The doors tell you everything. At the back of the building, the heavy iron fire doors are welded shut. At the side doors, knobs have been removed whole barricades, heavy-duty locks, and reinforced peepholes have been installed. At the front entrance, two massive, silver-coated glass portals provide a one-way mirror effect—you can’t see in, but will be observed as you enter. The mirrored doors lead to a foyer, which is enclosed by heavy translucent glass doors whose spring lock is controlled by a gaunt young security man. This is the Final Call, 734 W. 79th St., headquarters of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.
Inside, the cavernous structure is dominated by a great three-story atrium, with two chandeliers, maybe Tiffany, descending from an antique stained-glass skylight. The atrium functions as a combination auditorium and television studio. You can’t walk straight to any place in the building. The only way to get anywhere is via veritable maze of perimeter stairwells and corridors.
Impenetrable, inscrutable, a fortress—the building was designed that way in the late 1920s. It was a bank, and those were days when banks were built with Ford Knox in mind. After the Crash of ’29, the building was appropriately converted to a funeral parlor. In 1982 Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam purchased the structure, and since then they have modified it to meet their needs.
Most visitors enter through the front glass doors. But if you enter instead through the barricaded side doors (generally reserved for those security personnel and staff members who must arrive before 9 AM), and walk past the steep steps leading to the basement storage area, you’ll come upon a kitchen that is often stacked high with boxes of printed materials. Walk through it, and along corridors littered with squat, heavy-duty safes and reinforced storage vaults. Go around to one of the side stairwells and walk up two flights, then cross the landing that circumscribes the great atrium. There in the corner you will see two doors on either side of a secretarial station.
Behind those doors is a not very spacious, relatively spartan office lined on one side by tall windows that open onto the street noise below. Simple rattan panels cover the pictureless walls. On a credenza sits a delicate water pitcher and beautiful crystal drinking glasses. Just to the right is a tall, slender man who looks much younger than almost 53; his lightly darkened face is framed by close-cropped hair, wire-rim glasses, and a neat, very neat, silk bow tie cut from the same cloth as the handkerchief correctly pulled above his breast pocket. This is Louis Farrakhan, and in this office recently I spoke with him for about two hours. It was, he said, the first interview he’d ever granted to a Jewish journalist.
Chicagoans are a little more familiar than most Americans with Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam. The Minister did not become a national figure until the 1984 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson. His notoriety increased last year, largely as a result of an incendiary road show that he took to Washington, New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Detroit, among other cities, attracting progressively larger audiences from a cross-section of blacks who jumped and cheered his anti-American and anti-Jewish derogations. The tour climaxed last October at Madison Square Garden, where a throng of more than 25,000 witnessed what Farrakhan declared would be his last major speaking engagement.
In the tour’s wake, black-Jewish relations were left in tatters. One black leader after another, from Atlanta mayor Andrew Young to LA’s Thomas Bradley, has refused to unequivocally denounce the anti-Semitism of Farrakhan’s message. Sometimes, as in the case of Young, they seemed to suffer temporary deafness, claiming that they just hadn’t heard any overt anti-Semitism. Other black leaders said the anti-Semitism should be tolerated because Farrakhan was contributing immeasurable good with his beacon of black economic rehabilitation. Here in Chicago the issue was turned into one of the Council Wars’ most overtly racial skirmishes, as the Vrdolyak faction renounced Farrakhan and challenged Mayor Washington to do the same.
By now, samplers and analyses of Farrakhan’s outrageous rhetoric have become staples in the media. America is “the most wicked government on Earth.” Jews are the “bloodsuckers of the poor,” destined for the “ovens of God.” Everyone has heard about such comments, and most people have catalogued the surface facts and fables about the man. But the man behind the mask eludes the public. When the curtain goes down, and the spotlight is unplugged, who is Louis Farrakhan and what is he up to? Here are some things you might like to know:
1. A funny thing happened to him on the way to becoming a calypso star.
Farrakhan, born Louis Eugene Walcott in May 1933, grew up in the Roxbury section of Boston. Today much of Roxbury is a wrecked community on the mend. Parts of it offer a semblance of low- and middle-income stability, while other parts are still blighted black ghetto, where burned-out and worn-out homes stand windowless and vacant like skulls testifying to the chaos of the 60s.
Of course this is not the Roxbury that Louis Eugene Walcott knew. When he was born, Roxbury was a mainly white ghetto, shared by lower-class Jewish and Irish. Blacks were on the periphery, living in poverty and without power. They didn’t really begin moving in until the late 30s and early 40s; as they did, Jews started moving out to adjacent Dorchester, creating side-by-side ghettos—one for blacks and one for Jews.
The Jewish ghetto was one of intense social, cultural, and commercial organization. Lawrence Harmon, managing editor of the Boston Jewish Advocate, recalls, “It was like the lower east side of New York. You had everything—from Jewish delis, synagogues, and shopkeepers to Jewish gangsters. When you walked past the chicken store you could smell the feathers.”
Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff, who grew up in Jewish Roxbury during the same years as Farrakhan, remembers, “Because the Depression was still going on, there were a lot of unemployed. The rest were working people, and some owned stores. The only difference between the people who owned stores and the working class is that the store owners had more worries at the end of the month. Jews very much kept to themselves during those years. And blacks were essentially treated as not being there. They never figured into the conversation.”
Sarah-Anne Shaw, a Boston television reporter, grew up in the black section of Roxbury during that era. She says, “Black people didn’t feel they were poor. People didn’t lock their doors. Next-door neighbors would discipline kids on the block. Younger people said yes ma’am and no ma’am. It was a church-grounded community. But there was resentment too. Blacks had frustrations because Boston was supposed to be the North. It was the subtlety of racism there that made blacks realize—perhaps not until they were older—just what they were going through. Most of the stores were owned by Jews: the meat markets, the drugstores. Your patronage was welcome, but not you. It was difficult to rent on certain streets because they were held by Jews. Jews resented [blacks] coming in. Frankly, I guess, the Jews were acting more as whites than Jews, but nonetheless they were the predominant ethnic group because the Yankees and Irish had already moved out.”
Farrakhan himself told me that his part of the neighborhood, the south end, was poor but clean, smelling of “sweet grass from the gardens in front of people’s homes.”
Relations between blacks and Jews were relatively peaceful. Farrakhan recalls, “I never had an argument with Jews that I grew up with. We were friendly … . My mother fed me by working in the homes of Jews cleaning.” She never brought home any troubles or discontent from her treatment in the Jews’ homes, Farrakhan remembers. On the contrary, she would bring home old shoes and clothes that the Jewish families would give for the Walcott children. “The clothes and shoes and things like that were never resented,” explains Abdul Akbar Muhammad, Farrakhan’s chief aide and biographer. “Jewish people being frugal, this was something they could do for the people less fortunate than themselves. Whatever we [the black community] got was appreciated.”
Farrakhan adds that some of the money his mother earned cleaning Jewish homes went to pay for his music lessons. He attended music class with Jewish boys under a Russian Jewish violin teacher whom Farrakhan still remembers fondly.
But as postwar prosperity trickled into the district, economically enabled Jews began moving west and south, pulling themselves out of the ghetto. Blacks didn’t pull themselves out of their ghetto, they merely extended into those areas vacated by Jews. Farrakhan’s mother continued as a cleaning woman in Jewish homes. “I’m not angry that they were in a position to hire my mother as a domestic,” volunteers Farrakhan, as he gazes back for just a moment.
But, he continues, “From the time I can remember myself, I used to wonder what if God were just and could give Moses to Israel to deliver Israel from famine, why wouldn’t God do the same thing for us? So as a little boy, I was always searching for that one who would be a deliverer for our people.”
It seems clear that Louis Eugene Walcott grew up in the shadow of poor Jews who could advance, even as his own poor people could not. It made an impression.
Walcott left Roxbury in the early 50s, before times became bad. In the 60s, classic redlining, blockbusting, and white flight drew blacks and whites in Boston (and many other cities) into a miasma of hostilities. Jews, the closest remaining white group, progressively moved farther and farther west and south as Roxbury, then Dorchester, and then Mattapan became dying neighborhoods. “It was terrible,” remembers Harmon of the Boston Jewish Advocate. “There were beatings, muggings, arsons. At the end, as a gesture from the Jews to the blacks, the big synagogue was sold to a black art group for one dollar. The last rabbi, Rabbi Jerry Zelermeyer, was driven out of Mattapan when two black adolescents threw acid in his face.”
Farrakhan says the long-seething discontents that ultimately exploded into Roxbury’s rage were alive within him. But Louis Walcott had gone a different way. He had talent and musical training, and he wanted to be a calypso singer.
Just as there is a special fire in Farrakhan’s heart for Jews, there is a special fire for the music and recording industry—and he relates the two. According to Farrakhan, blacks cannot make money in the record business because the Jews control it. He claims to speak from experience.
In 1953, Walcott auditioned for Harry Belafonte’s Broadway musical Almanac; he was rejected. According to his chief aide, he resisted his feelings of disappointment; instead, says Akbar Muhammad, “the Minister remembered the words of his mother, who said that every disappointment would somehow be for the good.”
A short time later, Walcott managed to make a 45 RPM calypso record, “Belly to Belly/Back to Back,” on an obscure label named Monogram. The music industry has no record of either the company or the song. Sources at the Nation of Islam claim the tune was a calypso hit but that Walcott didn’t make any money. Aide Akbar Muhammad explains, “The Jewish element that controls the record industry made sure that black artists made fame but not more than two cents on a record.”
For certain, artists in all disciplines undergo great personal anguish, and great hardship when what is published does not yield a realistic financial reward. and black artists have certainly been held down and shamelessly exploited by the record industry. But even if Walcott was supremely talented and bitterly frustrated, he could not by himself have converted the generic woes of a struggling artist into an explicit conspiracy of Jews against blacks. That kind of logical leap—which has become typical of the Nation of Islam mentality—requires a special talent for demagoguery. Louis Eugene Walcott was about to learn it.
In February 1955, Walcott was singing and playing violin at a Rush Street nightclub called the Blue Angel. Another musician invited him to attend a speech the next day by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, founder and leader of the Black Muslims. Farrakhan had been raised Episcopalian and knew nothing of Islam. But the attraction of Elijah Muhammad’s message was not religion—it was politics.
According to Black Muslim lore, a mulatto named Master W. Fard Muhammad came from Mecca to the U.S. in July 1930. He was a messenger from Allah, sent to notify American blacks that they were the chosen people. During one of Fard’s teaching lessons, a Georgia sharecropper named Elijah Poole was greatly impressed. Later Poole changed his name to Elijah Muhammad, donned a tasseled and crescent-festooned fez, assumed the title “the Honorable,” developed followers, established the Nation of Islam, built mosques in several U.S. cities, and fashioned the Black Muslim theology.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s theism was Islam and black pride liberally mixed with racism against whites, who were termed the “blue-eyed devils.” Lashing back at the white society that had enslaved them, Black Muslims pushed for economic self-help in this country as they worked for a nation of their own free of whitey and dominated by Islam.
It sounded good to the frustrated Louis Walcott. On February 26, 1955, he went to check it out. “I went to the mosque as a young man looking, searching for a leader who would address the problems of black people.” But as he listened to Elijah Muhammad’s shoddy English, Walcott, well educated in Boston, wondered what qualified this man to lead black people. “You judge people sometimes by their use of language,” concedes Farrakhan. “Mr. Muhammad split a few verbs. I though that he didn’t have a verb-subject agreement.”
Just as this through crossed Walcott’s mind—or at least so the legend goes—Elijah Muhammad turned his head up to the balcony where Walcott was seated and broke from his presentation. Looking directly at Walcott, the Honorable one declared, “Brother, I didn’t go to school as you. Unfortunately, I only went to the fourth grade. Don’t listen to how I’m saying it. You pay attention to what I’m saying. And then you take what I’m saying and put it in that fine language that you know.”
At that moment, Farrakhan says today, Louis Eugene Walcott “began to see the light.”
2. With Moammar Khaddafi’s help he’s trying to break into the toiletries business.
Elijah Muhammad envisioned a “nation” of Black Muslims, a separate sovereign state. Today Louis Farrakhan is methodically preparing to acquire it—to amass a national treasury with which the Nation of Islam can buy a territory of its own. His instrument is an amorphous program known as POWER—People Organized and Working for Economic Rebirth. POWER is essentially a three-part program. First it will be a sort of members’ cooperative for black businessmen and consumers. Typically, a black family will trade only with doctors, dentists, travel agents, lawyers, restaurants, and others registered with POWER, businesses registered would extend a discount to POWER consumers. Both consumers and businessmen would presumably pay some fee or commission for the arrangement.
Second, POWER envisions a conglomerate of enterprises such as travel agencies, convention centers, restaurants, and food companies, in the style of the small-business empire held by the Nation of Islam before the death of Elijah Muhammad.
The third part of the POWER strategy, and by far the most important, is a program of what might be called orifice economics. Farrakhan wants POWER to market toilet paper, sanitary napkins, mouthwash, underarm deodorant, toothpaste, and other toiletries, and personal products. Black toiletry manufacturers would be subcontracted for production. POWER consumers would commit to a minimum monthly purchase of $20, ordering via an 800 telephone number. Merchandise would be delivered from POWER directly to the consumer’s door. Distributors and retailers would be eliminated, doubling POWER’s sales income. By this brilliant strategy—combining the best capitalistic experience of Avon, Proctor & Gamble, Fuller Brush, and the Book-of-the-Month Club—the Nation of Islam would make money every time a black customer gargled or went to the bathroom.
How much money? Personal and household products constitute a multibillion-dollar industry, and research indicates that blacks are disproportionate consumers of those products. If POWER performs according to its projections, it would become the biggest black enterprise in the nation—with sales in excess of $150 million—within five years. In five more years it would hit the billion dollar mark.
The POWER idea was conceived not by Louis Farrakhan, but by a New Jersey-based businessman named Al Wellington, founder of one of America’s most prestigious black marketing-researching firms, the Wellington Group. Wellington explains that the prototype was actually outlined in 1980 and called Consumer Development Centers. It was first offered to the Urban League, “but they were a little too conservative,” says Wellington, “and turned the idea down.”
Wellington refined the concept and in 1982 suggested it to Jesse Jackson at Operation PUSH. “Back in those days, Jesse Jackson was involved in signing covenant agreements [committing corporations to help blacks] with major companies such as Coca-Cola,” Wellington recalls. “I told him that the strategy of threatening major corporations with a boycott was a good short-term strategy, but not over the long run because blacks needed to actually produce the goods that they consume. However, we didn’t want to compete with the covenant system, and allowed that to run its course. And then we waited for the [Jackson presidential] campaign to run its course.”
During popularity polling for the 1983-’84 Jackson presidential campaign, Wellington discovered that blacks of all walks found Louis Farrakhan immensely attractive. “Despite the adverse publicity in the white press about Louis Farrakhan,” explains Wellington, “he showed progressive strength in each of three or four polls that we took.” For example, Wellington’s surveys asked whether blacks agreed with Farrakhan’s hostile reaction to Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman, who first disclosed Jesse Jackson’s “hymie” remark. At the time, Farrakhan called Coleman “a traitor” and implied a death threat. “An overwhelming majority of blacks polled agreed with Farrakhan,” Wellington says. “That’s over 60 percent, and that was only one of the questions.” The polls were conventional telephone surveys of 800 to 1,200 black Americans, drawing on the Wellington Group’s acknowledged expertise in measuring black American preferences.
“This man’s strength is real. Black people love Louis Farrakhan,” insists Wellington. “So I became convinced that Farrakhan was the man whose popularity above all others could make POWER a success.”
In the fall of 1984, Wellington flew to Chicago to formally propose the idea to Farrakhan. The presentation in Farrakhan’s office was “no fancy dog and pony show,” as Wellington describes it in marketing parlance, “but did include enough charts and graphs to show that it was a well thought-out presentation.” The Minister agreed in principle on the spot; the many details were refined later in numerous planning sessions.
Two New Jersey corporations were created, POWER Inc. and the POWER Institute. Wellington was named president of both. Shares of stock were to be given to the Nation later, in return for the “sweat equity” that the Nation’s minions would invest in the program.
The next move was to interest black manufacturers of cosmetics and household products, the single most important being Johnson Products in Chicago, producers of Ultra Sheen.
Wellington met with Johnson Products president George Johnson, whose company he had worked with before. Evidently there was no fancy dog and pony show here either; the most important visual aide that Johnson remembers was “a scrap of paper upon which was written various products: dishwashing detergents, floor cleaners, shampoos, conditioners and hair relaxers.” It took Wellington only a few minutes to outline the POWER buying club and explain why the Nation of Islam could make it work. Johnson quickly liked the idea. He knew that such efforts had failed before, but he thought, “Perhaps with Farrakhan’s following, it might work.” Most important, Johnson Products was just about to open a private-label manufacturing division that would produce products for chain stores and the like. This would be an opportunity to use excess plant capacity. The timing couldn’t have been better.
As Wellington and Johnson reviewed the product list, Johnson pointed out which items could be produced right away, and which would have to be developed at Johnson’s research and development facility. Start-up capital of several million would be needed. “There was no talk of a black nation,” remembers Johnson. “Just an economic venture. And understand that we never really explore the possibilities. there was no revenue prediction.” Forty-five minutes after he walked in with an idea, Al Wellington walked out with Johnson’s commitment to join Farrakhan in POWER. It was becoming a reality.
Several weeks later, Wellington returned with Farrakhan himself and his chief aide, Abdul Akbar Muhammad. “That was the first time I had a real in-depth conversation with Farrakhan,” Johnson recalls. Over the next hour or so, Wellington explained the Nation’s strategy. The several million in capital needed to commence POWER’s production would be raised by selling $10 tapes of the Minister’s speeches at various rallies around the country. Each rally was expected to draw from 6,000 to 10,000 people, and the Nation was confident that enough tapes could be sold to generate the needed millions. As Farrakhan’s people laid out the plan, Johnson’s enthusiasm went flat and he told them he didn’t think much of it. “The whole thing was just too optimistic,” recalls Johnson. But because his role was simply to manufacture products for the POWER label, Johnson felt he had nothing to lose by staying on and waiting. “However,” he points out, “I never ever ever discussed philosophy with Farrakhan. I am a Christian, not a Muslim. I believe in Jesus. And I respect all religions. This was simply a business venture.
“And to get it off the ground, they launched the tour,” explains Johnson. “That’s what all these rallies across the country were supposed to do: sell tapes in a number of cities and produce the funds needed to capitalize POWER.” Johnson’s reference is to Farrakhan’s highly publicized 1985 speaking tour, which was packaged as a series of consciousness-raising rallies. Al Wellington confirms Johnson’s contention: “Yes, the tour was a test market to see if we could interest the people in the POWER concept. And one of the strategies was also to sell the tapes.”
Indeed, the Nation refers to the tour as “the POWER tour,” and a look back at the text of the speeches reveals that most of them devote substantial time to advertising POWER toiletries. For example, at the Washington Convention Center Farrakhan said: “Do you see putting under your arm POWER deodorant and saying ‘I feel strong because under my arms I’ve got POWER’?” At Madison Square Garden, he spoke at length about toilet paper, sanitary napkins, and other personal products, warning white America, “Don’t put us down for selling toiletries.”
The first of Farrakhan’s rallies was held in Detroit in January 19, 1985. Nation sources claim that several thousands people came out that bitterly cold day, braving a windchill of minus 55 to hear the minister’s words. That day the POWER concept was ambiguously announced as a program of black economic self-sufficiency, but few details were mentioned and little notice was taken. About 80 tape-duplicating machines were on site, ready to instantly produce copies of Farrakhan’s speech for sale to the departing crowd. But technical difficulties, including several blown fuses, spoiled the plans.
The Nation ultimately ordered 150,000 copies of the speech for a later sale. In anticipation, on February 4, it resurrected a complex of not-for-profit corporations, including Final Call Inc. and Muhammad Holy Temple of Islam, Inc., both of which had been allowed to legally dissolve several years before. They were now reincorporated with minor name changes. The boards of directors variously included Farrakhan, his wife, daughter, and son-in-law.
However, tape sales were apparently not generating the funds Farrakhan expected. So he did what any good American entrepreneur would do—he called on a friend for help. The friend was Colonel Muammar Khaddafi.
Khaddafi had a history of friendship with the Nation of Islam. In 1975 he had granted the Honorable Elijah Muhammad for $3 million interest-free loan to build a national mosque. On February 24, 1985, he arranged for a special address to black America to be beamed via satellite into a Chicago meeting hall as the climax to the Nation’s annual “Savior’s Day” convention. The Libyan leader, who has financed terrorist groups around the world, appeared on a large TV screen and called upon American black servicemen to desert from the military and engage in wide-spread sabotage and rebellion with weapons he would provide.
Arms for insurrection wasn’t exactly what Farrakhan needed at the time. He wanted money to start up his toiletries business. And so, several days later, in a Washington press conference, Farrakhan formally renounced Khaddafi’s offer of weapons, saying it “was appreciated but unacceptable unless [Khaddafi] wanted to offer monetary weapons to get the proposed program off the ground.”
That money ultimately did come. But the famous $5 million interest-free loan from Khaddafi, widely reported as coming after Farrakhan’s May 1985 visit to Tripoli, was in fact finalized during March and April while Farrakhan was still in Chicago.
“I was here in the United States … [when] I communicated with him,” Farrakhan told me. And he was. Rather than speak by telephone, Farrakhan recorded a color videotape, approximately 15 minutes in length, in which he graciously declined the offer of weapons and instead asked for $5 million to fund POWER.
At the end of March 1985, Al Wellington and his attorney, along with Farrakhan’s top aide, Abdul Akbar Muhammad, and Farrakhan’s attorney, Louis Meyers Jr., flew to Tripoli with the videotape and POWER presentation materials. Akbar arranged for the Minister’s words to be transcribed into Arabic so Khaddafi could follow along as he viewed the tape. Appropriately, perhaps, the tape was not compatible with the Libyans’ equipment, so Farrakhan’s message could only be viewed in black and white. Khaddafi was swayed and sent Farrakhan a message that referred to the previous loan: “he would do it again if he could to help me,” Farrakhan remembers.
Wellington and company were directed to the offices of the Islamic Call Society, the organization governing Islamic affairs in Libya. According to Islamic sources in the U.S., the Society was originally a purely religious organization funding schools, hospitals, and other good works. But after the Society’s leader criticized Khaddafi for un-Islamic activities, he was thrown in jail and replaced. The Islamic Call Society is now reportedly under the control of Khaddafi himself, functioning as a funding conduit for international terrorism as well as its traditional religious projects.
“My approach to the Society was straight business,” remembers Wellington. The presentation, devoted exclusively to marketing details and the need for black economic independence, was entirely in English “because key officials had been educated in America.”
The Society’s leaders were instantly reassuring. “It was the most remarkable thing I have ever seen,” recalls Wellington. “I have been involved in closing many a deal, and from the first few days I knew that the loan would be approved.” Details were discussed during subsequent days, and by mid-April Wellington’s attorney, still in Tripoli, drafted a contract for a $5 million, interest-free, completely unsecured loan from the Islamic Call Society to the National of Islam.
A messenger contacted Farrakhan at his home with the news that the money would be forthcoming. Farrakhan remembers that when he heard the news, “I felt that there was no God but Allah.” POWER would now become reality.
Quickly, an electronic transfer for $2.5 million was received at the small black-owned Independence Bank in Chicago, where the Nation of Islam maintains its accounts. It was placed in a high-yield certificate of deposit. Several days later, in early May, Farrakhan and an entourage flew to Geneva. From there he went to the Middle East, where he showed his gratitude in a tour of solidarity talks with Khaddafi and several of his allies in the anti-Israel front.
His first stop was Tripoli, where he met for about an hour with the Colonel himself. Dressed in flowing white robes and seated on a low, backless chair, Khaddafi accepted Farrakhan’s thanks for the loan and for helping blacks achieve economic independence. The conversation ultimately went beyond blacks in the U.S. and included those in the Caribbean as well.
After an interview on Libyan television, Farrakhan flew to Syria, where he enjoys long-established contacts, some of which were tapped when he accompanied Jesse Jackson to win the freedom of American airman Robert Goodman. In Damascus he met first with PLO leader Abu Musa, who led the Syrian-inspired El Fatah rebellion against Yassir Arafat, and then met with leaders of Syrian president Hafez Assad’s political party.
From Damascus Farrakhan flew to the United Arab Emirates for more talks, including one with Dr. Ibrahim Ezzadine, an adviser to the leading Emirate sheikhs. Ezzadine and Farrakhan have long been close; the former visited Farrakhan’s new York mosque first in 1972 and then Farrakhan personally in 1978.
Farrakhan’s next stop was Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Two of his aides rented a car there and spent an evening searching the streets of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Amin, long thought to be hiding in Libya under the protection of Khaddafi, is in fact now living in Saudi Arabia. After Farrakhan’s aides finally located Amin, a meeting was scheduled for the next morning. Meeting in Amin’s home, Amin and Farrakhan expressed solidarity with each other and talked “about Islam and his hope one day to return to Uganda,” recalls Farrakhan.
“I liked Idi Amin,” Farrakhan told me. “I thought he was a very strong man, very dedicated to his people, very committed to Uganda. I felt that he needed much more growth … intellectual [and] spiritual growth as, of course, I do, we do, you do. I read in the articles of the Western press much about the excesses of his regime, the killings etcetera. I went to Uganda. I spent an aggregate of approximately three months there on at least three or four different occasions in 1975 and twice in 1977.” Farrakhan claims that he never saw evidence of the atrocities reported in the Western press. “This is what I read, but I never saw that.”
From Jiddah, Farrakhan flew to the Sudan, where he met with the strongman behind the recent coupe there, and then back to Tripoli, where he took time to meet with Filipino revolutionaries before returning to the U.S.
During his whirlwind month in the Middle East, Farrakhan managed to rub elbows with a number of personalities who would identify themselves as enemies of the United States. Shortly after he returned, the second half of Colonel Khaddafi’s $5 million loan was wired to the Independence Bank. At the same time, Farrakhan made it clear that his war against the Jews, Israel, and American society at large would continue. The loan, and the belief that he now had POWER firmly behind him, seemed to boost his confidence and increase his venom.
Indeed, as he resumed his speaking tour of major U.S. cities, Farrakhan became more and more outrageous; he castigated Christians for believing in Christ, Americans for genocide and colonialism, and Jews for just about everything else. Of course he provoked a media blitz, which in turn boosted the size of his black audiences. The crowds not only cheered Farrakhan’s anti-everyone message, they also received his personal hard sell about the Nation’s forthcoming line of sanitary napkins, toilet paper, shampoos, and toothpaste, all of which was promised to appear in the first quarter of 1986.
Farrakhan may have believed it advisable, or even necessary, to link his politics with this product line. But now that the first quarter has come and gone, it appears that his mixing of messages, combined with his unorthodox source of venture capital, may have shut POWER off before it got started.
No one would have criticized, or even expressed reluctance about, a great plan to improve the economic status of blacks. But as POWER began to look like more than that—as the political component of he program became evident—Farrakhan’s commercial allies became nervous. It was one thing to enter a pro-black business venture. It was quite another to participate in an enterprise conceived and advertised as anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-white, and anti-Semitic.
Once the loan from Libya was secured, POWER’s fate was in large part dependent on George Johnson, president of the Chicago company that was to become the chief manufacturer of POWER products. “When I learned that the capital for this venture would be supplied by Khaddafi, it scared the hell out of me,” Johnson admits, “because I think he is an enemy of this country. I couldn’t afford to and didn’t desire to get mixed up in anything like that. But I didn’t know what to do. I was between a rock and a hard place. I can’t say I’m not for black self-help because I and this company have stood for that since the beginning. But I didn’t want to offend anyone or participate in anything un-American.”
With his stock traded on the American Exchange and his business dependent on the goodwill of distributors and retailers—some of whom were Jewish—Johnson fully expected a damaging reaction to news of the Libyan loan. “However, it didn’t come,” says Johnson, probably because it was not generally known that his firm was to be POWER’s key producer. So Johnson did nothing. “Remember,” Johnson explains, “It was easy to do nothing. There had been nothing in writing. No official proposal, contract, or offer. There was nothing for me to even refuse had I wanted to back out.”
But all that changed in early September, when Nadine Epstein wrote an article for Crain’s Chicago Business naming several black manufacturers as POWER participants. Johnson Products was listed as the most important. And now Farrakhan began publicly mentioning Johnson as a courageous black manufacturer willing to stand up to white society and the Jews. The Minister even asked blacks to increase their purchases of Ultra Sheen as a gesture of thanks. Johnson’s Jewish business associates were shocked at his involvement, and soon the heat was on.
“The first person I talked with, I tried to explain that my involvement was only as a supplier,” recalls Johnson. “But there was no way around it, we were linked.”
Jewish distributors and retailers who had always bent over backward to help Johnson were now sending very explicit messages. “Of course we are absolutely devoted to black economic self-help,” declares Johnson. “But we have never been anti-Semitic. Jewish people have done a lot to help us and we have helped them. If I go back in my business career, starting with absolutely nothing, the people who had faith in me and took chances on me were Jewish people. Our first extension of credit came from a Jewish bottle company. That’s back when I couldn’t get credit from anyone. Not only did I get credit, I got special concessions, and they waived the quantity minimums.
“And now these people, who are important in our business—especially the retailers and distributors—took it very personally,” Johnson continues. “And I understand why. Mr. Farrakhan has made some very, very inflammatory anti-Semitic remarks in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Not only did it upset others, it upset me as well. And after the [September 14] Los Angeles speech, it was just enough. I had some telephone conversations with some of my top people and I listened to their point of view. The whole thing became so offensive to our business associates that I was concerned about our relationship. It became clear that there would be some difficulty, and if we continued, we would only hurt ourselves.”
Johnson says that on September 21, before the rally in Madison Square Garden, he telephoned Minister Farrakhan and told him, “We’re going to have to put distance between Johnson Products and Khaddafi because we cannot afford being identified with him in any way.” According to sources who have knowledge of the conversation, Farrakhan angrily answered that Jews were pressuring Johnson to back off; they wanted POWER to fail because POWER had the chance to do something for black people.
By now Johnson was convinced he would have to withdraw from the project altogether, and issue a statement of disassociation as well. But he also wanted to avoid the notion “that I was pressured by the Jews.”
Farrakhan’s speech in New York featured unprecedented anti-Jewish remarks, including repeated references to Jews as the “bloodsuckers of the poor.” It also praised Johnson Products as a black company willing to stand up to the Jewish menace. A short time later George Johnson issued a written statement formally disassociating himself from Louis Farrakhan and POWER. Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic crusade was given as the main reason.
Reacting, Minister Farrakhan declared, “A man like Mr. Johnson … has to depend on distributors and retailers to put his product on the market. If he is threatened at the retail level and at the distribution level, if he will be perceived as being anti-Semitic if he producers these products for PWOER or for Louis Farrakhan, then as a matter of survival, Mr. Johnson will have to accede or submit. This points out to us what we have been saying all along. That there is too much control of black people by Jewish people in power.”
According to press reports, POWER had also approached other black manufacturers, including Pro-Line of Dallas, M&M Products of Atlanta, Austin W. Curtis Laboratories of Detroit, and World of Curls in Los Angeles. Contacted in the wake of Johnson’s pullout, all except Curtis claim to have demurred. And all the firms, including Curtis, say that the Nation has never proffered a formal proposal, revenue projection, or written contract, not even a production schedule.
When I interviewed Farrakhan he assured me that the POWER program would come to fruition—a contention reiterated by Nation sources as late as mid-March. Does that mean the nation has found new suppliers? “The kind of pressure that has been put on these men is because it was known that they agreed to help,” said Farrakhan. “So at this point, it would be unwise for us to say what other alternatives we have. But we do believe we’ll have our product out.”
The Minister added that it was right for the black community to fight the Jews with whatever economic influence they had because it was in their self-interest. Asked, “Do you not agree that Jews likewise should use any economic influence that they have to protect their interests as well?” Farrakhan smiled and said, “Certainly … . Each of us as a people have a right to use whatever we have at our disposal to protect our interests. But,” he qualified, “if those interests lie in … robbing others of that precious right that is given by God … keeping us suppressed and oppressed, then that’s not legitimate.”
Asked again if it wasn’t a matter of perspective—Jews seeing Farrakhan as a threat and vice versa—he replied, “That’s correct.”
As of this writing, the Nation intends to test market POWER in only one city, Philadelphia, late in 1986. According to plans, a sales office will open first, and it must sign up 10,000 consumers for the program to be viable. Several dozen personal and household products are to be introduced, to ensure telephone orders of $20 per month per consumer. Philadelphia was chosen because Wellington’s office is not far from the city, and he can closely monitor the program’s progress. If Philadelphia succeeds, Chicago is next.
Ultimately, POWER is to penetrate the nation’s top 50 black markets. Plans call for the organization to own and operate its own warehouses and delivery trucks.
Wellington instinctively believes the program will be a runaway, with a million black households signing up within six months. But he prefers to base his figures on conservative estimates. Those estimates predict that POWER’s goal can be realized if only 700,000 black households are recruited over five years, according to Wellington. If that occurs, POWER may indeed become the biggest black corporation in America. Wellington assuredly insists, “Indeed some of the big black manufacturers have back away, but when we need the products, all we have to do is walk in with a check, and they cooperate. Just a check, nothing more.”
Of course, you can’t write a check if you don’t have a bank—which brings us to the latest problem that Louis Farrakhan’s rhetoric has created for the Nation of Islam.
The Independence Bank of Chicago, one of the city’s handful of black-owned banks, is currently holding the $5 million that came from Khaddafi. Such deposits are not easy for small banks to come by; but given the backlash against Johnson Products, some directors of the bank are wondering whether they should allow themselves to remain part of the controversy.
In addition to receiving the transfers from Libya, the Independence Bank has extended several small loans to the Nation, totaling about $100,000, plus a small mortgage on the Final Call headquarters. It has also provided lock-box services that have made the bank appear to be an integral part of Farrakhan’s POWER structure. Messages on Farrakhan’s tape cassette and other POWER materials have asked that checks be sent to “POWER c/o The Independence Bank.” In essence, the bank provided POWER with an address as apart of their overall service package. In conventional lock-box arrangements, the bank generally opens the envelopes, deposits the checks, and makes an accounting. In this case it simply delivered the envelopes to the Nation of Islam, which then kept its own books.
“We want to keep an arms-length relationship with the Nation,” explained one source at the bank. Another bank official added, “We originally thought the bank wouldn’t get into trouble, could invest the Khaddafi money in the community and make money also.”
Farrakhan evidently feared that the bank might receive pressure from government regulators because of the Khaddafi connection. At Madison Square Garden he castigated unnamed “black bankers who are shaking over $5 million,” insisting that the bank was already being harassed.
Hearing Farrakhan’s claims, one board member immediately contacted the bank’s president, Rich Shealey, who categorically denied there was any government pressure. On the contrary, the government had recently conducted its periodic routine examination of Independence’s books, a director asserts. “That was one of our best examinations to date, and we received our highest rate to date.”
When I asked Farrakhan about this difference of opinion, he insisted that Libyan money in a black bank had prompted government regulators “to scrutinize everything … and put some pressure on the bank not to loan us certain moneys.” The idea, as Farrakhan explained it, was “to frighten them, to make [the bankers] believe that [the government is] gong to come down on us any time”—since no prudent banker would lend money to an organization that’s in trouble with the government. When asked if he based his claim on any concrete information, Farrakhan replied, “I would say it’s a very good guess.”
Farrakhan is correct about Independence being nervous. However, it was not government pressure but management’s own reluctance that prompted second thoughts. “The whole thing was just unwise, being part of the Farrakhan thing,” confided a senior bank official. “Just look at what happened with Johnson Products—the adverse reaction. We didn’t want that to repeat here. It’s not worth the aggravation considering we’re paying market rates for the CDs.”
Around the end of last year, when Farrakhan’s certificates were scheduled to roll over (that is, come up for renewal), Independence’s directors began discussing the option of refusing to renew them. Independence is a small bank with about $70 million in deposits, only about $15 million of which are so-called “jumbo deposits” in excess of $100,000. The bank’s before-tax profit is expected to be about $1 million for 1985, about double the 1983 figure; the improvement is largely due to minority-pegged deposits. The point spread on a jumbo certificate is roughly 5 percent. Khaddafi’s $5 million, in other words, constitutes roughly $50,000 in annual gross profit, or about 5 percent of the bank’s total. The question before directors was this: could a bank of Independence’s size live without those millions?
“We are going to,” insisted a major stockholder who opposed the Farrakhan involvement.
Last November 15, the bank’s executive committee decided to put the question before the full board at its next meeting. “Whether we just give back the certificates, or whether the Nation walks with all of their accounts altogether, has not yet been decided,” a member of the executive committee said at the time. “But for sure we don’t want the Khaddafi money, and the money will not be renewed.”
A few weeks later, at the full board meeting, directors and officers expressed their concerns about the Farrakhan relationship, pro and con. Some board members feared that the Farrakhan money might increase their exposure to lawsuits. One staunchly declared, “Either he goes or I go.” Others agreed that “Farrakhan is looked upon in good stead in the black community,” recalls one bank source. “To sever relations with him would hurt the bank’s image.” At least one board member’s letter of resignation was drawn up.
Several alternatives were proposed, including (1) insisting that all Nation of Islam relationships be terminated; (2) refusing to roll over the $5 million from Khaddafi but retaining the other accounts; and (3) simply refusing to accept any further deposits. The board, frozen by indecision, finally decided to approach the Nation of Islam and ask them to “take a step.”
Nation officials and Farrakhan himself “reacted very badly,” according to a source. Nonetheless, the most visible bank relationship, the lock-box service for POWER contributions and tape purchases, has been terminated. Tape cassettes of Farrakhan’s Madison Square Garden speech are still circulating, accompanied by POWER pledge cards that prominently feature the bank’s name, but the bank is no longer accepting checks. A source at Independence says that very few checks have come in since the service was terminated, but any checks received would simply be forwarded to the Nation. Materials printed recently by the Nation have replaced references to the bank with a Nation post office or street address.
Sources have recently indicated that Independence’s jumbo certificates still total approximately $15 million, there have been no major depository shifts, and the $5 million Khaddafi deposit is still being held. However, the board is still divided over retaining the certificates, and some directors promise to raise the issue decisively in the near future. In light of recent events, the stigma attached to the money has only become magnified. One bank official has expressed fears that the bank might be considered a fiduciary for Colonel Khaddafi, or that the fund might be attached by civil litigation or executive action if hostilities between the U.S. and Libya escalate. A bank spokesman has declared, however, that viewing the bank as a Libyan fiduciary would be “an excessively unfair interpretation.”
Bank president Rich Shealey refuses to confirm or deny any information regarding the board’s deliberations and the Nation of Islam’s accounts. The most he will say is that “controversy has its place” in the decision-making process of any bank.
Unquestionably, even if the Independence Bank withdraws from its Farrakhan relationship, it will only be a brief matter of time before the Nation finds another banker. By using conduits and front companies, the Nation could develop any number of commercial relationships without arousing interest.
3. Farrakhan shares his political bed with some strange fellows, including a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
Farrakhan presents POWER as the means to an end. He proposes to use capitalism to establish a black nation, a sort of quasi-socialist religious state that would permit free enterprise and encourage sharing the wealth. “We must use the instruments of capitalism because that’s what we have available to us,” explains Farrakhan. “But as we study the scripture of the Bible and Koran we believe in a state where the benefits are shared by the masses of the people. I guess the scripture puts it like this, ‘each man according to his needs.'”
Exactly where this nation might be located is of course a mystery. “I have several places in mind,” admits Farrakhan, ” … but I don’t care to talk about it.” He says that to hint at specific locales would only create the same problems he encountered with Johnson Products. But the American South, the Caribbean islands, and Africa are often mentioned as possibilities.
Some Nation members say that once established, Farrakhan’s state would be a springboard for Black Muslim world domination or “rulership” under divine right. When I asked Farrakhan about world domination, I got circumlocution in return: “We believe the black people are the original people of the earth, and … blacks will come back into prominence in the earth.”
While black nationalism is an attractive rallying call, Farrakhan’s real goal seems to be establishing Black Muslim power right here in America. “Going someplace else is fine, but our aim is to resurrect our people [in America],” declares Farrakhan. He makes it clear that black economic power must precede any exodus. If a territory were granted to him tomorrow, Farrakhan says, he would accept it to create “a base,” but he adds “we still have a duty to our people [here].”
Farrakhan’s black national state is distinctly unpopular, even among downtrodden blacks who might be considered prime candidates for an exodus. The Minister knows it. Even the roaring throng at Madison Square Garden was reticent on this issue; when Farrakhan asked how many would be willing to return to Africa, only about a quarter of the crowd (his own best estimate) responded. The black national state may be a vision for Louis Farrakhan, but the sightlines extend over the horizon.
Nonetheless, the vision alone has created a parallel view shared by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and others of the white hate groups currently surging through America. The result has been a highly publicized philosophical coalition with white racists, one that the Nation has found embarrassing but useful.
The embarrassments began when white supremacist Thomas Metzger attended Farrakhan’s Los Angeles speech, and then took up a collection among his colleagues, donating $100 to the Nation of Islam. Metzger is the former grand dragon of the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and currently head of the so-called White American Political Association, which purports to be a coalition of white supremacist groups. When the news broke that he had attended the rally, some weeks after the fact, Metzger told reporters that his group and the Nation of Islam could respect each other and cooperate because they shared common goals—to separate the races and fight the Jews.
At the time, just before the Madison Square Garden rally, Farrakhan’s aides vehemently denied that they knew anything about Metzger’s appearance in Los Angeles; they also denied sharing any common ground with him. They said the whole episode was created by the Minister’s enemies to drive a wedge between him and the people.
But the facts appear to be otherwise. According to a Nation source in Chicago, Metzger was invited by officials of the nation of Islam’s LA mosque. Just after the rally—but before the news broke—at least one Farrakhan aide was bragging, “did you hear about Tom Metzger? He came to the Forum, and said he endorsed the Minister’s program.”
Farrakhan himself, when asked, conceded, “if he was invited by the local mosque there, I did not know it, and I would not disapprove of it if I did know it because it was an open meeting.” Farrakhan added, with no hesitation, “Let me be very candid. We honor and respect any white person who wants to keep their race white as we definitely want to keep ours black … . There’ a common denominator, yes.”
Thus far, that common denominator is strictly philosophical. Farrakhan indicates that before any joint programs with white supremacist groups can be arranged, “We have to work out any principles of working together. But that has not been done.”
The Metzger affair was typical of the way white hate groups react to Farrakhan. From neo-Nazis to the Ku Klux Klan to the Posse Comitatus, they have expressed solidarity with the Nation of Islam. Disclosures to this effect have renewed the accusation that Farrakhan is the “Black Hitler,” an epithet that unnerves him. He say that only Jews call him the Black Hitler—because he criticizes them and
“because they know someday they will be punished for the bad things they have done to blacks”—but it seems the title has its roots in an old Black Muslim tradition established not by Jews but by Nazis. In 1961, 7,000 Black Muslims were bused in from around the United States to attend a rally in Washington, D.C. Seated conspicuously in the front row was the granddaddy of American Nazis, George Lincoln Rockwell, along with a few dozen Storm Troopers. When it came time for the collection, Rockwell cried out, “George Lincoln Rockwell gives $20.” So much applause followed that Malcolm X remarked, “George Lincoln Rockwell, you got the biggest hand you ever got, didn’t you?”
In 1962, at the Nation of Islam’s annual Savior’s Day convention in Chicago, Rockwell as again in attendance, and this time he was a featured speaker. Predictably he told the group that the Jews were “exploiting your people and my people.” And he declared, “I am proud to stand here before black men. I believe Elijah Muhammad is the Adolph Hitler of the black man.” Muhammad himself reportedly led the applause. As a final touch, Rockwell ended his speech by pumping his arm and shouting “Heil Hitler!”
When asked, Farrakhan confirmed the historic continuity; “Lincoln Rockwell was invited and spoke at our  convention … . Elijah Muhammad, as you know, preached separation of the races … . Mr. Metzger, Mr. Rockwell, the Aryan Brotherhood and other white nationalist groups [also] feel whites and blacks should be separated.”
Perhaps none of Farrakhan’s unusual alliances is more intriguing than the one he has with a group in Israel proper. For years Farrakhan has been cultivating a power base among the Black Hebrews, a sect of black Americans living in Israel. The Black Hebrews should not be confused with the Black Jews, who are blacks integrated into Judaism, or with Ethiopian Jews. Calling themselves the Original Black Israelite Nation, Black Hebrews are American blacks from the ghettos of Chicago, Detroit, and Washington many of them former gang members; they claim to be the genuine Jews and therefore the rightful occupants of Israel. They believe the white and Sephardic Jews there are impostors with no right to the Jewish state.
A small party of Black Hebrews led by Chicagoan Ben-Ami Carter settled in the Negev desert towns of Fimona and Arad in 1969 and were granted apartments by Israel’s Ministry of Absorption. Others joined them in subsequent years and their number is now estimated at 3,000 to 5,000. Only after their arrival did the group make known their hostile intentions. These include promises to attack government institutions such as the Knesset while the men are away at the next war and ultimately to expel all “impostor” Jews from Israel. The sect trains all its member in martial arts; unconfirmed rumors about that it has stockpiled small arms supplied by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Cult members in Chicago and Detroit have been charged by federal authorities with operating a multimillion-dollar fraudulent check-cashing ring and a massive scam involving stolen airline tickets. Some of the money has reportedly found its way to cult members in Israel.
The conflicts encountered by Black Hebrews in both the U.S. and Israel have made them prime candidates for an alliance with the Nation of Islam. Louis Farrakhan recalls that “Many of the Black Hebrews … were former followers of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” and Farrakhan’s people have stayed in close touch with the Black Hebrews since Muhammad’s death in 1975. In fact, Farrakhan’s minister of defense and security, Khallid Abdul Muhammad, traveled to Israel in 1976 and 1977 to visit their Dimona stronghold.
Farrakhan did not meet Black Hebrew leader Ben-Ami Carter until 1977, but when he did they immediately struck up a friendship. The Minister himself ultimately journeyed to Israel. “In 1978, I visited Israel with Ben-Ami,” recalls Farrakhan. Entering Israel on a standard American passport, Farrakhan was asked few if any questions by Israeli customs officials. Though Israeli customs agents routinely stamp paper inserts, rather than the passports themselves—this to preserve a tourist’s ability subsequently to visit Arab countries—Farrakhan’s passport proper was stamped. However the telltale Israeli mark did not interfere with his ability to travel freely throughout the Arab world.
Once in Israel, Farrakhan visited the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem and then went directly to Dimona. “I stayed in Dimona about three or four days—probably less than a week,” he recalls. Although the two groups today profess different faiths, “I found acceptance among them,” says Farrakhan. “They were very warm and beautiful [to me]. They were very warm and beautiful to each other. In fact, it was one of the most beautiful communities that I’ve ever been among in terms of their love for themselves and each other.”
Farrakhan explained how the Black Hebrews figure into the Black Muslims’ future plans. “We have shred beliefs in that we believe that God has chosen us to be the cornerstones of a new world government,” he said. “But they’re coming at it from the point of view of the Torah and we’re coming at it from the point of the Koran.”
The Nation regularly lobbies for Black Hebrew causes. The Black Hebrews in turn provide a voice from within Israel that can be counted on to produce anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish agitation. For example, a Black Hebrew “ambassador” participated in an international anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist convention staged by the Nation in February 1985. Other distinguished participants included Northwestern University professor Arthur Butz, who has written a book claiming that the holocaust was the biggest hoax of the 20th century. The climax of this convention was the satellite speech in which Moammar Khaddafi called for American blacks to create a deserter’s army and overthrow the U.S. government.
Another Black Hebrew endeavor is an anti-Israel letter-writing campaign, which asks black congressmen to legislate both a boycott of all Jewish businesses in America and a cutoff of all American aid to Israel.
Israeli authorities see the Black Hebrew situation as extraordinarily sensitive. The Black Hebrews are technically Americans, and Israel does not want a conflict with Black Americans no matter what the circumstances. For this reason officials have delayed raiding the Dimona complex for a weapons search and have forestalled deportation proceedings. But as evidence accumulates that the Black Hebrews are a national security risk, Israel is fast approaching a confrontation. Until it comes, the situation “obliges the authorities to maintain a security alert regarding activities of the cult,” as one Israeli intelligence briefing expressed it.
4. His Nation of Islam has a lot more to do with nations that it has with Islam.
Louis Eugene Walcott, an Episcopalian, became Louis Farrakhan, a Black Muslim, in November 1955, about ten months after that night when the Honorable Elijah Muhammad picked him out of a crowd, read his mind, and spoke directly to him. According to the legend, this apparent miracle was later revealed as a trick: the Honorable one had been told Walcott would be at the rally, and hence had directed his comments toward the wise fisherman who knew someone would be there, and he put the right bait on the hook.”
As was mentioned earlier, the hook was baited not with religion but with politics—a political philosophy of economic self-determination, love for black people, and hatred of others. When Walcott converted he did not surrender himself to Allah, as in the classic conversion experience. Instead, he remembers, “I did surrender myself to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The result is the man who is before you here.”
Farrakhan rose quickly within the nation of Islam. He worked first with Malcolm X at the Harlem mosque. Later, in Boston, he became captain of the local youth security corps, the Fruit of Islam. Eventually he became minister of the Boson mosque. With his newfound power and prestige, Louis Farrakhan did what Louis Walcott could not: he made a hit record.
In 1959, the Nation of Islam rented Carnegie Hall in New York, and various Halls in Chicago and Boston, and staged Farrakhan’s political musical Orgena—”A Negro” spelled backward. The lead song from the musical, “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell,” was combined with a Farrakhan lecture on a recording that to this day constitutes one of the Nation’s major marketing efforts.
Marketing and commerce were important elements of the Nation then. Millions of dollars in donations had been efficiently channeled into a small empire of businesses, from restaurants and schools to printing firms and thousands of acres of farming in Georgia, Alabama, and Michigan. Spun off from the commerce were cooperatives and trade arrangements that functions as effective stimuli for black economic self-help. While much of the wealth was directed into the community, however, some of it became the personal treasure of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his family, this through the so-called “#2 Poor Account.” The Black Muslim movement became not only an avenue to heaven, but also an avenue to the bank.
Elijah Muhammad died in February 1975, and the Nation came to a crossroads. With the passing of the founder, a struggle broke out that was more than a power conflict—it was a conflict over the very ethics and philosophy of the Black Muslims. The two main players were Farrakhan and the only other Black Muslim who challenged him#&8212;Wallace Muhammad, one of the elder sons of Elijah Muhammad and heir apparent to the leadership of the Nation.
Quieter, intensely religious, studious, known for careful language, Wallace Muhammad was loved and revered by the masses of Black Muslims. And now that his father was gone, he was free to admit it: Elijah Muhammad had been wrong—wrong about the white devil, wrong about black nationalism, wrong about Islam. And the only way to make it right was to turn the movement away from the credo of hatred and separatism that his father preached and toward the pacific teachings of Islam. This would mean dismantling the Nation’s empire of mosques and small commercial operations, but such steps would be needed if a million or more Black Muslims were to join the world Islamic community.
That sounded fine to Black Muslims who had seen two generations of changes since Elijah Muhammad began preaching in the 30s. In many ways, the late 70s seemed a new day for blacks in America, and new perspectives seemed to be in order. But Louis Farrakhan didn’t think so. He had made a career out of separatism, nationalism, and racism; abandoning the old program and the Black Muslim commercial empire would put him out of work.
Elijah Muhammad’s son, now known as Imam W. Deen Muhammad, is protective of his father’s teachings even as he disputes them. In an interview, he told me, “years ago, when the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was speaking, he had to use those fiery techniques to attract the desperate masses from the poor and the uneducated. Black people needed something to believe in.” Today the son’s followers can be heard on the street corners of black communities railing at reluctant ones, as disciple Hassan Raheed recently did in Chicago. “Twenty years ago,” Raheed told a fellow Black Muslim, “you needed a crutch to get you to walk away from your wine and your dope needle, and get you some self-respect. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave you that crutch. But now it’s time for you to stand on your own with other men, and be a productive member of society and forget all this foolishness about white devils, Jewish devils, a separate state, or anything but the word of Allah.”
Shortly after his father died in 1975, Wallace led his million-plus followers toward the twin objectives of Islamic purity and individual economic independence. He liquidated the multimillion-dollar commercial operations, modified the organizational structure of the Nation, and even changed the group’s name several times—most recently to the American Muslim Mission—before dismantling it altogether Now there is merely a network of mosques and Black Muslims devoid of formal organization but nonetheless pledging their spiritual allegiance to Imam W. Deen Muhammad.
Farrakhan refused to accept the son’s new truth, and bitter feuding broke out between the factions. In 1977, the Imam belittled Farrakhan as “a snake”; some say that in Muslim parlance this was an open invitation to assassinate Farrakhan. Even today, followers of Muhammad claim that the very name “Farrakhan” is an Arabic symbol for ‘a deceitful one fleeing the truth.”
In short, while Imam W. Deen Muhammad has abandoned his father’s inflammatory rhetoric and repudiated his racist teachings, Louis Farrakhan has kept the old flame alive. Muhammad tried to lead the Nation of Islam deeper into religion. Farrakhan has taken it deeper into the realm of politics.
The political content of Farrakhan’s “religion” is perhaps best revealed by its fanatic, vehement anti-Semitism. Farrakhan maintains that the Koran is inherently anti-Jewish. It is not. True, its pages are filled with bitter denunciations of the Jews; for example, chapter 3, section 12 opens with the verse, “If only the People of the Book [Jews] had faith … among them are some who have faith, but most of them are perverted transgressors.” But equally bitter language can be found in the Torah, uttered by Moses and numerous prophets against the rebellious Children of Israel, and by Jesus in the Gospels against those who rejected his mission.
It has been understood by the religious world for centuries that such denunciations were contemporary rhetoric, speaking to and about those in ancient society who disbelieved either Moses, Jesus, or Mohammad. Even ultra-fundamentalist Christians, who believe in such literalisms as Jonah’s adventure in a whale do not interpret biblical chastisements against Jews as an indictment of Jews in general. Neither does mainstream Islam. In fact American Moslems are livid about Farrakhan’s distortions.
“There’s nothing in Islam that in any way connotes or suggests hatred, discrimination, anti-Semitism, or anti-Jewishness,” insists DePaul University’s Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, author of An Introduction to Islam. “I think Farrakhan is probably confusing a political doctrine with religion because on a religious basis, Farrakhan is so completely wrong, there’s no possible way of finding any thread of validity in it.” Interestingly, Egyptian-born Bassiouni is often found on the Arab side of Middle East political issues.
Nationally recognized Islamic expert Dr. Fazlur Rahman of the University of Chicago, author of Major Themes of the Koran, adds, “Farrakhan is an extremist. When he uses the language of the Koran to condemn the Jews, he is misrepresenting the Koran. The Koran makes clear that there are good men and bad men among all people, including Jews and Christians. He is a politician, not a man of God, and I think he should stop interpreting the Koran in a way that has nothing to do with Islam.
The Koran that Farrakhan uses is a bastard version with a special anti-Semitic bent. It was translated by Maulana Muhammad Ali of the Ahmadiyyah sect, which long ago was declared a “non-Muslim sect” by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and by various international Islamic tribunals. The Ali translation was written in what is now Pakistan about the time of World War I; it was updated just after World War II. Both versions were condemned immediately for declaring a false Messiah and for injecting political themes into their verses and commentary.Nonetheless, this “condemned Koran” was the translation chosen—perhaps unwittingly—by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and may have been the basis for much of the original Nation’s anti-Jewish oratory. Compare:
—Chapter 2, section 7, verse 61: “And abasement and humiliation were stamped upon them [the Children of Israel], and they incurred Allah’s wrath.” In the Ali translation, the commentary explains, “The truth of this prophecy regarding the Jewish nation is amply borne out by Jewish history. The Jews are the wealthiest of nations but their lot is miserable in almost every country of the world; notwithstanding their great influence in politics, it remains so to this day.” By contrast, a standard Koran comments on the same passage: “The moral goes wider than the Children of Israel. It applies to all nations and all individuals.”
—Chapter 5, section 9, verse 60: “Allah has cursed … [and] made apes and swine … .” The Ali commentary explains that “those spoken of as having been made apes and swine are the Jews.” But the standard Koran explains simply: “both apes and swine are allegorical.”
Hundreds of additional examples are possible. The Ali translation makes hatred of Jews less a social situation than a religious doctrine. Farrakhan knows this, and has ensured that the anti-Jewish Ali Koran is widely disseminated throughout the U.S. Down the street from the Final Call building is a husband-wife firm called Specialty Promotions Company, which holds the exclusive North American license to the Muhammad Ali Koran. The Nation bulk orders the book from Specialty Promotions, and orders have grown in direct proportion to the rise in Farrakhan’s popularity. The 4,000 copies printed several years ago lasted until 1985. But Specialty recently went back to press with a 10,000 run, and sources indicate that about half that lot was sold out in just a few months.
The Ali Koran is not the only element of Farrakhan’s religion that reputable scholars find lacking. Another is his fundamental credo that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and indeed Farrakhan himself are messengers from Allah. Abdul Hamid Dogar of the Islamic Foundation: “Islam teaches us that anyone who proclaims himself a messenger is a liar.” Islamic authority Dr. Rahman: “His view is Elijah Muhammad is condemned and has nothing to do with Islam.”
Farrakhan also insists that Elijah Muhammad has already been physically resurrected and is among us today. To this, Dogar laughed, “I have never seen him.” And Elijah Muhammad’s son, Imam Muhammad himself, laughing at the notion and said, “He’s joking.”
But it is not funny. Nothing would be wronger than to underestimate Louis Farrakhan because he has little stature among true Muslims, or even Black Muslims. Theology is not the point. Secretly, and often openly, Farrakhan may be the leader most admired by mainstream black America. And he knows this is where his true appeal lies. He knows that of the 10,000 who jammed the Washington Convention Center, most were non-Muslim blacks. He knows that of those who cheered in Madison Square Garden, most were old-time Baptists and other Christians. That is why when he speaks of Islam he constantly uses the imagery of Christianity. That is why he continuously calls for an interdenominational movement among blacks.
Minister Louis Farrakhan is convincing very few people to become anti-white or anti-Semitic. White society has done that job admirably all on its own. And black society at large has already selected the Jews as the white group it wants to despise the most.
Moreover, a number of studies have demonstrated that blacks as a group are becoming anti-Semitic not out of actual experience but from intellectual orientation. One Harris poll released in 1978 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews indicated that unlike anti-Semitism in whites, which generally diminishes with education level, anti-Semitism in blacks is more likely among the younger and better educated. What’s more, black leaders are more anti-Semitic than blacks in general.
“The Harris survey in question” explains Michael Kotzin of the Chicago office of the Anti-Defamation League, “interviewed non-Jewish whites, blacks generally, and black leaders, asking several questions including this one: ‘When it comes to choosing between people and money, Jews will choose money.’ Among white gentiles, 32 percent answered yes. For blacks in general, 56 percent answered yes. But for black leaders, it was 81 percent yes.”
There’s a point here. Louis Farrakhan is popular with black not because he sheds a new light. His sympathizers were there all along. They were just waiting.
©1986, Feature Group