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Black Merchants of Hate
(Black Merchants of Hate is a collaboration article by Alex Haley and Alfred Balk that was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post on January 26, 1963.)
Black Merchants of Hate By Alex Haley and Alfred Balk
Fanatic and well disciplined, Negro "Muslims" threaten to turn resentment against racial discrimination into open rebellion.
One pleasant spring evening a few years ago in New York's swarming Negro ghetto, Harlem, a policeman broke up an argument in an old, time-honored way: He clubbed one of the participants over the head and hauled him to the station. There the man was cursed, insulted and beaten until his face and body were bloody.
Up to this point the incident was not unique; police brutality, especially to Negroes, is an old story. But what happened next had never happened before, and it not only shocked the police of New York City but left a deep and lasting impression on law-enforcement officers throughout the country.
The victim of the clubbing belonged to a tightly knit Negro extremist sect known as the Black Muslims. As he was being dragged to the station, a fellow member was racing to alert his "brothers." Within minutes, over 100 sect members were lined up outside the doors of the police station. They were young and muscular, dressed uniformly in dark clothing, only a star-and-crescent ring or lapel pin breaking the black pattern. Their hair was close-cropped. They were intense, silent.
When the injured man was taken to a hospital, they followed. Soon the crowd had grown into a mob of 800, some of them teen-agers with zip guns. There were low, angry mutterings. Police were hesitant to try to disperse the mob, fearing an outbreak. "We'd better talk to Malcolm X," a policeman said.
A meeting was hastily arranged in the office of Negro newspaper editor James Hicks; present were three police officials and a tall, light-skinned Negro, Malcolm X, the sect's local leader. "That crowd's ready to explode," one police official told him. "Will you use your influence against violence?"
"Guarantee that our brother will get medical treatment," Malcolm said tersely. "Pledge that the men who beat him will be punished."
The police gave him their promise. Then, assured by Hicks that their word could be trusted, Malcolm did something which witnesses still recall with disbelief. He strode to the head of the angry, impatient mob, stood silently, and then flicked his hands. Within seconds the street was empty.
"No man," a policeman said after seeing this, "should have that much power."
This is only one of many incidents that dramatize the awesome discipline and power of this militant, semisecret, anti-white, anti-Christian sect. Led by Georgia-born Elijah Poole, a 65-year-old self-styled "Messenger of Allah" who calls himself "Elijah Muhammad," The Muslims (pronounced Moose-lums) have become the most explosive force in the American civil-rights struggle.
Most Negro extremists can muster only handfuls of people who convene on street corners or in storefront halls. Elijah Muhammad has spoken to as many as 10,000 cheering Negroes at hate-inciting rallies in New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities. Their next rally, this one their lavish annual convention, will be held February 26 in Chicago's 6,300-seat Coliseum.
Who are the Black Muslims? Are they, as one columnist described them, "the Mau Mau of the American Negro world," and therefore a dangerous threat to our society? Or has the menace of this group been exaggerated?
We were assigned by The Saturday Evening Post as a biracial team to find out. For this report we interviewed dozens of civic, governmental and law-enforcement officials, both white and Negro. We talked to leaders of the Negro community. We questioned Black Muslims and their high officials. We gained admission to Muslim temple services and mass rallies. What we learned revealed several widely held misconceptions about the group—some heartening, some deeply disturbing.
To begin with, the Muslims sneer at the main objective of most Negroes: peaceful integration. "There will never be anything more than token integration," says Elijah Muhammad. "It's a white man's trick to keep the black man enslaved."
Muslims demand racial separation in exclusively Negro states—large areas of our country from which white men would be driven and Negroes would take control. They openly criticize the men who are leading the fight for Negro rights. Among their most hated targets are Nobel Prize-winning diplomat Ralph Bunche, the Rev. Martin Luther King and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Thurgood Marshall. Muslims sneeringly call Marshall "The Ugly American."
Moreover the Muslims openly demonstrate their contempt for Negro groups like the N.A.A.C.P., the sit-in demonstrators and the Freedom Riders. They deride students like James Meredith, who attempt to integrate Southern schools. "Why should any black man lower himself to try and get into a second-rate university?" one Muslim asked us.
Another major Muslim goal is to turn Negros away from Christianity, which they call "a white man's religion used to enslave the black man." In at least two cases, in Arizona and New Jersey, Muslims have recruited entire congregations of Christian sects by converting the minister. Says Elijah Muhammad: "I'm doing all I can to make the so-called Negros see that the white race and its religion, Christianity, are their open enemies."
"One thing everyone should understand," a member of a Chicago police undercover unit told us, "is that Elijah 'Muhammad' Poole is not just a run-of-the-mill rabble rouser, nor is his organization just an innocuous regional sect. This man is creating a mass movement on a national scale."
This became immediately clear. Though the Muslims refuse to release membership figures, it is known that Muhammad has an organized following in 80 cities and avid supporters among Negro inmates of at least two dozen state and Federal prisons. The sect owns stores, restaurants and other property in such cities as Chicago, Detroit, New York and Washington, D.C.
In two cities it operates its own accredited schools—in Detroit, a nine-grade "University of Islam" for 140 students, and in Chicago a 12-grade "University" for 430. Muslims further "educate" their following through a tabloid newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and hate filled magazines and pamphlets; 50 small radio stations across the country carry broadcasts by Muhammad.
As part of their goal of separating themselves entirely from "the white man's society," the Muslims call themselves "The Nation of Islam" and have their own flag, an Islamic star and crescent. They also have their own police force, powerful, judo-trained guards known as "The Fruit of Islam."
Muslims refuse to vote, and most refuse to report for military service. At this writing the oldest of Muhammad's six sons, Wallace, age 28, is in prison on a charge of draft evasion.
The Muslim law also requires that members abandon use of their legal last name. It is, Muhammad maintains, a repugnantly symbolic "slave name," inherited from "slavemasters" who exploited earlier generations of Negroes. Instead, Muslims use an "X", which stands for "true identity unknown." If there is more than one member in a temple with the same first name, the second to join is known as "2X." In Harlem, we talked to a member of the Muslim temple named Frank 7X.
The Muslims' mass rallies are perhaps the most spectacular and frightening events they stage, reminiscent in some way of the huge meetings at which Hitler screamed his doctrines of Aryan supremacy. We attended their latest rally in Philadelphia last October. Three hours before meeting time at the Philadelphia Arena a vanguard of 40 charter buses and caravans of cars began arriving from as far away as Boston and Atlanta. Most passengers wore the Muslim "uniform"—for men, dark suits and dark shoes; for women, Arabic-type white robes and kerchiefs.
Fruit of Islam guards patrolled the doors outside. Before being admitted, everyone—including a dozen reporters and photographers—was lined up against a wall and searched.
"What is the reason for this," we asked a guard. He looked at us warily. "We have many enemies," he said.
Inside the Arena approximately 5,000 men and women were seated—segregated by sex as Elijah had ordered. In front of them blared a banner: There Is No God But Allah, Muhammad Is His Apostle. Guards were everywhere.
The crowd was strangely silent. Suddenly applause erupted from one corner of the vast hall.
Elijah Muhammad had arrived. He was a short, rather unimpressive-looking man, slight and light-skinned. He wore a dark suit, bow tie and black-embroidered fez. His face showing no expression, he moved quickly to the speaker's platform.
As soon as he was seated the introduction began. "A man who has seen God," he was called, "a man who has heard God, the boldest black man in America, the smartest black man in America, the most powerful black man in America!"
During the introduction the tiny Muhammad sat impassively. Then, as he rose to speak, he seemed transformed. His movements became abrupt, jerky. He stared piercingly at his audience, spitting out his words in harsh, thin tones.
The Black race, he began, was "Original Man," created 66,000,000,000,000 years ago. Adam was grafted from a black man 6,000 years ago by a black scientist. Thus whites were weaker. They were, in fact, devils. They had kidnapped Negroes from a high civilization in Mecca, enslaved them, brainwashed them into a false sense of inferiority, and made them worship a white Jesus. But the Nation of Islam, he said, would rise again. Whites were corrupt; their civilization was doomed.
"Get away from them!" he shouted. "They wasn't taught to do good! They was taught to do evil! They was taught to hate you and me! Stand up and fight the white man!" "We are the victorious people! We will rule!"
"Prophet!" cried a voice. "Messenger!" screamed another. "Teach us!" The crowd began applauding wildly. Some shook their fists in the air. It was an unforgettable performance.
But it is not only in such mass rallies that Muslims demonstrate their remarkable dedication, discipline and solidarity. They also subscribe to a puritanical personal code—they eat only one meal a day, abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and the women use no cosmetics. Gambling, narcotics and sexual promiscuity are prohibited. Muslims are urged to marry within their race, preferably within their faith. They dress neatly, practice a ritualistic politeness, refrain from raucous laughter or loud talk.
Muslims stick together
Muslims pledge one tenth to one third of their income to the movement. They patronize its business or those owned by Muslims. They face east and pray to Mecca three times daily and refrain from eating pork or anything cooked with pork. They are required to attend services regularly at a Muslim "temple" or "mosque." In most temples, decorations include a painting of a Negro hung from tree limb, a replica of an American flag captioned, Slavery Suffering and Death, and an Islamic star and crescent proclaiming, Freedom, Justice, and Equality. Large letters demand, Which Will Survive the War of Armageddon?
"Shocking as this sounds to many people," says Negro scholar Dr. C. Eric Lincoln of Clark College in Atlanta, "to Negro masses who live in big-city ghettoes it has undeniable appeal."
"They are uneducated, unskilled, isolated by poverty and discrimination from the common values of society. They are strangers in their own country, shunned by successful whites and Negroes alike. They see no hope of improvement. Then they hear the voice of Elijah 'Muhammad,' challenging them to recover their self-respect, urging them to repudiate the white man's religion and culture, daring them to believe in race pride and black supremacy. And they not only listen, they act."
Perhaps typical of the Muslim leadership in terms of his background and bitterness is a lanky, energetic, good-looking man named Malcolm Little, once known in Harlem as "Big Red." One of 11 children of an uneducated Baptist preacher, Little was born in Omaha 37 years ago. He lived in crowed, crime-ridden racial ghettos in Omaha, Lansing, Michigan, Boston and New York. He has bitter memories of each.
When Malcolm was six his father, whom a group of whites considered "too aggressive in racial matters," was found under a Lansing streetcar, "his head bashed in and his body mangled. After that we almost starved."
Little left home and school after the eighth grade to become a waiter on a railroad dining car. Bored and frustrated, he soon gravitated to Harlem as a numbers runner, then a hustler of bootleg whiskey and dope. Prominent whites paid "Big Red" large fees to be squired to vice in Harlem. White police demanded bribes which he peeled from the $1,000 bankroll he always carried.
Then, in 1946, at the age of 19, he was convicted of grand larceny in Boston, and a white judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison. While in jail, he learned of Poole's doctrine. "When I heard the white man was a devil," he told us, "it clicked."
Articulate, single-minded, the fire of bitterness still burning his soul, Malcolm X travels the country—organizing, encouraging, trouble-shooting in local Muslim organizations. He appears on radio-TV interviews and speaks and debates on street corners, in Muslim temples and on college campuses. Malcolm X and his wife, a former nurse, are so dedicated to militant accomplishments of Muslim goals that they named one daughter Attila (for the leader of the Huns) and another Qubillah (after Kublai Khan). While Muhammad appears to be training his son Wallace to succeed him when he retires or dies, many Muslims feel that Malcolm is too powerful to be denied the leadership if he wants it.
But as remarkable and typical as Malcolm's transformation has been, law-enforcement officials feel that the dedicated Muslim may be a worse threat to society than the criminal. "There is no way to measure the long-term effect of the race hatred they preach," a New York police official told us.
Equally insidious, we were told repeatedly, are the results of Muslim teachings about violence. Although Muslims profess to abhor violence, pointing to their regulations against carrying weapons, they are often in the thick of it. When a riot in Los Angeles last April resulted in the gunshot death of one person and the wounding of 14 others, Muslims were involved. When twin riots partially wrecked a youth reformatory outside Washington, D.C., last summer, Muslims were prominent. Prison riots involving Muslims have broken out in California, Michigan, Maryland and elsewhere.
A look at Muslim statements shows what inspires this violence. "We must take things into our own hands," Muhammad said in one speech. "We must return to the Mosaic law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. What does it matter if ten million of us die?"
Malcolm X is even more provocative on the subject. "If anyone attacks you," he told one audience, "lay down your life! If anyone so much as touches your finger, his place is in the graveyard!"
"I got a wire from God"
Malcolm shocked even sympathetic Negroes with a statement made last June after receiving a message that 121 white civic and cultural leaders from Atlanta had been killed in the crash of a chartered airliner outside Paris.
"I would like to announce a very beautiful thing that has just happened," he told his audience. "I got a wire from God today . . . . Somebody came and told me that He really had answered our prayers in France. He dropped an air plane out of the sky with over 120 white people on it . . . . we will continue to pray and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky."
How does this fanatical doctrine fit in with the tenets of the orthodox Muslim faith, which has 500,000,000 followers throughout the world?
"Elijah Poole's teachings, his dogma and doctrine of hatred, are utterly non-Muslim," says Ahmad Kamal, a recognized authority on the faith who has written a noted pilgrimage guidebook and heads the worldwide Islamic relief agency, Jami'at al Islam. "It is anti-Muslim. We feel a great compassion for all Negroes who have been duped by the Black Muslims."
Muhammad himself has no known tie with orthodox Islam. One of 13 children of a rural Baptist preacher, he worked as a Georgia field hand, on railroad gangs, at a sawmill, in a brickyard and in factories in Detroit. Apparently, he had his first experience with this twisted form of Muhammadanism when he met a silk peddler named W. D. Fard in Detroit about 1930. Fard claimed to have come from Mecca. If indeed he did, he made two recorded stopovers: one in California, where as "Wallie Ford" he was sentenced to San Quentin State Prison on a narcotics charge: and then in Chicago, where a cultist known as Noble Drew Ali suggested that Fard become a "Prophet of Islam." Ali gave Fard the concept of a "Nation of Islam," and terminology like "so-called American Negroes."
In 1931 in Detroit Poole helped Fard found Temple of Islam No. 1, the Fruit of Islam Guard, and the first University of Islam. Fard bestowed on Poole, the name "Muhammad" and the title, "First Minister of Islam." When Fard disappeared in 1934, Poole took over the sect.
Today, despite the Spartan discipline which governs the lives of the mass of Muslims, Elijah Poole is reaping the benefits of his life of struggle. He and his Georgia-born wife Clara commute between an 18-room mansion in Chicago and a four-bedroom winter home, complete with a swimming pool, in Phoenix. All eight of their children have positions in the movement, and all are apparently dedicated to their father's extremism. In a visit to his Chicago home, the Negro member of our team noted that Muhammad's fanaticism extends even to the symbolic use of brown bread instead of white and of African coffee packaged by a Muslim in New Jersey.
Like most racists, Poole believes unshakably in the righteousness of his cause and the inevitability of his eventual triumph. When asked about planned investigations into his movement by Congress, the FBI, and local, state and Federal tax officials, Poole replied stubbornly, "Let them come. I have all I need. I have the truth!"
What is the truth? Just how strong are the Black Muslims?
To begin with, most published reports number Muslim membership as between 100,000 and 250,000. This, authoritative sources, told us, is vastly exaggerated. Actually, of approximately 20,000,000 American Negroes, only a hard core of 5,500 to 6,000 have actually become temple members. This figure, of course, does not include an estimated 50,000 others who are sympathetic.
The Muslims' financial power also is exaggerated. Their businesses, though clean and well-run, are low-profit neighborhood enterprises. Most are owned by the members, not by the movement. The total amount of aggregate property accumulated by the sect is only a fraction of that owned by the late Daddy Grace or Father Divine.
The Muslims have found that prisons and slums are their most fertile breeding ground. It is hopeful to note that whenever there is strong Negro leadership and good race relations in a community, the sect has flopped miserably.
"The average Negro," says noted Negro psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark of New York City, "readily realizes that there is no point in talking about whether the Negro wants to integrate in America. He has no choice. He is involved with America—inextricably so—and America with him"
How important are they?
Like counterpart white supremacist groups the Black Muslims are not on the Attorney General's subversive list. Federal investigators report no evidence of foreign domination.
Of what significance, then, are the Muslims? "In this difficult period of social transition," says Burke Marshall, Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights, "no group with this discipline and dogma can be ignored." In the event of real trouble, says Los Angeles police chief William Parker, "they could become the shock troops in a conflict between races."
On the other hand, some authorities believe that, unintentionally, the Muslims have had some good effects. Says Ralph McGill, famed publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, "Now that real Negro extremists have appeared, possibly there will be an end to irresponsible charges that moderate, responsible organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League are unreasonable—or, more absurdly, 'Communist-run.' "
Little Rock's, Harry S. Ashmore, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and a practical expert in race relations, puts it this way: "The Black Muslims are a warning to which churches, community leaders and public officials had better pay heed. That is, that the masses of Negro people no longer are willing to stand still, that injustice has been done, and change is going to come. The only question is, will the change come through men and women working together regardless of race, or will the field be left to extremists?"
"The Black Muslims and White Citizens councils offer one answer. Let us hope that responsible Americans will begin working for another." ~ Alex Haley and Alfred Balk.
(Black Merchants of Hate by Alex Haley and Alfred Balk is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was first published in The Saturday Evening Post on January 26, 1963. © 1963 Saturday Evening Post Society. All Rights Reserved.)