* Former leader of the Nation of Islam
* During WWII, encouraged blacks to support the Japanese against the U.S.
* “The whole Caucasian race is a race of devils . . . the evil and murderous race.”
* Died on February 25, 1975
Elijah Muhammad was born as Elijah Poole in Sandersville, Georgia on October 7, 1897. His parents – the Baptist lay preacher William Poole Sr. (1868–1942) and homemaker Mariah Hall (1873–1958) — were sharecroppers and former slaves. Elijah, who was one of 13 children, had only the benefit of a third-grade education before he was forced to leave school in order to help support his family by participating in their sharecropping labors.
Elijah left home at age sixteen and subsequently worked various odd jobs in Macon, Georgia, including stints with the Southern Railroad Company and the Cherokee Brick Company. In 1917 he married a young Georgia woman named Clara Evans, who would go on to bear eight children with him. The couple eventually relocated to Detroit, Michigan in 1923. They were among the many Southern blacks who migrated during and after World War I, seeking work in the North’s growing industrial cities.
Elijah quickly secured a job in a Detroit automotive assembly line, but due to the Great Depression and his own alcohol addiction, he became unemployed by 1930. In 1931, he was first exposed to the teachings of Nation of Islam (NOI) founder Wallace Fard Muhammad (WFM), who exhorted blacks to “return” to Islam, “the religion of their ancestors.”
Elijah was deeply inspired by WFM’s instruction, which held that: (a) God was black, as were the original members of the human race that He had created long before; (b) a new Islamic nation-state should be established within the American mainland to counteract the evils of the country’s white majority; (c) Judaism is a “dirty religion”; (d) once the Jews had “received the Divine Scriptures,” they “started tampering with its [their] truth”; and (e) Jews were responsible for the plight of black people and for having made the Bible “The Poison Book.”
NOI lore maintains that Elijah, after having heard WFM preach his message, recognized the latter as Allah. WFM, in turn, recruited Elijah to be one of his ministers, giving him the name “Karriem.” WFM eventually advanced Elijah to the rank of “Supreme Minister” and changed the latter’s surname from Poole to Muhammad. “The name ‘Poole’ was never my name,” Elijah Muhammad would later write, “nor was it my father’s name. It was the name the white slave-master of my grandfather after the so-called freedom of my fathers.”
Elijah Muhammad studied intensively with WFM for approximately three years and four months, mastering WFM’s esoteric and racist theology which held that blacks were a superior race, and that whites were an evil upstart creation of a renegade black scientist named Yakub.
In 1934, Elijah Muhammad moved to Chicago to establish NOI’s Temple Number Two, which became the organization’s new national headquarters. That same year, Elijah Muhammad established a newspaper titled The Final Call to Islam, which would later be renamed The Final Call.
Early in his career as a preacher in Chicago, Elijah Muhammad labored with fanatic fervor, typically eating just one meal per day while working up to 18 hours. His messaging was designed to imbue his listeners with racial animus toward whites, and to persuade them to believe that Islam could provide “the so-called American Negro … that qualification that he can feel proud and does not feel ashamed to be called a black man.”
A New York Times article about Elijah Muhammad described his physical appearance, his personality, and his work habits as follows: “Mr. Muhammad, a small man about 5 feet 5 inches tall with a high, thin voice, held court in his offices, listening to aides, weighing their reports by balancing what they said with the qualities he saw in them as individuals. He was serious but witty and verbally creative. He illustrated many of his spiritual lessons about the need of blacks to elevate their behavior, as he saw it, with little humorous dramatic sketches.”
When WFM suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from the public scene in 1934, NOI, amidst charges and counter-charges of foul play, experienced its first schism. While Elijah Muhammad became NOI’s new leader, a rival named Abdul Muhammad founded a new faction named the “Temple of Islam.” Eventually, Abdul Muhammad’s group would be reabsorbed by NOI.
As his stature as a religious figure rose, Elijah Muhammad strove to promote the notion that WFM had been a divine figure – Allah incarnate — and the embodied fulfillment of various religious prophesies. As Answering-Islam.org explains:
“Fard’s disappearance made his image as a Christ-figure more marketable. Also, Muhammad used his familiarity with the Scriptures to present Fard as the fulfillment of prophecy. ‘You must forget about ever seeing the return of Jesus who was here 2000 years ago. Set your heart on seeing the one that he said would come at the end of the present world’s time (the White race’s time). He is called the ‘Son of Man’, the ‘Christ’, the ‘Comforter.’ Muhammad argued that Jesus did not know the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 2436), thus he could not have been predicting his own return. Muhammad asserted that Fard was the Mahdi spoken of in the Quran.”
In 1935, Elijah Muhammad moved to Washington, D.C., ostensibly to visit the Library of Congress and begin familiarizing himself with 104 books on Islam that WFM had specifically instructed him to study. Moreover, as a practical matter, the move to D.C. limited Elijah Muhammad’s vulnerability to his NOI opponents.
Elijah Muhammad encouraged blacks to become conscientious resisters in World War II and was himself arrested for draft-dodging on May 8, 1942. After being released on bail, he fled D.C. on the advice of his attorney and returned to Chicago, where he was arrested and charged with eight counts of sedition (for instructing his followers to not register for the draft or serve in the U.S. armed forces) and three counts of draft evasion (violation of the Selective Service Act). In his own defense, the 45-year-old Elijah Muhammad argued not only that he was too old for the draft, but also that as a black man, he had no business fighting for the United States. “When the call [to register for the draft] was made for all males between 18 and 44,” he wrote, “I refused (NOT EVADED) on the grounds that, first, I was a Muslim and would not take part in war and especially not on the side with the infidels.”
Elijah Muhammad even went so far as to openly encourage blacks to support the Japanese war effort against the United States. As Salon.com reports: “Elijah traveled the country giving pro-Japanese sermons and exulted in the carnage at Pearl Harbor primarily because he believed it when the Japanese promised blacks ‘nice homes on islands near the United States’ in exchange for their assistance.”
Elijah Muhammad was ultimately cleared of the sedition charges against him, but was found guilty of draft evasion. For that conviction, he served four years in prison, from 1942 to 1946, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan.
After his release from prison, Elijah Muhammad resumed his work with NOI. He made two particularly significant recruits to the organization during that period: (a) a small-time convict named Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, and (b) Malcolm’s self-proclaimed successor, Louis Farrakhan.
Prior to the arrival of Malcolm X in 1952, NOI had little political or social influence and consisted of a relatively small number of members. But Malcolm was pivotal in advancing the organization’s messaging through his robust oratorical skills, which Elijah Muhammad lacked.
Under pressure from Sunni and other orthodox Muslim sects, Elijah Muhammad and NOI began to embrace some of the trappings of traditional Islam during the late 1950s. For example, NOI schools began to teach Arabic and pay greater homage to Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad himself went so far as to make hajj – i.e., a pilgrimage — to Mecca in late 1959. These efforts to reconcile NOI teachings with those of traditional Islam backfired, however, as The Journal for Multi Media History explains:
“[W]hatever potential for ideological innovation that existed among the Nation’s leadership was lost on this latter event [the hajj], which disillusioned Muhammad regarding the prosperity and virtues of the larger Islamic world. Poverty, political corruption, fiscal mismanagement, and other social ills that afflicted Africa and the Middle East challenged his more romantic, preconceived theological ideas about the region. Ironically, the hajj caused Muhammad to seize more securely upon the racial Islam of Fard Muhammad and to turn the Nation of Islam away from the East (and ‘orthodox’ Islam) as a religious model which African Americans should emulate.”
In 1959, black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stated that NOI was “run by a bunch of thugs organized from prisons and jails and financed, I am sure, by [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser or some Arab group.” Marshall added that Elijah Muhammad’s followers were “vicious” people who posed a threat to the FBI and state law-enforcement agencies.
Beginning in 1960, Elijah Muhammad called for the creation of a separate black homeland within the continental United States – a homeland wherein no whites would be allowed. “It is far more important to teach separation of the blacks and whites in America, than prayer,” he declared.
In a similar spirit, Elijah Muhammad claimed that racial integration and intermarriage were nothing more than white schemes designed to confuse blacks, keep them enslaved, and prevent them from being exposed to the wise teachings of the NOI. Blacks who strove to assimilate into mainstream American culture were “disgraceful ‘Uncle Toms’” and “Stool Pigeons,” he added.
Rejecting the Christian doctrine of loving one’s enemy, Elijah Muhammad aligned himself with WFD’s hostility toward Christianity. Along those same lines, he viewed black Christian preachers as impediments to the progress of blacks as a race.
In the early 1960s, Elijah Muhammad became NOI’s first national voice, using radio to broadcast his black supremacist cant in weekly sermons. He also wrote a column for a Harlem-based newspaper titled Mr. Muhammad Speaks, a tabloid-sized “militant monthly” founded by Malcolm X in 1960 and “dedicated to Justice for the Black Man.” (The paper shortened its name to Muhammad Speaks in 1961.)
As Elijah Muhammad’s cultural and political influence was becoming ever-more-widely recognized in the early 1960s, Reader’s Digest described him as the most powerful black man in America.
In the early Sixties as well, the FBI — concerned that NOI sought to foment racial violence in the United States — was monitoring Elijah Muhammad’s activities and telephone conversations around the clock. In the course of that surveillance, the Bureau was able to learn a great deal about Muhammad’s private life. For example, a 1962 FBI document reads: “Elijah Muhammad is engaging in extramarital activities with at least five female members of the Nation of Islam. This information indicated Elijah Muhammad has fathered some children by these women…. These paradoxes in the character of Elijah Muhammad make him extremely vulnerable to criticism by his followers.” According to independent scholar Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, creator of the 2020 Netflix documentary Who Killed Malcolm X?: “The FBI was determined to use more counterintelligence techniques to create more distance and schisms between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad.”
By 1963, Malcolm X had begun to perceive that Elijah Muhammad was using NOI as his own personal cash cow – raking in massive donations on which he paid no taxes because of NOI’s exemption as a religious organization. Gradually, Malcolm grew to view his mentor – now a mega-millionaire who owned multiple homes and businesses – as someone who was more preoccupied with acquiring earthly treasures than with abiding by the tenets of his professed faith.
On December 1, 1963, Malcolm defiantly disobeyed Elijah Muhammad’s orders to refrain from commenting publicly on the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Expressing satisfaction over Kennedy’s death, Malcolm stated: “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” Livid, Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm from speaking publicly on NOI’s behalf. In response, Malcolm threw himself at “the Messenger’s” mercy by beseeching him, on multiple occasions, to reinstate him—all to no avail.
Next, NOI, which owned the home where Malcolm and his family were living, tried to evict him along with his wife and children. Embittered like never before, Malcolm now detested the man whom he had once regarded as his mentor, guide, and spiritual advisor.
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm announced that he would be: (a) leaving NOI to “heighten the political consciousness of the Negroes and intensify their identification against white society,” and (b) forming his own “black nationalist party” to support “social action against the oppressors.” Further, Malcolm suggested that Elijah Muhammad’s dissatisfaction with him stemmed from Elijah’s jealousy of Malcolm’s growing popularity as a speaker. “Envy blinds men and makes it impossible for them to think clearly,” said Malcolm. “This is what happened.”
Determined to exact revenge on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm took steps to humiliate his former mentor by publicizing embarrassing secrets about the latter’s private life. Most notably, Malcolm went before television cameras and announced to the press: “Elijah Muhammad, the head of the movement, is the father of eight children by six different teenage girls who were his private personal secretaries.” One of those girls, Malcolm added, was pregnant at that time with a ninth child sired by Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm continued to disparage Elijah Muhammad and his associates at every opportunity thereafter. He smeared NOI leaders as “the hierarchy who are living off the fatted calf”; he described Elijah Muhammad as a “senile” old man who “doesn’t love black people” and “doesn’t even love his own followers”; and he portrayed Elijah Muhammad’s grown children as reprobates who lusted for “nothing but luxury” and “power.”
In 1964 as well, heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali at the request of the man he called his “leading teacher, the honorable Elijah Muhammad.” Ali explained that the name “Cassius Clay” was his “slave name,” whereas “Muhammad Ali” was his “original name” and a “black man’s name.”
After Malcom’s departure from NOI, Elijah Muhammad and other members of the organization alluded to Malcolm’s eventual death. An April 1964 edition of Muhammad Speaks, for example, featured a cartoon depicting Malcolm’s severed head — an image that seemed to draw a parallel between Malcolm’s recent departure from NOI and the physical death which would someday befall him. A month prior, Elijah Muhammad had told Louis Farrakhan — who at the time was known as Louis X — that “Hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off.”
Throughout late 1964 and early ’65, Malcolm’s relations with Elijah Muhammad and NOI continued to grow increasingly hostile, and the organization marked Malcolm for assassination. One of the most noteworthy voices calling for Malcolm’s murder was that of Louis Farrakhan, whom Malcolm had recruited into NOI in the 1950s. Enraged by Malcolm’s disloyalty to Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan wrote ominously: “The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil foolish talk about his benefactor, Elijah Muhammad. Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.”
By 1965, the hostility between Malcolm and his former NOI brethren was so intense, that Malcolm fully expected to be killed on orders of Elijah Muhammad in the very near future. “I do believe there will be attempts on my life,” he said. “I know them [NOI]. They are foaming at the mouth.” On another occasion, Malcolm stated: “Elijah Muhammad has given the order to his followers to see that I am crippled or killed.” And yet another time, he recounted how Elijah Muhammad’s son had recently come to New York and told NOI’s paramilitary wing, the Fruit of Islam, “that my tongue should have been put in an envelope and sent back to Chicago by now.” The transcript of an FBI wiretap of an Elijah Muhammad phone call from that same general time period reads as follows: “Elijah said the only way to stop him [Malcolm] was to get rid of him the way Moses and the others did their bad ones” – i.e., by putting Malcolm to death, as Moses had effectuated the death of idolators in ancient times. Another portion of the same transcript quotes Elijah Muhammad saying that the best way to deal with “hypocrites” like Malcolm would be to “cut their heads off.”
According to former NOI member Q. Amin Nathari: “It was inevitable that he [Malcolm] would be killed, whether it was gonna be a [NOI] crew out of Philadelphia, or a crew out of New York, or a crew out of any other city that had that type of zeal and love for Elijah Muhammad.” And historian David Garrow concurs: “For months preceding the assassination, the resentment that the top leadership of the Nation of Islam had towards Malcolm was explicitly broadcast. The signals, the public signals, were visible to anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention.”
On February 14, 1965, Malcolm’s home was consumed by a fire but no one was harmed. He claimed that the blaze had started as a result of Molotov cocktails thrown at the house, but fire inspectors found evidence suggesting that Malcolm himself had torched the structure. Notably, Malcolm had recently lost a court fight to stay in the house, which was owned by NOI.
On the evening of February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in northern Manhattan, where Malcolm X was about to deliver a speech, several gunmen—all NOI members—rushed the stage and shot him more than a dozen times at point-blank range. Elijah Muhammad denied any involvement. But days after the assassination, he declared: “Malcolm X got just what he preached.”
In 1965 as well, Elijah Muhammad published a 300-page book titled Message to the Blackman in America, based on the aforementioned doctrines of WFM. In this screed, Elijah Muhammad explained that Allah had originally created the black race before all others, followed sequentially by the brown, red, and yellow races. The white race, he said, had come into existence only through the efforts of a renegade scientist named Yakub, who allegedly created white people sometime around 4000 BC. Specifically, said Elijah Muhammad’s book, Yakub had extracted the “brown germ” from the “black germ” and, in turn, grafted whites from the “brown germ.” The result of this ill-advised experiment, said Elijah Muhammad, was the dilution of black blood and the creation of a morally tainted strain of humanity — “white devils” who would go on to devastate the world and oppress all other human beings. This creation story was parlayed into the notion of “Black Supremacy” and the idea that “[S]ome must rule over the other. It is the law of nature.”
“The whole Caucasian race,” wrote Elijah Muhammad in his 1965 book, “is a race of devils … the evil and murderous race.” He also referred to whites as “the great arch-deceivers,” the “man of sin,” and “the people described as ‘beast’ in the Revelation of the Bible.” He further explained that Christianity had first been established “to deceive other races, namely, the black, brown, yellow and red” in order “to make an easy prey for the white race.”
Notwithstanding his profound and candidly articulated contempt for whites, Elijah Muhammad rejected accusations that he was an anti-white racist, stating: “They say that I am a preacher of racial hatred, but the fact is that the white people don’t like the truth, especially if it speaks against them. It is a terrible thing for such people to charge me with teaching race hatred when their feet are on my people’s neck and they tell us to our face that they hate black people. Remember now, they even teach you that you must not hate them for hating you.”
Years after Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve for the U.S. military in Vietnam in 1967, author Paul Beston wrote a Wall Street Journal piece alleging that the boxer’s decision had not been rooted in political disagreements regarding the war, but in his fear of being assassinated by NOI. “The truth,” said Beston, “though hard to make out under the thick moss of mythology, is that Ali refused induction not out of principle but from fear of disobeying Elijah Muhammad, who had stipulated that the champ not serve in a ‘white man’s war.’” Beston also reported that Ali had once said the following in reference to Malcom X’s assassination: “You just don’t buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it.”
Elijah Muhammad and NOI believed that black Americans should be exempt from paying taxes. “We want the government of the United States to exempt our people from ALL taxation as long as we are deprived of equal justice under the laws of the land,” stated a 1971 edition of Muhammad Speaks.
In 1972, NOI was reported to have covered the cost of Elijah Muhammad’s $500,000 mansion. The organization also paid for four $150,000 homes on behalf of Muhammad’s children and aides.
In his later years, Elijah Muhammad moderated the anti‐white tenor of NOI’s creed. In 1974, for instance, he stated: “The slavemaster is no longer hindering us, we’re hindering ourselves. The slavemaster has given you all he could give you. He gave you freedom. Now get something for yourself.”
Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975 in Chicago. He reportedly had a net worth of nearly $20 million at the time of his passing, with much of the money coming from NOI member donations.
Meanwhile, NOI had amassed approximately 250,000 members globally and was in strong financial standing, with approximately $80 million in its coffers. Its portfolio included Chicago’s Guaranty Bank & Trust Company, which Elijah Muhammad had purchased several years earlier, calling it the “bank for the black man.”
To view the FBI’s files on Elijah Muhammad, see the following: FBI Records: The Vault — Elijah Muhammad