The Nation of Islam & Black Power

by Alex Carpenter

The Nation of Islam is a mainly African-American religious movement whose stated focus is the advancement of the status and rights of black people in America. Followers of the religion adhere to many of the precepts and traditions of the Muslim faith, and the organization has built temples and schools throughout the Western Hemisphere as a means to spread its message. The Nation of Islam's membership and supporters have included a number of prominent black activists, including Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.

Birth of the Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard -- also known as Fard Mohammad -- as a religious group combining Islamic precepts with its own origin beliefs and race-based theology. The group ascribes to Islam's fundamental tenet, namely that Allah is the one and only God, but also believes that Wallace Fard was the messiah, whose appearance on Earth signaled the beginning of freedom and independence for the black race. After Fard's disappearance in 1934, the group grew in size and scope under the leadership of Fard's disciple, Elijah Poole, better known as Elijah Mohammad. Nation of Islam's followers believe that blacks are the descendants of a lost Asiatic black tribe, the Tribe of Shabazz, who were enslaved and brought to North America from Africa. The ultimate purpose of the Nation of Islam is to rejuvenate and educate the black community.

Malcolm X

Malcolm Little, later Malcom X, became a member of the Nation of Islam in the late 1940s, and later became Elijah Muhammad's chief spokesman through the tumultuous period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement in the United States was in full swing. While Civil Rights groups advocated equality between the races, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam believed in the importance of self-determination for blacks, and even went so far as to advocate racial segregation. For Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, freedom, justice and equal opportunity went hand-in-hand with a separate nation within a nation for blacks, with segregated schools and no intermarriage. It was the many speeches and ultimately the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 that inspired subsequent Black Power leaders, most notably Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term "Black Power." After Malcom X's death, Carmichael and others in the Black Power movement rejected the absolute non-violence stance of figures such as Martin Luther King. They advocated black separatism and black nationalism, and Stokely himself embraced a socialist, Pan-African vision until his death in 1998.

Black Power

During Malcolm X's tenure with the Nation of Islam, the organization's membership grew into the hundreds of thousands, and its potent message of racial separation as a means to overthrow white oppression became increasingly popular, especially with figures such as boxer Muhammad Ali lending his celebrity status to the cause. Taking its cues from the Nation of Islam, Black Power figures such as Carmichael began calling not only for black unity, but also for "urban guerrilla" warfare, describing Black Power as "a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created." This call to arms alienated many in the Civil Rights movement, especially the supporters of Martin Luther King, who identified the Nation of Islam and its supporters as "a hate group arising in our midst that would preach the doctrine of black supremacy."

Today

The Nation of Islam's message of Black Power and black nationalism continued to be heard into the last decades of the 20th century, especially in the political arena -- the group openly supported Jesse Jackson's 1984 campaign for the presidency -- and in popular culture, through political rap groups such as Public Enemy. The popularity of the Nation of Islam had already begun to wane shortly after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1974, however, efforts on behalf of Muhammad's son to move the group into the mainstream were thwarted by Louis Farrakhan, who assumed the leadership of the Nation of Islam in 1977. Since then, Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have existed on the fringe, and have been branded a racist organization by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, due in part to Farrakhan's many public anti-Semitic comments.

About the Author

Alex Carpenter has worked as a music, history and culture writer since 1998. He has contributed to a range of scholarly journals, online databases, websites, newspapers and encyclopedias, including the "All Music Guide" and the "Charlottetown Guardian." Carpenter holds master's degree and Ph.D. in music.

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