Wallace Fard Muhammad is credited with founding the Detroit-based Nation of Islam before his disappearance in 1934. With their prophet gone, leadership of the small sect went to Elijah Muhammad, who quietly built up a base of support over the coming years in the wilderness. A key convert would be a former prisoner who made the Nation famous as Malcolm X with his frequent media appearances, before being gunned down shortly after denouncing his former mentor. Decades later, he remains one of the iconic martyrs of the 1960s, with his actual role in the history of the United States obscured by his celebrity profile.
Born Malcolm Little in 1925 to activists of the United Negro Improvement League, the future Black Power firebrand had grown up in an environment which embraced the core message of the controversial movement decades before the term was officially coined. As followers of the UNIA, the Littles rejected integration in favour of the separatist path, which was dealt a severe blow by the deportation of UNIA leader Marcus Garvey in 1927.
Four years later, Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, was killed in what was officially ruled a suicide but which mother Louise, later committed to a mental asylum, claimed had been murder by a local militia. As a result, their son would initially embrace a life of crime, coming of age in the city streets of midcentury America before he was sentenced to a maximum sentence of ten years for a series of burglaries. During his time inside, Malcolm’s family, who had not joined their brother in a life of crime, wrote to him about the Nation of Islam, which he eventually joined while in prison.
Released six years into his sentence, Malcolm would meet with Elijah Muhammad as a free man, before quickly rising through the ranks of the NOI to become head minister of their Harlem Mosque. He soon made a name for himself outside of the church, with an early ally being Percy Sutton, who had served as an intelligence officer before entering the murky world of Manhattan politics. A former Eagle Scout, Sutton had little interest in Malcolm as a means to spiritual salvation, yet recognised the potential of the young firebrand as a weapon against the forces of Tammany Hall, the established rulers of New York city.
Across the country, the power of these populist “machines” was on the decline, in the face of more elitist figures who had long sought to reform local government along idealistic liberal lines. For years, they had run into the opposition of the entrenched networks of patronage which supported kingmakers such as the men from Tammany, unable to muster their own ground troops that could wrestle control of the streets. By 1967 however, Tammany Hall would be officially dissolved, with the various factions that comprised it forced to integrate themselves into the new reality of power in the United States.
Back in 1959, New York public broadcaster WNTA had aired a segment on the Nation of Islam in an early boost to the exposure of the fringe sect. The footage significantly raised the profile of the NOI, especially its charismatic new preacher Malcolm X, who featured heavily in the piece. His appearances included an in-depth interview with producer and Yale graduate Louis Lomax, who had become the first African-American television journalist after taking the job at WNTA one year earlier.
A struggling public broadcaster, WNTA would later be bought out by a consortium of interests from New York’s elite circles. Renaming it WNDT, they convinced Edward R. Murrow to host the new station’s maiden broadcast, soon after the legendary CBS journalist had retired to take up a job as head of the United States’ Agency for International Development on behalf of the Kennedy administration. Like WNTA before it, WNDT would be backed by the Ford Foundation, an immensely wealthy philanthropic group closely associated with the USAID-linked Central Intelligence Agency.
Having inherited the bulk of the shares in the Ford Motor Company, the foundation would be drawn towards the CIA after World War Two, allowing the new agency to promote controversial causes. At the start of the decade, this had included Abstract Expressionism, an art form the CIA felt would raise the cultural profile of the United States during the early years of the Cold War. Their plans ran into the opposition of conservatives such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who worked behind the scenes to orchestrate much of the “McCarthyite” Second Red Scare back when Malcolm was still a Little.
Although this immediate rivalry between the FBI and the CIA subsided in the later 1950s, Hoover remained suspicious of the Agency, which was largely staffed by men from Ivy League backgrounds such as Yale. Amidst the turmoil of the coming decades, this clash would be visible behind the scenes, taking place in the context of a wider crumbling of the established foundations upon which Hoover relied.
Already, Malcolm X had been dragged towards the Agency’s side of the conflict, a position which would soon be cemented with further appearances in the mainstream press, including an interview with Playboy Magazine. Conducted by Alex Haley, who also served in the United States Coast Guard in a quasi-intelligence role as an officer of public relations, the piece would serve as the basis for the Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which was co-written by the two during the subject’s fatal defection from the Nation of Islam.
Having denounced Elijah Muhammad and pledging to form broader civil rights coalitions with integrationists such as Martin Luther King Jr, equally despised by Director Hoover, Malcolm also took part in the “Militant Labor Forum” of the Socialist Workers Party around a month before he was gunned down. With low-ranking members of the Nation of Islam quickly convicted of the crime, allegations of conspiracy soon swirled, despite the FBI declining to investigate whether the death had been ordered across state borders by the Nation’s leadership.
Instead, Lomax would look into the matter himself, writing To Kill a Black Man (1968), in which he accused Muhammad loyalist John Ali of being an FBI agent. Soon after, Lomax was awarded a grant by the Esso Foundation, a charitable organisation set up by the Standard Oil company of New Jersey, to study African-American history. Instead, he died in New Mexico, having suffered what the local authorities ruled to have been single-car accident. Decades later, a former Washington Post editor named Karl Evanzz released his own book, The Judas Project (1992), which alleged that Lomax had been working on an unreleased documentary about the FBI’s role in Malcolm’s murder.
Despite their differences, Elijah Muhammad and J. Edgar Hoover, had a shared enemy in Malcolm X, as well as the liberal reformists who had helped make him a star. After his death, there would be a further spate of murders involving the NOI, which also appeared to take place with impunity from the FBI. These came as the immediate political conflict that had pitted the FBI against the CIA began to wind down, resulting in a period of intense violence in the activist community, possibly including those which were linked to the NOI
During the mid-1960s, in Malcolm’s former stronghold of Harlem, a splinter group of the Nation of Islam had emerged. Calling itself the Five-Percent Nation, it won the support of New York’s reformist Mayor John Lindsay, a liberal Republican who worked closely with the Ford Foundation. In contrast, the FBI described them as a dangerous street gang which had adopted a militantly anti-white ideology.
By 1969, Five Percenter leader Allah the Father was dead, murdered by unknown assailants, possibly the NOI-affilated Black Mafia of nearby Philadelphia. Even without him, the Philadelphia Black Mafia has a long body count, including Major Coxson, an underworld figure in New Jersey who had been a conduit for drugs between them and the American Mafia. In 1973, he had been found dead inside his home, along with his mistress and her two children.
Officially, the murders remain unsolved. On the streets of Philadelphia, the PBM had enforced a strict code of silence that mirrored the terror which had once been enforced by the city’s original Italian-American Mafia, with who they formed a seemingly unlikely partnership. As it happened, both were able to operate with surprisingly little interference from the FBI, which had been confronted by the rise of street movements tied to the reformist cause, such as Harlem’s Five Percenters or the Vice Lords gang in Chicago. As the 1970s wore on, the PBM secured their hold on Philadelphia by creating a network of legitimate businesses and non-profit groups. They would also become infamous for seemingly ideological attacks on a local business and a NOI splinter sect, the Hanafis, where they murdered young children simply for their parent’s beliefs.
On the other side of the country in San Francisco, more homicides were linked to the Nation of Islam, termed the “Zebra Murders” by local police. According to the official story, the crimes were committed in order to gain entrance into an elite group within the local branch of the Nation of Islam. However, there were rumours of a wider power struggle between the Zebra faction and the Nation establishment, with the sect’s secrecy potentially helping to keep the real story under wraps.
At any rate, Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, taking whatever he knew to the grave and handing power to his son, Warith Dean, who quickly brought the Natiom into line with Muslim orthodoxy. This move was rejected by much of the bureaucracy however, which grouped together behind Boston minister Louis Farrakhan and started their own splinter religion that quickly came to outnumber Dean’s followers. Under Farrakhan, the Nation formed links with other Black nationalist groups through events such as the Million Man March in the 1990s, which helpef keep the NOI relevant well into the 21st century.
Despite controversial beliefs about Jews and gender roles, the Nation of Islam continues to count allies as diverse as Jesse Jackson, the Church of Scientology and, most controversially, the Women’s March. During the debate that followed, little attention was inevitably paid to their history, and how they came to be so powerful in the first place. Instead, the topic was furiously debated for a brief period in the mainstream media, which quickly found a new issue to fixate on as the controversy soon wore down.