“Partially in response to the urban riots, in late October 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party, or BPP (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense), a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization that was mired in violence and murder and remained active in the United States from 1966 until 1982. At the time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Black Panther Party membership reached a peak in 1970, with offices in 68 cities and thousands of members, only to then suffer a series of self-inflicted contractions.
Newton was born in Monroe, Louisiana. He was the youngest of seven children of Armelia Johnson and Walter Newton, a sharecropper and Baptist lay preacher. His parents named him after former charismatic and assassinated Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long. In 1945, the family migrated to Oakland, California, as part of the second wave of the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South to the Midwest and West. The Newton family was close-knit, but quite poor, and often relocated throughout the San Francisco Bay Area during Newton’s childhood.
Growing up in Oakland, Newton stated that he was “made to feel ashamed of being black” – an unusual statement during a period where the African-American population of Oakland increased by over 200% and the white population actually decreased by about 25%. Newton graduated from Oakland Technical High School, in 1959, without being able to read, although he later taught himself; The Republic by Plato was the first book he read. Newton also attended Merritt College, San Francisco Law School, and the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and later, a Ph.D.
As a teenager, he was arrested several times for minor offenses, including gun possession and vandalism at age 14. Newton had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for repeatedly stabbing another man, Odell Lee, with a steak knife in mid-1964. He served six months in prison and by October 27–28, 1967, he was out celebrating release from his probationary period.
Just before dawn on October 28, Newton and a friend were pulled over by Oakland Police Department officer John Frey. Realizing who Newton was – the founder of the Black Panthers, Frey called for backup. After fellow officer Herbert Heanes arrived, shots were fired, and all three were wounded. Heanes testified that the shooting began after Newton was under arrest, and one witness testified that Newton shot Frey with Frey’s own gun as they wrestled.
No gun on either Frey or Newton was found. Newton stated that Frey shot him first, which made him lose consciousness during the incident. Frey was shot four times and died within the hour, while Heanes was left in serious condition with three bullet wounds.
Black Panther David Hilliard took Newton to Oakland’s Kaiser Hospital, where he was admitted with a bullet wound to the abdomen.
Newton was convicted in September 1968 of voluntary manslaughter for the killing of Frey and was sentenced to 2 to 15 years in prison. In May 1970, the California Appellate Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. After two subsequent trials ended in hung juries, the district attorney said he would not pursue a fourth trial, and the Alameda County Superior Court dismissed the charges.
In August, 1974, Newton murdered Kathleen Smith, a black teenage prostitute. He fled to Cuba. Elaine Brown took over the leadership of the Black Panthers in his absence. In December, 1974, accountant Betty van Patter was murdered after threatening to disclose irregularities in the Party’s finances.
By the late 1980s, relations between Newton and factions within the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) had been strained for nearly two decades. Former Black Panther members who became BGF members in prison had become disenchanted with Newton for his perceived abandonment of imprisoned Black Panther members and allegations of Newton’s fratricide within the party.
On August 22, 1989, Newton was fatally shot on Center Street in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland by 24-year-old BGF member and drug dealer Tyrone Robinson shortly after Newton left a crack house. Robinson said that Newton pulled a gun when the two met at the street corner, but Oakland police officers found no evidence that Newton had been armed. Robinson shot Newton twice in the face.
Huey Newton was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland. Tyrone Robinson was convicted of the murder in 1991. He was sentenced to a prison term of 32 years to life in prison.
Bobby Seale was born in Liberty, Texas to George Seale, a carpenter, and Thelma Seale (née Traylor), a homemaker. The Seale family lived in poverty during most of Bobby Seale’s early life. After moving around Texas, first to Dallas, then to San Antonio and Port Arthur, his family eventually relocated to Oakland, CA when he was eight years old. Seale attended Berkeley High School, then dropped out and joined the U.S. Air Force in 1955. He was discharged for bad conduct three years after joining for fighting with a commanding officer at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
After finally earning his high school diploma, Seale attended Merritt College until 1962 where he studied engineering and politics. While in college, he joined the Afro-American Association (AAA), a group on campus devoted to advocating black separatism. “I wanted to be an engineer when I went to college, but I got shifted right away since I became interested in American Black History and trying to solve some of the problems.” Through this AAA group, Seale met Huey Newton.
Bobby Seale was one of the original “Chicago Eight” defendants charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot, in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The evidence against Seale was slim as he was a last-minute replacement for Eldridge Cleaver and had been in Chicago for only two days of the convention. On November 5, 1969, Judge Julius Hoffman sentenced him to four years in prison for 16 counts of contempt, each count accounting for three months of his imprisonment, because of his outbursts, and eventually ordered Seale severed from the case, hence the “Chicago Seven”.
During the trial, one of Seale’s many outbursts led the judge to have him bound and gagged, as commemorated in the song “Chicago” written by Graham Nash. While in prison, he stated, “To be a Revolutionary is to be an Enemy of the state. To be arrested for this struggle is to be a Political Prisoner.”
While serving his four-year sentence, Seale was put on trial again in 1970 in the New Haven Black Panther trials. Several officers of the Panther organization had murdered a fellow Panther, Alex Rackley, who had confessed under torture to being a police informant. The leader of the murder plan, George Sams, Jr., turned state’s evidence and testified that he had been ordered to kill Rackley by Seale himself, who had visited New Haven only hours before the murder. The New Haven trials were accompanied by a large demonstration in New Haven on May Day, 1970, which coincided with the beginning of the American College Student Strike of 1970. The jury was unable to reach a verdict in Seale’s trial, and the charges were eventually dropped.
While in prison Seale’s wife, Artie, became pregnant allegedly by fellow Panther Fred Bennett. Bennett’s murdered and mutilated remains were found in a suspected Panther hideout in April 1971. Seale was implicated in the murder with police suspecting he had ordered it in retaliation for the affair. However, no charges were pressed. Seale wrote an article titled, One Less Oppressor that shows appreciation of the murder of Bennett and stated, “The people have now come to realize that the only way to deal with the oppressor is to deal on our own terms and this was done.”
In 1974 Seale and Huey Newton argued over a proposed movie about the Panthers that Newton wanted Bert Schneider to produce. According to several accounts the argument escalated to a fight where Newton, backed by his armed bodyguards, beat Seale with a bullwhip so badly that Seale required extensive medical treatment for his injuries, went into hiding for nearly a year, and ended his affiliation with the Party in 1974. Seale denied any such physical altercation took place, dismissing rumors that he and Newton were ever less than friends.
In 2002, Seale moved back to Oakland, working with young political advocates to influence social change. Seale has also visited over 500 colleges to share his personal experiences as a Black Panther and to give advice to students interested in community organizing and social justice – Barack Obama’s calling before he entered politics.
Early in Newton and Seale’s history together and dissatisfied with the failure of other organizations to directly challenge [alleged] police brutality and appeal to the “brothers on the block”, Newton and Seale sought to take matters into their own hands. Earlier, after the police killed Matthew Johnson, an unarmed young black man in San Francisco, Newton observed the violent rebellion that followed. He had an epiphany that would distinguish the Black Panther Party from the multitude of organizations seeking to build “Black Power”.
Newton saw the explosive, rebellious anger of the ghetto as a force, and believed that if he could stand up to the police, he could organize that force into political power. Like the Community Alert Patrol in Los Angeles after the Watts Rebellion, he decided to organize patrols to follow the police around to monitor for incidents of brutality. But with a crucial difference: his patrols would carry loaded guns.
On October 29, 1966, Stokely Carmichael – a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC – pronounced “snick”) – championed the call for “Black Power” and came to Berkeley to keynote a Black Power conference. At the time, he was promoting the armed organizing efforts of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) in Alabama and their use of the Black Panther symbol. Newton and Seale decided to adopt the Black Panther logo and form their own organization called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Newton and Seale decided on a uniform of blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets and black berets. Sixteen-year-old Bobby Hutton was their first recruit.
On April 7, 1968, the now seventeen-year-old Panther’s national treasurer, Bobby Hutton, was killed, and Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther Party Minister of Information, was wounded in a shootout with the Oakland police. Two police officers were also shot. Although at the time, the BPP claimed that the police had ambushed them, several party members later admitted that Cleaver had led the Panther group on a deliberate ambush of the police officers, provoking the shootout. Seven other Panthers, including chief of staff David Hilliard, were also arrested.
Provoked and incidental run-ins with law enforcement initially contributed to the growth of the party as killings and arrests of Panthers increased support for the party within the black community and on the broad political left – both of whom valued the Panthers as a powerful force opposed to de facto segregation – and the military!
At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two American medalists, given the opportunity to compete at the Games by the United States Olympic Committee, disrespectfully, and in violation of Olympic rules, gave the Black Power salute during the playing of the American national anthem in Mexico City. African-American sociologist Harry Edwards, the founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on October 16, 1968 were inspired by Edwards’ arguments. The International Olympic Committee banned them from the Olympic Games for life.
[North Vietnamese sympathizer and] Hollywood celebrity Jane Fonda publicly supported Huey Newton and the Black Panthers during the early 1970s. She and other Hollywood celebrities became involved in the Panthers’ leftist-oriented programs. The Panthers attracted a wide variety of left-wing revolutionaries, political activists and people looking for relevance in a turbulent age.
Violent conflict between the Panther chapter in LA and the US Organization, a rival group, resulted in shootings and beatings, and led to the murders of at least four Black Panther Party members. On January 17, 1969, Los Angeles Panther Captain Bunchy Carter and Deputy Minister John Huggins were killed in Campbell Hall on the UCLA campus, in a gun battle with members of the US Organization. Another shootout between the two groups on March 17 led to further injuries. Two more Panthers died.
In Chicago, on December 4, 1969, two Panthers were killed when the Chicago police raided the home of Panther leader Fred Hampton. The raid had been orchestrated by the police in conjunction with the FBI. Hampton was shot and killed, as was Panther guard Mark Clark. A federal investigation reported that only one shot was fired by the Panthers, and police fired at least 80 shots. Hampton was subsequently shot twice in the head at point blank range while unconscious. He was 21 years old and unarmed at the time of his death.
Coroner reports show that Hampton was drugged with a powerful barbiturate that night and all indicators point toward FBI confidential informer and infiltrator William O’Neal as the source of the drugging. Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, his assistant and eight Chicago police officers were indicted by a federal grand jury over the raid, but the charges were later dismissed. In a 1979 civil action, Hampton’s family won $1.85 million from the city of Chicago in a wrongful death settlement.
In May 1969, three members of the New Haven chapter tortured and murdered Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old member of the New York chapter, because they suspected him of being a police informant. Three party officers – Warren Kimbro, George Sams, Jr., and Lonnie McLucas – later admitted taking part. Sams, who gave the order to shoot Rackley at the murder scene, turned state’s evidence and testified that he had received orders personally from Bobby Seale to carry out the execution. Party supporters responded that Sams was himself the informant and an agent provocateur employed by the FBI. The case resulted in the New Haven, Connecticut Black Panther trials of 1970. Kimbro and Sams were convicted of the murder.
In the 1970s, some Panther leaders, such as Huey Newton and David Hilliard, favored a focus on community service coupled with self-defense; others, such as Eldridge Cleaver, embraced a more confrontational strategy. Eldridge Cleaver deepened the schism in the party when he publicly criticized the Party for adopting a “reformist” rather than “revolutionary” agenda and called for Hilliard’s removal. Cleaver was expelled from the Central Committee but went on to lead a splinter group, the Black Liberation Army, which had previously existed as an underground paramilitary wing of the Party.
The split turned violent, as the Newton and Cleaver factions carried out retaliatory assassinations of each other’s members, resulting in the deaths of four people. In early 1974, Newton embarked on a major purge, expelling Bobby and John Seale, David and June Hilliard, Robert Bay, and numerous other top party leaders. Dozens of other Panthers loyal to Seale resigned or deserted.
In October 1977 Flores Forbes, the party’s assistant chief of staff, led a botched attempt to assassinate Crystal Gray, a key prosecution witness in Newton’s upcoming trial who had been present the day of prostitute Kathleen Smith’s murder years earlier. Unbeknownst to the assailants, they attacked the wrong house and the occupant returned fire. During the shootout one of the Panthers, Louis Johnson, was killed and the other two assailants escaped.
One of the two surviving assassins, Flores Forbes, fled to Las Vegas, Nevada, with the help of Panther paramedic Nelson Malloy. Fearing that Malloy would discover the truth behind the botched assassination attempt, Newton allegedly ordered a “house cleaning”, and Malloy was shot and buried alive in the desert. Although permanently paralyzed from the waist down, Malloy recovered from the assault and told police that fellow Panthers Rollin Reid and Allen Lewis were behind his attempted murder.
Survival committees and coalitions were organized with several groups across the United States. Chief among these was the Rainbow Coalition formed by Fred Hampton and the Chicago Black Panthers – later to be run by Jesse Jackson.
Popular support for the Party declined further after reports appeared detailing the group’s involvement in illegal activities such as drug dealing and extortion schemes directed against Oakland merchants. By 1972, most Panther activity centered on the national headquarters and a school in Oakland, where the party continued to influence local politics.
The Black Panther Party experienced significant problems in several chapters with sexism and gender oppression, particularly in the Oakland chapter where cases of sexual harassment and gender division were common. When Oakland Panthers arrived to bolster the New York City Panther chapter after New York Twenty-One leaders were incarcerated, they displayed such chauvinistic attitudes towards New York Panther women that they had to be fended off at gunpoint. Some Party leaders thought the fight for gender equality was a threat to men and a distraction from the struggle for racial equality.
Scholars have characterized the Black Panther Party as the most influential black movement organization of the late 1960s, and “the strongest link between the domestic Black Liberation Struggle and global opponents of American imperialism.” Other commentators have described the Party as more criminal than political, characterized by “defiant posturing over substance.” Others have described them as the “gang who could shoot straight but couldn’t think straight.”
After Dr. King’s death, the slow but steady demise of the Black Panthers as a significant force in race relations in America left a power vacuum that was filled not by moral and ethical titans like Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and John Lewis or by violent thugs like the Black Panthers – but by race hustlers – those who sought to exploit racial tensions for their own gain – people like Elijah Muhammad (nee Elija Pool), Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
“Elijah Muhammad was an uncharismatic, inarticulate, long-lived, most influential African-American dissident. During his lifetime – he was born in 1897 and died in 1975 – he was a mysterious figure, the subject of rumor and innuendo. He told contradictory stories about himself, avoided the press, surrounded himself with a wall of bodyguards, and punished those who revealed information about him. But recent scholarship has pieced together his story, mostly thanks to law-enforcement records.
For, starting in 1932 and continuing for over four decades, police agencies kept extremely close tabs on him, including (as part of the controversial COINTELPRO program) by means of extensive FBI wiretaps and letter-openings. The resulting reports, now available to researchers in all their immensity – the FBI’s papers alone amount to well over a million pages – reveal the most intimate secrets of Elijah Muhammad’s household, his power struggles, and his personal and sexual escapades.
Two authors, both black, have done yeoman work culling these archives (as well as other relevant documents), and have produced impressively researched biographies of the man who liked to be called the Messenger of Allah. Claude Andrew Clegg III’s, An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad appeared in 1997; a well-rounded biography by a professor of history, it is also perhaps the best book ever written on the Nation of Islam. Also, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, by Karl Evanzz, a journalist at the Washington Post; depending heavily on the police files, Evanzz provides more new information but also a somewhat skewed picture, since he tends to neglect matters (like theology) with which the FBI did not concern itself.
As it happens, the two biographers disagree on a dismaying number of details, which suggests that much work on this topic remains to be done. In the main, though, their accounts complement each other and make it possible, for the first time, to understand who exactly Elijah Muhammad was. He was born Elija Pool in Sandersville, Georgia, in 1897, the seventh of thirteen children. Jim Crow rural Georgia at that time was a racist, violent place, and young Elija grew up with searing experiences of white scorn and brutality. The lynching of a friend in 1912 prompted him to flee his parent’s house a year later. In 1917 he met Clara Belle Evans and in 1919 married her; between 1921 and 1939, they had eight children.
Pool fled Georgia for Detroit in 1923 and then, in the classic pattern of black migration to the north, called for his family to follow. In Detroit, he worked in several industrial plants and joined a variety of organizations – notably, Marcus Garvey’s proto-black-nationalist movement, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the Black Shriners; but neither of these kept his allegiance. After an arrest for drunkenness in 1926, Elija Pool became Elijah Poole, the change in spelling intended to symbolize the desire for a fresh start in life.
In a further effort to improve himself, Poole also joined the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) and converted to its vaguely Islam-like religion, becoming intensely involved in the institution and in spreading its doctrines. This strangely-named organization had little in common with the standard version of Islam coming from the Middle East, but it was the first to forge a 20th-century link between that religion and African-Americans. Founded in 1913 by a Black Shriner named Timothy Drew (who renamed himself Noble Drew Ali), the MSTA introduced to America such Islam-like features as the crescent-and-star motif, the use of Arabic personal names, and the prohibition of pork, but it also foretold the destruction of all whites and promoted Drew as a prophet.
The MSTA went into a steep decline with Drew’s death in July 1929, and Elijah Poole was among the many who quit. In the ensuing struggle for power, three major factions emerged, all based in Chicago. One was led by a very recent convert named David Ford, who quickly moved to Detroit and renamed both himself (Wallace D. Fard) and his faction – the Allah Temple of Islam (ATI). This new sect retained many of the MSTA’s peculiar customs and ideas, but it also introduced new elements, including the theme that whites are devils, and a paramilitary unit called the Fruit of Islam.
In early 1931, Elijah Poole met Fard and quickly became his enthusiastic disciple, receiving in return the “original” name of Elijah Karriem. A year later, Fard further rewarded Elijah by making him Supreme Master of the ATI and changing his name yet again, this time to Elijah Muhammad. Over the course of their three-year partnership, Fard and Elijah Muhammad also elevated Fard’s own theological status – from Allah’s Messiah to Allah himself – with Muhammad taking over the role of Messenger.
The ATI horrified the Detroit police, especially after one of its members ritualistically killed a man. Making a deal with Fard, the authorities let him out of a psychiatric ward on condition he shut down the ATI. Fard agreed, but then tricked the police by changing the ATI’s name to Nation of Islam (NoI) and keeping it alive. He was finally forced to leave Detroit in mid-1934. Thereupon, Muhammad attempted to take control of the NoI, but he met with considerable opposition and was forced to flee to avoid being killed.
His first stop was Chicago, then Milwaukee, then Washington, D.C., where he lived until 1942. There he took advantage of the opportunity to educate himself at the Library of Congress and to travel throughout the East, spreading his faith. A light-skinned, diminutive man, Elijah Muhammad won converts not through his eloquence – or his command of grammar – but through a soft, Southern-accented intensity that audiences found somewhat reminiscent of the manner of a black Baptist preacher (which his father had been).
Although to nonbelievers it might seem hard to understand how he was able to rouse listeners to standing ovations or inspire their utter devotion, Clegg believes that he had the exact measure of his audience: “Something ineffable about this ‘squeaky little man teaching hate’ attracted African-Americans for an entire generation as few other leaders could.”
In brief, Elijah Muhammad’s message went as follows: Blacks came into existence 78 trillion years ago [recall that the earth is only about 4.5 billion years old and the “Big Bang” itself occurred only about 13 billion years ago], and through the eons they lived an advanced and righteous life. But their paradise ceased 6,000 years ago when a deviant black savant named Mr. Yakub, also known as “the big-head scientist,” rebelled against the black gods and set about creating the white race. When blacks learned what Mr. Yakub was doing, they exiled him to an island in the Aegean Sea, but he was able to continue his work and within 600 years had succeeded in bringing the white race into existence [that would be 3400 BC – the oldest European settlement is 45,000 years old], with a mandate to reign over blacks for six millennia. That reign ended in 1914, though a seventy-year period of grace would extend it to 1984; W.D. Fard had come to proclaim its end and to show blacks how to reclaim their rightful place through the Nation of Islam – a goal he said they would definitely accomplish by the year 2000.
This imaginative schema had the virtue of explaining both black weakness and white evil, even as it motivated blacks to prepare themselves through discipline and hard work to seize power. But as a theology, it differed almost diametrically from core Islamic beliefs. In his worst nightmare, a Muslim could hardly imagine a religion more repugnant to his own than one that identified God with a human being, excluded most of humanity on racial grounds, believed in a post-Muhammadan prophet, and held the Qur’an to be an imperfect, temporary document.
Compared with these basic principles, such NoI practices as the avoidance of pork, intermittent study of Arabic, and separation of the sexes were but minor details. The NoI offered a folk religion with strong Christian overtones and hints of science fiction. It had little in common with standard Islam. In the intervening seven decades it has moved in that direction, but not by much.
Muhammad hated the United States [because it was a predominantly white country – is there any better definition of racist?] and loved its enemies, especially non-Caucasian ones. And so he rejoiced in the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor in 1941, not only refusing to register for military service but instructing his followers to do likewise. Arrested for draft evasion in May 1942, he spent three years in jail on sedition charges, getting out in August 1946. The Nation had been kept alive during those years – barely – by his wife Clara and other faithful acolytes. On leaving prison, he found fewer than 400 active members. It was at this low point that Malcolm X turned up and, as Evanzz puts it, “gave new life to the Messenger.”
After his release from jail in 1952, Malcolm devoted himself full-time to building the organization, and with great success. Members began to flow in – new temples and schools were opened, and a number of small commercial enterprises (a bakery, grocery store, restaurant) were established. The Nation also bought real estate, both urban and rural. The money added up, and it soon became the richest-ever black organization in the United States. In 1959, the national media discovered the NoI: TV reporter Mike Wallace’s television documentary, The Hate that Hate Produced, appalled whites but evidently thrilled many blacks, thousands of whom joined up as new members. Popular American figures such as Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) joined the NoI with much publicity.
The NoI’s new wealth and stature also provided access to foreign leaders, and its dignitaries were soon in direct contact with such stars of the anti-American firmament as Sukarno of Indonesia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Fidel Castro of Cuba. In 1959, Muhammad confirmed these burgeoning relationships in a triumphal tour of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, including a pilgrimage to Mecca that implied Saudi acceptance of his legitimacy as a Muslim. (Although many observers at the time suspected foreign governments of funding the NoI, [the first African-American on the Supreme Court] Thurgood Marshall dismissed it as “a bunch of thugs organized from prisons and jails, and financed, I am sure, by [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser or some Arab group” – in point of fact serious foreign funding arrived only in the 1970’s from Libya, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi.)
But then, just as everything was looking good, rot set in: “rumors of oppressive disciplinary practices, deviations from the moral code, and financial irregularities,” as Evanzz describes it. From the start, the NoI had been steeped in violence; “ritual sacrifice” took place in 1932, when the organization was still called the Allah Temple of Islam. Through the decades, NoI members who presumed to disagree with Muhammad were injured or killed, a trend that culminated after 1960 with the assassination of Malcolm X (1965) and the murder of seven members of the Khaalis family (1973). Nor were whites immune: the notorious “Zebra” murders left nine dead in Illinois in 1972, and a year later a squad known as the Death Angels killed fourteen in the San Francisco area. And these were only the most spectacular atrocities.
Moral deviations likewise began in 1960: Elijah Muhammad’s first illegitimate child was born in January of that year, the first of thirteen unrecognized children whom he fathered over a seven-year period with no fewer than seven different mistresses. FBI tapes record Muhammad handing each woman the same line about his “divine seed,” then lying about his marital intentions; the FBI also found that he had five affairs going simultaneously, and that he threatened women with violence if they revealed his paternity. To his wife’s special shame, among these relationships was an incestuous one.
Nor was this all. Newly affluent, Muhammad lavished luxuries on himself and the “royal” family, as it came to be known. He traveled in a Lockheed executive jet, wore a jewel-studded fez said to be worth $150,000, and let his family milk the NoI for all it was worth. In Clegg’s careful words, this focus on money “ultimately validated, by example, a trend toward materialism, even avarice, that would hamper the Nation as a religious organization.”
It is hard to convey just how shocking Muhammad’s actions, especially his sexual ones, were to members of the moralistic NoI. His son Wallace later endeavored to explain it by saying that Elijah Muhammad had “been worshipped as the final prophet of God for so long that he had convinced himself that it was true,” and helped himself to the liberties his status seemed to confer.
Other consequences followed as well. Once he became the captive of his own avarice, Muhammad developed an operational timidity that was quite at odds with his fire-breathing rhetoric. He refused to sanction any response to police intrusions into NoI temples, and even took part in discussions with Ku Klux Klan leaders toward an arrangement whereby the NoI would stay out of “non-Negro” areas in return for the Klan’s leaving NoI members alone. The head of the American Nazi party, George Lincoln Rockwell, was invited to speak at the NoI’s main annual event, and used the occasion to laud Elijah Muhammad as the black Adolf Hitler (high praise, in his view).
To cap it off, Muhammad was entering into a slow process of physical deterioration, and this led to a protracted battle over his succession. In the end, there were just two contestants, his son Wallace and his national spokesman Louis Farrakhan. (The rupture with Malcolm X had ended with the latter’s assassination by Muhammad’s goons, apparently supervised by Farrakhan.) Each advanced his cause in imaginative ways – for example, Farrakhan married two of his daughters to Muhammad’s nephew and grandson. But when Elijah Muhammad finally died in February 1975, Wallace hurriedly called a news conference and announced that his father had appointed him sole successor.”
Next time: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.