We welcome a guest post today from Claude Andrew Clegg III, author of The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) was one of the most significant and controversial black leaders of the twentieth century. His followers called him the Messenger of Allah, while his critics labeled him a teacher of hate. Southern by birth, Muhammad moved north, eventually serving as the influential head of the Nation of Islam for over forty years. In this authoritative biography, Clegg not only chronicles Muhammad’s life, but also examines the history of American black nationalists and the relationship between Islam and the African American experience.
In today’s post, Clegg considers Elijah Muhammad’s ideas of race and Islam in his own time and in ours.
In thinking again about the black separatism and racialized Islam that characterized Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, I am struck by both the continuities and disjunctions between his time and ours. Born in Georgia in 1897, Muhammad (then known as Elijah Poole) saw some of the worst predations of the postemancipation Jim Crow South, including debt peonage, labor abuses, and even lynchings. His move to Detroit in 1923 and subsequent membership in one of the many race-conscious, ideologically quixotic movements that emerged from the depths of the Great Depression reinforced his interpretation of his southern experiences, philosophically grounding him in an inverted racial ethos of African American superiority and religious chauvinism.
The Nation of Islam, which Muhammad would lead for forty years until his death in 1975, did not come into its own until the late 1950s, when sensationalized stories about “black supremacists” thrust him and his followers, including Malcolm X, onto the national stage. Still, even with the landmark legislation and social changes that resulted from the black freedom movement of that period, Muhammad remained remarkably consistent regarding his views on race, his heterodox brand of Islam, and his apocalyptic vision of a coming reordering of black-white relations.
From our contemporary perch in the twenty-first century with its benefit of historical hindsight, many of Muhammad’s beliefs and goals appear, at best, anachronistic. There has been much progress in various realms of American life in regard to race, whether one considers African American access to the ballot box, gains in the workplace and the professions, educational attainments, or social mobility in general. Some have mused that we now live in a “postracial” society in which one’s demographic background and identity no longer serve as discernible barriers to entry into the circles of power, influence, and opportunity in American society.
As a corollary to this view, the election and re-election of Barack Obama as the first African American president are often cited as the quintessential testament of U.S. progress in the area of civil rights and racial equality. To a substantial degree, this position holds some merit against the broader backdrop of American race relations. Undoubtedly, Elijah Muhammad could scarcely have imagined an America as open to black participation and inclusion as the one in existence today, much less an African American chief executive. In other words, the possibility of a Barack Obama would have challenged foundational elements of Muhammad’s understanding of the country, as well as how he viewed white Americans.
Notwithstanding these historical ruptures in expectations and experiences, our America is a product of Muhammad’s America and to know our times is to appreciate the era in which he lived. While the election of Barack Obama would have surely surprised Muhammad (even though Muhammad, Obama, and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson all hail from their adopted hometown of Chicago), the surveillance and repression of Muslims in the United States following the September 11 terrorist attacks would have been a familiar theme to him. Moreover, Muhammad would not have been shocked by the ravages of the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and deindustrialization on black urban communities, or the ongoing racial disparities in unemployment rates, educational achievement, household wealth, and healthcare outcomes.
Further, the sharp-right turn in American politics, epitomized by the ascension of Tea Party Republicanism in the wake of the Obama presidency, would have reminded him of the political vitriol of the Barry Goldwaters and George Wallaces of his day. Although today’s America would have presented Muhammad with a more muddled picture of the country’s evolution on the issue of race, there are enough continuing problems to suggest that he could have reasonably made the case that some things had simply not changed much.
The conservatism of the Nation of Islam on matters of race, economics (it was thoroughly capitalistic), gender relations, and a host of other matters is largely responsible for its staying power in American life. Like other movements that promise redemption through social withdrawal and communal unity, the Nation of Islam offered a simplified return to ancestral roots and culture, uncomplicated by the troublesome logistics of the return itself. Having passed through several incarnations between its founding in 1930 and the fragmented iterations led by Louis Farrakhan and others today, the movement still speaks to a certain segment of African Americans who can (or need to) imagine a separate black nationality governed by their “original” religion of Islam, even as they live their daily lives in the midst of a country as unamenable to their postcolonial, nationalist dreams as the one that their revered founder inhabited. In this way, Muhammad’s life remains a mirror, a metaphor, for these individuals—and many other people of African descent—who, even in “postracial” America, have been able to find neither their place nor a way to resolve the country’s enduring conundrum of race.
Claude Andrew Clegg III teaches history at Indiana University at Bloomington. He is author of The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (pb 2014) and The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia (2004).