The Nation of Islam Mourns Elijah Muhammad

From Ebony Magazine, May 1975

The final post in our series on the Black press’s coverage of Black Muslims in the mid-twentieth century comes from Ebony Magazine’s article on the funeral and legacy of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The head of the Nation of Islam (NOI) passed away on February 25, 1975, of congestive heart failure at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, Ill.. Muhammad had been at the helm of the NOI for nearly 40years at the time of his passing. His seventh son, Wallace D. Muhammad—later to be known as Warith Deen Muhammad—succeeded him the following day at the annual Saviours’ Day festivities.

Ebony Magazine published an eight-page spread on Muhammad in May 1975, memorializing his role in “shaping the destiny of black people.” The article recounts his humble origins in Sandersville, Ga., his refusal to register for the draft during World War II and his rise to prominence as “the Messenger of Allah” for Black Muslims in the United States. However, the article demonstrates just how little the general public knew about the radical shifts within the NOI leadership. It notes that “[l]ittle is known about Wallace’s personal life” except that he “tried hard to reconcile the differences between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad” and that he was “believed to be less rigid in his interpretation of Muslim theology, more of a scholar than his father.” The fact that Wallace D. Muhammad was a Sunni Muslim who would soon guide most of the Nation into Sunni Islam was still a closely guarded secret.

The article is perhaps most remarkable insofar as it demonstrates the respect, and even awe, that the NOI commanded among Black Americans by the1970s. It wholly avoids narratives popular in the White press that detracted from the NOI’s religious authenticity by suggesting that it was in fact a purely nationalist movement. Indeed, the article seems to write this perception off as paranoia when it states that “White America heard itself denounced as evil incarnate and doomed to destruction, and the implication was drawn by many that the highly disciplined and secretive Muslims would be the instrument of that destruction.” The authors at Ebony were far more interested in the “strong and viable socio-economic organization [that was]… too real to avoid, too pertinent to dismiss, too large to ignore.” They instead highlighted that “Muslim holding[s]… estimated at $80 million,’ which included a weekly newspaper, restaurants, Guaranty National Bank and Trust Company, a fish import network, grocery stores, meat packing companies, bakeries, department stores, investment realty, and more than 15,000 acres of farmland across Michigan, Georgia, and Alabama.

Elijah Muhammad spent his life spreading a “do for self” program of personal and economic uplift rooted in Islam. Thanks to his leadership, the NOI became the face of Black self-reliance and nation building in the United States. Ebony’s coverage shows that, by the time of his death, Black Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, had heard the message.



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