutely forbidden in the Nation of Islam. Any eating of the filthy pork, or other injurious or unhealthful foods; any use of tobacco, alcohol, or narcotics. No Muslim who followed Elijah Muhammad could dance, gamble, date, attend movies, or sports, or take long vacations from work. Muslims slept no more than health required. Any domestic quarreling, any discourtesy, especially to women, was not allowed. No lying or stealing, and no insubordination to civil authority, except on the grounds of religious obligation.
Our moral laws were policed by our Fruit of Islam-able, dedicated, and trained Muslim men. Infractions resulted in suspension by Mr. Muhammad, or isolation for various periods, or even expulsion for the worst offenses “from the only group that really cares about you.”
* * *
Temple Seven grew somewhat with each meeting. It just grew too slowly to suit me. During the weekdays, I traveled by bus and train. I taught each Wednesday at Philadelphia’s Temple Twelve. I went to Springfield, Massachusetts, to try to start a new temple. A temple which Mr. Muhammad numbered Thirteen was established there with the help of Brother Osborne, who had first heard of Islam from me in prison. A lady visiting a Springfield meeting asked if I’d come to Hartford, where she lived; she specified the next Thursday and said she would assemble some friends. And I was right there.
Thursday is traditionally domestic servants’ day off. This sister had in her housing project apartment about fifteen of the maids, cooks, chauffeurs and house men who worked for the Hartford-area white people. You’ve heard that saying, “No man is a hero to his valet.” Well, those Negroes who waited on wealthy whites hand and foot opened their eyes quicker than most Negroes. And when they went “fishing” enough among more servants, and other black people in and around Hartford, Mr. Muhammad before long was able to assign a Hartford temple the number Fourteen. And every Thursday I scheduled my teaching there.
Mr. Muhammad, when I went to see him in Chicago, had to chastise me on some point during nearly every visit. I just couldn’t keep from showing in some manner that with his ministers equipped with the power of his message, I felt the Nation should go much faster. His patience and his wisdom in chastising me would always humble me from head to foot. He said, one time, that no true leader burdened his followers with a greater load than they could carry, and no true leader sets too fast a pace for his followers to keep up.
“Most people seeing a man in an old touring car going real slow think the man doesn’t want to go fast,” Mr. Muhammad said, “but the man knows that to drive any faster would destroy the old car. When he gets a fast car, then he will drive at a fast speed.” And I remember him telling me another time, when I complained about an inefficient minister at one of his mosques, “I would rather have a mule I can depend upon than a race horse that I can’t depend upon.”
I knew that Mr. Muhammad _wanted_ that fast car to drive. And I don’t think you could pick the same number of faithful brothers and sisters from the Nation of Islam today and find “fishing” teams to beat the efforts of those who helped to bring growth to the Boston, Philadelphia, Springfield, Hartford, and New York temples. I’m, of course, just mentioning those that I knew most about because I was directly involved. This was through 1955. And 1955 was the year I made my first trip of any distance. It was to help open the temple that today is Number Fifteen-in Atlanta, Georgia.
Any Muslim who ever moved for personal reasons from one city to another was of course exhorted to plant seeds for Mr. Muhammad. Brother James X, one of our top Temple Twelve brothers, had interested enough black people in Atlanta so that when Mr. Muhammad was advised, he told me to go to Atlanta and hold a first meeting. I think I have had a hand in most of Mr. Muhammad’s temples, but I’ll never forget that opening in Atlanta.
A funeral parlor was the only place large enough that Brother James X could afford to rent. Everything that the Nation of Islam did in those days, from Mr. Muhammad on down, was strictly on a shoestring. When we all arrived, though, a Christian Negro’s funeral was just dismissing, so we had to wait awhile, and we watched the mourners out.
“You saw them all crying over their physical dead,” I told our group when we got inside. “But the Nation of Islam is rejoicing over you, our mentally dead. That may shock you, but, oh, yes, you just don’t realize how our whole black race in America is mentally dead. We are here today with Mr. Elijah Muhammad’s teachings which resurrect the black man from the dead . . . .”And, speaking of funerals, I should mention that we never failed to get some new Muslims when non-Muslims, family and friends of a Muslim deceased, attended our short, moving ceremony that illustrated Mr. Muhammad’s teaching, “Christians have their funerals for the living, ours are for our departed.”
As the minister of several temples, conducting the Muslim ceremony had occasionally fallen to my lot. As Mr. Muhammad had taught me, I would start by reading over the casket of the departed brother or sister a prayer to Allah. Next I read a simple obituary record of his or her life. Then I usually read from Job; two passages, in the seventh and fourteenth chapters, where Job speaks of no life after death. Then another passage where David, when his son died, spoke also of no life after death.
To the audience before me, I explained why no tears were to be shed, and why we had no flowers, or singing, or organ-playing. “We shed tears for our brother, and gave him our music and our tears while he was alive. If he wasn’t wept for and given our music and flowers then, well, now there is no need, because he is no longer aware. We now will give his family any money we might have spent.”
Appointed Muslim Sisters quickly passed small trays from which everyone took a thin, round patty of peppermint candy. At my signal, the candy was put into mouths. “We will file by now for a last look at our brother. We won’t cry-just as we don’t cry over candy. Just as this sweet candy will dissolve, so will our brother’s sweetness that we have enjoyed when he lived now dissolve into a sweetness in our memories.”
I have had probably a couple of hundred Muslims tell me that it was attending one of our funerals for a departed brother or sister that first turned them toward Allah. But I was to learn later that Mr. Muhammad’s teaching about death andthe Muslim funeral service was in drastic contradiction to what Islam taught in the East.
We had grown, by 1956-well, sizable. Every temple had “fished” with enough success that there were far more Muslims, especially in the major cities of Detroit, Chicago, and New York than anyone would have guessed from the outside. In fact, as you know, in the really big cities, you can have a very big organization and, if it makes no public show, or noise, no one will necessarily be aware that it is around.
But more than just increasing in numbers, Mr. Muhammad’s version of Islam now had been getting in some other types of black people. We began now getting those with some education, both academic, and vocations and trades, and even some with “positions” in the white world, and all of this was starting to bring us closer to the desired fast car for Mr. Muhammad to drive. We had, for instance, some civil servants, some nurses, clerical workers, salesmen from the department stores. And one of the best things was that some brothers of this type were developing into smart, fine, aggressive young ministers for Mr. Muhammad.
I went without a lot of sleep trying to merit his increasing evidences of trust and confidence in my efforts to help build our Nation of Islam. It was in 1956 that Mr. Muhammad was able to authorize Temple Seven to buy and assign for my use a new Chevrolet. (The car was the Nation’s, not mine. I had nothing that was mine but my clothes, wrist watch, and suitcase. As in the case of all of the Nation’s ministers, my living expenses were paid and I had some pocket money. Where once you couldn’t have named anything I wouldn’t have done for money, now money was the last thing to cross my mind.) Anyway, in letting me know about the car, Mr. Muhammad told me he knew how I loved to roam, planting seeds for new Muslims, or more temples, so he didn’t want me to be tied down. In five months, I put about 30, 000 miles of “fishing” on that car before I had an accident. Late one night a brother and I were coming through Weathersfield, Connecticut, when I stopped for a red light and a car smashed into me from behind. I was just shook up, not hurt. That excited devil had a woman with him, hiding her face, so I knew she wasn’t his wife. We were exchanging our identification (he lived in Meriden, Connecticut) when the police arrived, and their actions told me he was somebody important. I later found out he was one of Connecticut’s most prominent politicians; I won’t call his name. Anyway, Temple Seven settled on a lawyer’s advice, and that money went down on an Oldsmobile, the make of car I’ve been driving ever since.
* * *
I had always been very careful to stay completely clear of any personal closeness with any of the Muslim sisters. My total commitment to Islam demanded having no other interests, especially, I felt, no women. In almost every temple at least one single sister had let out some broad hint that she thought I needed a wife. So I always made it clear that marriage had no interest for me whatsoever; I was too busy.
Every month, when I went to Chicago, I would find that some sister had written complaining to Mr. Muhammad that I talked so hard against women when I taught our special classes about the different natures of the two sexes. Now, Islam has very strict laws and teachings about women, the core of them being that the true nature of a man is to be strong, and a woman’s true nature is to be weak, and while a man must at all times respect his woman, at the same time he needs to understand that he must control her if he expects to get her respect.
But in those days I had my own personal reasons. I wouldn’t have considered it possible for me to love any woman. I’d had too much experience that womenwere only tricky, deceitful, untrustworthy flesh. I had seen too many men ruined, or at least tied down, or in some other way messed up by women. Women talked too much. To tell a woman not to talk too much was like telling Jesse James not to carry a gun, or telling a hen not to cackle. Can you imagine Jesse James without a gun, or a hen that didn’t cackle? And for anyone in any kind of a leadership position, such as I was, the worst thing in the world that he could have was the wrong woman. Even Samson, the world’s strongest man, was destroyed by the woman who slept in his arms. She was the one whose words hurt him.
I mean, I’d had so much experience. I had talked to too many prostitutes and mistresses. They knew more about a whole lot of husbands than the wives of those husbands did. The wives always filled their husbands’ ears so full of wife complaints that it wasn’t the wives, it was the prostitutes and mistresses who heard the husbands’ innermost problems and secrets. They thought of him, and comforted him, and that included listening to him, and so he would tell them everything.
Anyway, it had been ten years since I thought anything about any mistress, I guess, and as a minister now, I was thinking even less about getting any wife. And Mr. Muhammad himself encouraged me to stay single.
Temple Seven sisters used to tell brothers, “You’re just staying single because Brother Minister Malcolm never looks at anybody.” No, I didn’t make it any secret to any of those sisters, how I felt. And, yes, I did tell the brothers to be very, very careful.
This sister-well, in 1956, she joined Temple Seven. I just noticed her, not with the slightest interest, you understand. For about the next year, I just noticed her. You know, she never would have dreamed I was even thinking about her. In fact, probably you couldn’t have convinced her I even knew her name. It wasSister Betty X. She was tall, brown-skinned-darker than I was. And she had brown eyes.
I knew she was a native of Detroit, and that she had been a student at Tuskegee Institute down in Alabama-an education major. She was in New York at one of the big hospitals’ school of nursing. She lectured to the Muslim girls’ and women’s classes on hygiene and medical facts.
I ought to explain that each week night a different Muslim class, or event, is scheduled. Monday night, every temple’s Fruit of Islam trains. People think this is just military drill, judo, karate, things like that-which _is_ part of the F.O.I. training, but only one part. The F.O.I. spends a lot more time in lectures and discussions on men learning to be men. They deal with the responsibilities of a husband and father; what to expect of women; the rights of women which are not to be abrogated by the husband; the importance of the father-male image in the strong household; current events; why honesty, and chastity, are vital in a person, a home, a community, a nation, and a civilization; why one should bathe at least once each twenty-four hours; business principles; and things of that nature.
Then, Tuesday night in every Muslim temple is Unity Night, where the brothers and sisters enjoy each other’s conversational company and refreshments, such as cookies and sweet and sour fruit punches. Wednesday nights, at eight P. M., is what is called
Student Enrollment, where Islam’s basic issues are discussed; it is about the equivalent of catechism class in the Catholic religion.
Thursday nights there are the M.G.T. (Muslim Girls’ Training) and the G.C.C. (General Civilization Class), where the women and girls of Islam are taught how to keep homes, how to rear children, how to care for husbands, how tocook, sew, how to act at home and abroad, and other things that are important to being a good Muslim sister and mother and wife.
Fridays are devoted to Civilization Night, when classes are held for brothers and sisters in the area of the domestic relations, emphasizing how both husbands and wives must understand and respect each other’s true natures. Then Saturday night is for all Muslims a free night, when, usually, they visit at each other’s homes. And, of course, on Sundays, every Muslim temple holds its services.
On the Thursday M.G.T. and G.C.C. nights, sometimes I would drop in on the classes, and maybe at Sister Betty X’s classes-just as on other nights I might drop in on the different brothers’ classes. At first I would just ask her things like how were the sisters learning-things like that, and she would say “Fine, Brother Minister.” I’d say, “Thank you, Sister.” Like that. And that would be all there was to it. And after a while, I would have very short conversations with her, just to be friendly.
One day I thought it would help the women’s classes if I took her-just because she happened to be an instructor, to the Museum of Natural History. I wanted to show her some Museum displays having to do with the tree of evolution, that would help her in her lectures. I could show her proofs of Mr. Muhammad’s teachings of such things as that the filthy pig is only a large rodent. The pig is a graft between a rat, a cat and a dog, Mr. Muhammad taught us. When I mentioned my idea to Sister Betty X, I made it very clear that it was just to help her lectures to the sisters. I had even convinced myself that this was the only reason.
Then by the time of the afternoon I said we would go, well, I telephoned her; I told her I had to cancel the trip, that something important had come up. She said, “Well, you sure waited long enough to tell me, Brother Minister, I wasjust ready to walk out of the door.” So I told her, well, all right, come on then, I’d make it somehow. But I wasn’t going to have much time.
While we were down there, offhandedly I asked her all kinds of things. I just wanted some idea of her thinking; you understand, I mean _how_ she thought. I was halfway impressed by her intelligence and also her education. In those days she was one of the few whom we had attracted who had attended college.
Then, right after that, one of the older sisters confided to me a personal problem that Sister Betty X was having. I was really surprised that when she had had the chance, Sister Betty X had not mentioned anything to me about it. Every Muslim minister is always hearing the problems of young people whose parents have ostracized them for becoming Muslims. Well, when Sister Betty X told her foster parents, who were financing her education, that she was a Muslim, they gave her a choice: leave the Muslims, or they’d cut off her nursing school.
It was right near the end of her term-but she was hanging on to Islam. She began taking babysitting jobs for some of the doctors who lived on the grounds of the hospital where she was training.
In my position, I would never have made any move without thinking how it would affect the Nation of Islam organization as a whole.
I got to turning it over in my mind. What would happen if I just _should_ happen, sometime, to think about getting married to somebody? For instance Sister Betty X-although it could be any sister in any temple, but Sister Betty X, for instance, would just happen to be the right height for somebody my height, and also the right age.
Mr. Elijah Muhammad taught us that a tall man married to a too-short woman, orvice-versa, they looked odd, not matched. And he taught that a wife’s ideal age was half the man’s age, plus seven. He taught that women are physiologically ahead of men. Mr. Muhammad taught that no marriage could succeed where the woman did not look up with respect to the man. And that the man had to have something above and beyond the wife in order for her to be able to look to him for psychological security.
I was so shocked at myself, when I realized _what_ I was thinking, I quit going anywhere near Sister Betty X, or any where I knew she would be. If she came into our restaurant and I was there, I went out somewhere. I was glad I knew that she had no idea what I had been thinking
about. My not talking to her wouldn’t give her any reason to think anything, since there had never
been one _personal_ word spoken between us-even if she had _thought_ anything.
I studied about if I just _should_ happen to say something to her-what would her position be?
Because she wasn’t going to get any chance to embarrass me. I had heard too many women
bragging, “I told that chump ‘Get lost!'” I’d had too much experience of the kind to make a man
I knew one good thing; she had few relatives. My feeling about in-laws was that they were
outlaws. Right among the Temple Seven Muslims, I had seen more marriages destroyed by in-
laws, usually anti-Muslim, than any other single thing I knew of.
I wasn’t about to say any of that romance stuff that Hollywood and television had filled women’s
heads with. If I was going to do something, I was going to do it directly. And anything I was going
to do, I was going to do _my_ way. And because _I_ wanted to do it. Not because I saw
somebody do it. Or read about it in a book. Or saw it in a moving picture somewhere.
I told Mr. Muhammad, when I visited him in Chicago that month, that I wasthinking about a very
serious step. He smiled when he heard what it was.
I told him I was just thinking about it, that was all. Mr. Muhammad said that he’d like to meet this
The Nation by this time was financially able to bear the expenses so that instructor sisters from
different temples could be sent to Chicago to attend the Headquarters Temple Two women’s
classes, and, while there, to meet The Honorable Elijah Muhammad in person. Sister Betty X, of
course, knew all about this, so there was no reason for her to think anything of it when it was
arranged for her to go to Chicago. And like all visiting instructor sisters, she was the house guest
of the Messenger and Sister Clara Muhammad.
Mr. Muhammad told me that he thought that Sister Betty X was a fine sister.
If you are thinking about doing a thing, you ought to make up your mind if you are going to do it,
or not do it. One Sunday night, after the Temple Seven meeting, I drove my car out on the Garden
State Parkway. I was on my way to visit my brother Wilfred, in Detroit. Wilfred, the year before, in
1957, had been made the minister of Detroit’s Temple One. I hadn’t seen him, or any of my family,
in a good while.
It was about ten in the morning when I got inside Detroit. Getting gas at a filling station, I just went
to their pay phone on a wall; I telephoned Sister Betty X. I had to get Information to get the
number of the nurses’ residence at this hospital. Most numbers I memorized, but I had always
made it some point never to memorize her number. Somebody got her to the phone finally. She
said, “Oh, hello, Brother Minister-” I just said it to her direct: “Look, do you want to get married?”
Naturally, she acted all surprised and shocked.
The more I have thought about it, to this day I believe she was only putting on an act. Because
women know. They know.
She said, just like I knew she would, “Yes.” Then I said, well, I didn’t have a whole lot of time,
she’d better catch a plane to Detroit.
So she grabbed a plane. I met her foster parents who lived in Detroit. They had made up by this
time. They were very friendly, and happily surprised. At least, they acted that way.
Then I introduced Sister Betty X at my oldest brother Wilfred’s house. I had already asked him
where people could get married without a whole lot of mess and waiting. He told me in Indiana.
Early the next morning, I picked up Betty at her parents’ home. We drove to the first town in Indiana. We found out that only a few days before, the state law had been changed, and now Indiana had a long waiting period.
This was the fourteenth of January, 1958; a Tuesday. We weren’t far from Lansing, where my brother Philbert lived. I drove there. Philbert was at work when we stopped at his house and I introduced Betty X. She and Philbert’s wife were talking when I found out on the phone that we could get married in one day, if we rushed.
We got the necessary blood tests, then the license. Where the certificate said “Religion,” I wrote “Muslim.” Then we went to the Justice of the Peace.
An old hunchbacked white man performed the wedding. And all of the witnesses were white. Where you are supposed to say all those “I do’ s,” we did. They were all standing there, smiling and watching every move. The old devilsaid, “I pronounce you man and wife,” and then, “Kiss your bride.”
I got her out of there. All of that Hollywood stuff! Like these women wanting men to pick them up and carry them across thresholds and some of them weigh more than you do. I don’t know how many marriage breakups are caused by these movie-and television-addicted women expecting some bouquets and kissing and hugging and being swept out like Cinderella for dinner and dancing-then getting mad when a poor, scraggly husband comes in tired and sweaty from working like a dog all day, looking for some food.
We had dinner there at Philbert’s home in Lansing. “I’ve got a surprise for you,” I told him when we came in. “You haven’t got any surprise for me,” he said. When he got home from work and heard I’d been there introducing a Muslim sister, he knew I was either married, or on the way to get married.
Betty’s nursing school schedule called for her to fly right back to New York, and she could return in four days. She claims she didn’t tell anybody in Temple Seven that we had married.
That Sunday, Mr. Muhammad was going to teach at Detroit’s Temple One. I had an Assistant Minister in New York now; I telephoned him to take over for me. Saturday, Betty came back. The Messenger, after his teaching on Sunday, made the announcement. Even in Michigan, my steering clear of all sisters was so well known, they just couldn’t believe it.
We drove right back to New York together. The news really shook everybody in Temple Seven. Some young brothers looked at me as though I had betrayed them. But everybody else was grinning like Cheshire cats. The sisters just about ate up Betty. I never will forget hearing one exclaim, “You got him!” That’s like I was telling you, the _nature_ of women. She’d _got_ me. That’s part ofwhy I never have been able to shake it out of my mind that she knew something-all the time. Maybe she did get me!
Anyway, we lived for the next two and a half years in Queens, sharing a house of two small apartments with Brother John AH and his wife of that time. He’s now the National Secretary in Chicago.
Attallah, our oldest daughter, was born in November 1958.
She’s named for Attilah the Hun (he sacked Rome). Shortly after Attallah came, we moved to our present seven-room house in an all-black section of Queens, Long Island.
Another girl, Qubilah (named after Qubilah Khan) was born on Christmas Day of 1960. Then, yasah (“Ilyas” is Arabic for “Elijah”) was born in July 1962. And in 1964 our fourth daughter, Amilah, arrived.
I guess by now I will say I love Betty. She’s the only woman I ever even thought about loving. And she’s one of the very few-four women-whom I have ever trusted. The thing is, Betty’s a good Muslim woman and wife. You see, Islam is the only religion that gives both husband and wife a true understanding of what love is. The Western “love” concept, you take it apart, it really is lust. But love transcends just the physical. Love is disposition, behavior, attitude, thoughts, likes, dislikes-these things make a beautiful woman, a beautiful wife. This is the beauty that never fades. You find in your Western civilization that when a man’s wife’s physical beauty fails, she loses her attraction. But Islam teaches us to look into the woman, and teaches her to look into us.
Betty does this, so she understands me. I would even say I don’t imagine many other women might put up with the way I am. Awakening this brainwashed black man and telling this arrogant, devilish white man the truth about himself, Betty understands, is a full-time job. If I have work to do when I am home, the little time I am at home, she lets me have the quiet I need to work in. I’m rarely at home more than half of any week; I have been away as much as five months. I never get much chance to take her anywhere, and I know she likes to be with her husband. She is used to my calling her from airports anywhere from Boston to San Francisco, or Miami to Seattle, or, here lately, cabling her from Cairo, Accra, or the Holy City of Mecca. Once on the long-distance telephone, Betty told me in beautiful phrasing the way she thinks. She said, “You are present when you are away.”
Later that year, after Betty and I were married, I exhausted myself trying to be everywhere at once, trying to help the Nation to keep growing. Guest-teaching at the Temple in Boston, I ended, as always, “Who among you wish to _follow_ The Honorable Elijah Muhammad?” And then I saw, in utter astonishment, that among those who were standing was my sister-_Ella!_ We have a saying that those who are the hardest to convince make the best Muslims. And for Ella it had taken five years.
I mentioned, you will remember, how in a big city, a sizable organization can remain practically unknown, unless something happens that brings it to the general public’s attention. Well, certainly no one in the Nation of Islam had any anticipation of the kind of thing that would happen in Harlem one night.
Two white policemen, breaking up a street scuffle between some Negroes, ordered other Negro passers-by to “Move on!” Of these bystanders, two happened to be Muslim brother Johnson Hinton and another brother of Temple Seven. They didn’t scatter and run the way the white cops wanted. Brother Hinton was attacked with nightsticks. His scalp was split open, and a police car came and he was taken to a nearby precinct.
The second brother telephoned our restaurant. And with some telephone calls,in less than half an hour about fifty of Temple Seven’s men of the Fruit of Islam were standing in ranks-formation outside the police precinct house.
Other Negroes, curious, came running, and gathered in excitement behind the Muslims. The police, coming to the station house front door, and looking out of the windows, couldn’t believe what they saw. I went in, as the minister of Temple Seven, and demanded to see our brother. The police first said he wasn’t there. Then they admitted he was, but said I couldn’t see him. I said that until he was seen, and we were sure he received proper medical attention, the Muslims would remain where they were.
They were nervous and scared of the gathering crowd outside. When I saw our Brother Hinton, it was all I could do to contain myself. He was only semi-conscious. Blood had bathed his head and face and shoulders. I hope I never again have to withstand seeing another case of sheer police brutality like that.
I told the lieutenant in charge, “That man belongs in the hospital.” They called an ambulance. When it came and Brother Hinton was taken to Harlem Hospital, we Muslims followed, in loose formations, for about fifteen blocks along Lenox Avenue, probably the busiest thoroughfare in Harlem. Negroes who never had seen anything like this were coming out of stores and restaurants and bars and enlarging the crowd following us.
The crowd was big, and angry, behind the Muslims in front of Harlem Hospital. Harlem’s black people were long since sick and tired of police brutality. And they never had seen any organization of black men take a firm stand as we were.
A high police official came up to me, saying “Get those people out of there.” I told him that our brothers were standing peacefully, disciplined perfectly, and harming no one. He told me those others, behind them, weren’t disciplined. Ipolitely told him those others were his problem.
When doctors assured us that Brother Hinton was receiving the best of care, I gave the order and the Muslims slipped away. The other Negroes’ mood was ugly, but they dispersed also, when we left. We wouldn’t learn until later that a steel plate would have to be put into Brother Hinton’s skull. (After that operation, the Nation of Islam helped him to sue; a jury awarded him over $70, 000, the largest police brutality judgment that New York City has ever paid. )
For New York City’s millions of readers of the downtown papers, it was, at that time, another one of the periodic “Racial Unrest in Harlem” stories. It was not played up, because of what had happened. But the police department, to be sure, pulled out and carefully studied the files on the Nation of Islam, and appraised us with new eyes. Most important, in Harlem, the world’s most heavily populated black ghetto, the _Amsterdam News_ made the whole story headline news, and for the first time the black man, woman, and child in the streets were discussing “those Muslims.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://al-rasid.com/shared_uploads/The.Autobiography.of.MalcolmX.pdf
Photo from: ModernBenjamin (2016). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Book Review. Retrieved from https://modernbenjamin.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/the-autobiography-of-malcolm-x-book-review/