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  • Written by Karl Evanzz
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The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad

Written by Karl EvanzzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Karl Evanzz

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On Sale: September 07, 2011
Pages: 704 | ISBN: 978-0-307-80520-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Drawn from recently declassified FBI files, and interviews with family members and former apostles, The Messenger renders a daring portrait of one of African-American history's most controversial leaders.

In this explosive biography, investigative journalist Karl Evanzz recounts the multidimensional life of a semiliterate refugee from the Jim Crow South who became the influential founder of the Nation of Islam. Considered the "Prophet" by his followers and a threat to national security by J. Edgar Hoover, Elijah Muhammad moved four million African Americans to convert to his heterodox version of Islam, and inspired the lives of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan. But his increasingly insatiable hunger for power ultimately led Elijah Muhammad down a path of corruption, ultimately betraying his teachings and his devoted believers by womanizing, fathering thirteen illegitimate children, and abetting in the murders of those who criticized him, not least of whom, his chief disciple, Malcolm X.

Excerpt

Prologue: Undercover

On September 20, 1942, under the cover of still slumbering skies, a swarm of Chicago police officers and FBI agents surrounded the South Side home of a fugitive proclaimed by his adherents as the "Prophet." In a moment, they hoped, their extensive counterintelligence operations against the fugitive's group and other black "pro-Japanese" organizations would pay the ultimate dividend: the arrest and apprehension of black nationalist leaders on sedition charges.

They were especially eager, though, to capture the Prophet, an elusive religious zealot who changed names faster than a chameleon changes color. The head of a sect blacklisted by the U.S. attorney general, the Prophet jumped bail in July while awaiting trial in Washington, D.C., and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was damned angry about it.

The Prophet, known to law enforcement officials in seven states as Ghulam Bogans, Muck Muck, Mohammed Rassoull, or by one of a dozen other aliases, headed a sect called the Allah Temple of Islam. Most of his followers called him the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and referred to themselves as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam.

At seven o'clock, three FBI agents, armed with warrants and weapons, approached the front entrance to 6026 Vernon Avenue; other agents and police officers covered the side and rear. An agent banged on the door. Awakened by the loud knocking, Nathaniel Muhammad, the fugitive's sixteen-year-old son, went to the door and peered through the pane.

"May we come in?" an agent asked the silhouetted figure on the other side of the door. "We'd like to talk to your father."

"Just a minute," Nathaniel replied as he hurriedly backed away.

The agents waited for several minutes and then one of them knocked again, this time nearly hard enough to break the glass. Again, he saw a male figure peering at him through the curtain. The shadow and the silence angered him.

"This is the FBI, boy! Open this damn door or we'll break it down!"

Nathaniel quickly complied.

"Are you Ghulam Bogans's son?" the agent in charge asked gruffly.

The reason Elijah Muhammad used so many aliases was because other Muslim ministers who challenged his heirship of the Nation of Islam had pursued him sporadically since 1934 with the intent of killing him. Another reason was that police officers in several cities had been injured during fracases with Muslims and some were engaged in a vendetta against him. Ghulam Bogans was the alias he had used most recently, and that was the name on his arrest record when he was taken into custody in Washington on May 8, 1942, on charges of draft evasion.

"No one lives here by that name," Nathaniel answered.

"Well," the agent asked angrily, "is Elijah Muhammad here?"

"No, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is not here right now."

The white agents and several police officers pushed past the youth and began searching the house. As they reached the top of the stairway on the second floor, several women and children peered out of bedroom doorways. One woman walked toward the agents.

"I'm Clara Muhammad," she said. "What right do you have to barge into my home at this hour of the morning?"

"We're looking for Elijah, ma'am, alias Ghulam Bogans," an agent answered contemptuously. "We're the FBI."

"Well, you can just look somewhere else because he's not here."

"Do you know where your husband is at this hour of the morning, ma'am?" the agent asked sardonically.

"No," she answered, "I have no idea where he is right now."

The agents ignored her, and proceeding as though the house belonged to them now, approached a woman standing at a bedroom door. It was Elijah Muhammad's twenty-year-old daughter, Ethel.

"Is Ghulam Bogans or Elijah Muhammad here, ma'am?"

"My mother said he's not here, so he must not be here," she answered irately.

Lottie Muhammad, who was standing in the hallway, was the next occupant questioned. She, too, denied that her father was in the house. The younger children were quickly asked about their father's whereabouts. First thirteen-year-old Herbert was questioned, then twelve-year-old Elijah Jr., then Wallace, who was nine. They even asked the toddler, Akbar, if he knew where his father was. The answers were all nearly the same. Their father wasn't home, they said. He had left almost a week ago, and, no, they had no idea when he might return.

The agents and officers left the house after completing a cursory search but only pretended to leave the vicinity, hoping that Elijah would try to escape in the car that they recognized as his parked just in front of the Vernon Avenue address. When no one left the premises after a forty-minute stakeout, the agent in charge of the operation ordered the group to conduct another search of the house. This time, they were far more thorough. They carefully searched the first floor, and in an alcove beneath the stairwell to the second floor, they discovered sixteen cardboard boxes packed with newspaper clippings, copies of Elijah Muhammad's sermons, personal correspondence, and organizational material. After a quick scan, the agents realized they had struck an intelligence mother lode.

The boxes were a gold mine of information about the Nation of Islam. The papers documented the history of the sect -- its origins, membership, financial records, and operational techniques -- dating from 1933, which was the year that Elijah Muhammad took over the sect from the mysterious founder, W. D. Fard Muhammad, also known as Master Fard. Fard, who also used more than a dozen aliases, was worshipped by Nation of Islam members as the Lord-King, or in their vernacular, as "God in human form." For them, Fard and Allah were one and the same.

While several officers confiscated the boxes, others continued to ferret for the fugitive. Suddenly, an agent searching the upstairs hallway noticed something suspicious: an elderly woman was guarding the entrance to her bedroom. She held the doorknob tightly, and appeared anxious. The old woman was Elijah's seventy-one-year-old mother, Marie. The agent brushed her aside and tried to open the door. Though feeble and partially blind, she struck out, hitting him repeatedly in the face and about the shoulders. Another agent subdued her.

The FBI agent in charge of the operation went into the bedroom. The first thing he noticed was that the floor had an odd look. Part of the floor near a large carpet was free of dust, as though someone had only recently moved a rug. The agent turned on his flashlight, looked under the bed, and saw a rolled-up oriental rug. He tried to pull the rug toward him but it was much too heavy. He knew immediately that the case was all wrapped up, so to speak.

"Come outta there, boy!" the agent demanded. "This is the FBI! You're under arrest."

As the rug rolled slowly out toward the outer edge of the bed, several of the officers drew a bead on it with the weapons they had in their hands. "Please, don't shoot him!" Clara cried. The children rushed toward the the bedroom door, fearing calamity, but the officers blocked the way.

"Stand back so no one gets hurt," one of the officers warned with his weapon drawn. As the rug unrolled, the agents saw a short, frail olive-skinned man. It was, indeed, the long-sought fugitive. He crawled from underneath the bed, stared nervously at his captors, and dusted himself off. Afraid that he might be shot "accidentally," he kept his eyes on the agents' hands and guns. After frisking him, the agents told him to get dressed. A half hour later, as the sun rose on Chicago's South Side, Muhammad emerged from his bedroom wearing a dark blue pinstriped suit and tie.

At seven fifty-five, he was handcuffed and advised that he was under arrest as a fugitive from justice. His family wept as he was led away. After handing temporary custody of the fugitive over to the Chicago police, FBI agents in unmarked cars trailed the cruiser taking Muhammad to the Cook County Jail.

Although Muhammad's family feared his fate, their image of him was not tarnished by his capture. To them, he remained the Prophet Muhammad, the seal of Allah's messengers. But to the Chicago Police Department photographer who took his mug shots that morning, he was just another Negro with a number under his neck.

After being booked and fingerprinted, Muhammad was taken into a darkened interrogation room where police and FBI men bombarded him with questions about his cult and its political activities, particularly in regard to pro-Japanese espionage.

The semiliterate suspect endured an interrogation that lasted all morning and well into the afternoon. By the time it was over, he had been stripped of his mask of divinity, and had given the agents a wealth of information about himself, his family, and the Nation of Islam, information that undoubtedly brought him face to face with reality for the first time in ages. There were no tales of miracles in the oral autobiography, nothing that made the suspect's life any different from the lives of a million other men. His testimony was condensed into a four-page confession, which he was asked to sign.

He refused.

"My word is my bond," Muhammad muttered. "It is as good as my signature."

"Is your name Elijah Poole?" he was asked.

"My name is Elijah Muhammad. In my early life I was known as Elijah Poole. But Poole is not my real name or my father's real name," the suspect said slowly. "It's the name of the slavemaster of my grandfather."


From the Hardcover edition.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Karl Evanzz, Author of THE MESSENGER: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIJAH MUHAMMED


Q: Your first book, THE JUDAS FACTOR, dealt with the assassination of Malcolm X. THE MESSENGER, which chronicles the life of Elijah Muhammad, offers a portrait at odds with the one Farrakhan has painted. Why is there such a wide discrepancy between the two?

A: Well, because he's trying to cover certain information while I'm trying to uncover it. Farrakhan's aim is to lionize Muhammad and to make of him something that he wasn't, and in the process make himself something that he isn't. The Messenger wasn't infallible or the "black messiah," as Farrakhan argues. I think the one thing that he and Farrakhan share is that both had the potential to be heroes for African Americans, but squandered the opportunity. When children of the 22nd century study our time, they will read about Malcolm X in the section on famous African Americans, but they'll find Farrakhan and Muhammad in the section on infamous African Americans.

Q: How so?
A: Because both placed too much value on material things -- unlike Malcolm and Dr. King, who made spiritual progress and social justice their priorities.
Think back to the Million Man March. Farrakhan had the nation's attention -- the world's attention via CNN and satellite communications, and what did he do? Did he apologize for all the terrible things he's said about white people, about Jewish people, and about those of his own race who dared to disagree with him? No. He wants everyone but himself to atone. He stood there for over two hours delivering a long-winded lecture that was devoid of any memorable lines.
When people are asked to quote Malcolm, they know that he said that black people should achieve freedom "by any means necessary" or they can tell you one of his parables. When people think of Dr. King, they can quote from his "I Have a Dream" speech. But ask someone to quote Farrakhan and all you'll get is a blank stare. He's all shadow and no substance. As for being a hero, he's blown the chance repeatedly. He blew it by offering cagey comments about the assassination of Malcolm X, by prevaricating about Muhammad's relationship with the teenage secretaries who bore his children, and by being a narcissist.
The same is true of Muhammad. His grandson, the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer for the New York Times, was correct when he said that Elijah Muhammad is historically significant. His greatest contribution to African Americans was in restoring their sense of pride and offering them an alternative to Christianity, for which slavery left a bitter aftertaste. But his greatest failure was in refusing to lead them beyond the pride of race and to do what his son Wallace has done: to guide black people beyond a race-based version of Islam to orthodox Islam.


Q: Are you saying that Farrakhan is misleading people with his brand of Islam?
A: Certainly. Anyone who's heard what Farrakhan preaches knows it's not Islam. As Malcolm said, it's Elijah Muhammadism or some other religion, but it's not Islam.

Q: Are you a Muslim?
A: No. I believe in the legitimacy of all the major religions. I read a book in high school called The Religions of Man. The author, Huston Smith, eloquently conveys the beauty and similarities between Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other major faiths. I think that if people took the time to investigate the major faiths, there wouldn't be so much intolerance of differences in this world. The same is true, of course, of investigating other cultures. Too many people spend their lives trying to avoid the unfamiliar -- whether it be people of another color or someone with a physical disability -- and in so doing deprive themselves of God's varied and plentiful gifts to humankind.

Q: You're regarded as an authority on the Nation of Islam, so I wondered whether you were ever a member. The spelling of your last name -- with two Zs --indicates that perhaps you were.
A: I did come close to joining the Nation when I was a teenager. I was brought up as a Catholic until I was around nine or so, then my family attended an African Methodist church. I was considering becoming a Muslim after the assassination of Dr. King because his murder filled me with a nearly uncontrollable rage. I went from thinking "It's Miller Time!?" before his death to "It's Mau Mau Time!" afterwards. So, yes, I changed the spelling of my name to make it sound more Islamic -- or so I thought. But I never joined. To begin with, I could never believe several of the central tenets of Islam as practiced by the Black Muslims.

Such as God coming to Earth in human form, for starters. And the idea of God having parents! Well, that's the worst chicken-and-egg theory that I've ever heard. But there were other reasons. My parents were absolutely against my enlistment. They reminded me of how horribly the Muslims dealt with Malcolm. A year after Malcolm's murder, the minister in my hometown (St. Louis) was shot. Then my oldest brother told me about a fancy party he attended where he witnessed a Muslim selling marijuana. Finally, a friend of mine was viciously assaulted inside the St. Louis mosque one Sunday for using the "N word" in a question posed to the minister. When I saw how mercilessly four or five Muslims beat him, I knew the Nation of Islam wasn't for me.

Q: Speaking of violence and the Black Muslims, The Messenger provides vivid details about events leading up to the assassination of Malcolm X. What are the main sources of your information, particularly the conversations?
A: I was at a tremendous advantage in writing this book because the FBI had Muhammad's telephones wiretapped for many years. After interviewing Muslims -- including some of Muhammad's and Malcolm's siblings -- I was able to decipher many names hidden behind black boxes on declassified government documents.

Q: What do you mean by "black boxes"?
A: The Government uses what appears to be a black felt marker to hide the names of informants and others mentioned in the documents. By studying the subject of a document, then comparing it with what I already know and what was reported in newspapers during a certain period, I could figure out who was talking to whom, and what they were talking about.

For example: Document A says: "X1 called Clara. She was crying and said she felt sorry that her former husband X2 was going to prison for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces. Clara told X1 not to worry because X2 knew this day would come. Clara told X1 to take good care of her grandchild (who is the daughter of X1." Sounds confusing, doesn't it? But by noting the date of the conversation, where it was recorded, and other notations on the document, I deciphered that X1 was the former wife of Wallace Muhammad -- or X2 -- who was leaving Chicago for prison at the time that the conversation was recorded.

Q: You interviewed members of Muhammad's and Malcolm X's families. How about Farrakhan?
A: Farrakhan has never agreed to be interviewed by me. I had the good fortune, however, of knowing several people who are or were in Farrakhan's inner circle. Without him knowing it -- or so I was led to believe -- they would present questions from me to him, then relay his response to me.

Q: You spent 15 years researching and writing THE JUDAS FACTOR. How long did you work on THE MESSENGER?
A: Five years - I started researching it in 1993, and finished the first draft in 1998. At my age, I'll have to write a lot faster from now on if I hope to have my other projects published.

Q: What do you think of Minister Louis Farrakhan?
A: Remember Lloyd Bentsen's quip during the debate with Dan Quayle? Well, here's my adaptation." Let me tell you. I knew of Malcolm X, and believe me, Farrakhan is no Malcolm X." The only reason Farrakhan is popular is because there are no advocates for the millions of forgotten poor people in America's inner cities. Before she died, Betty Shabazz said aloud what many people had been whispering for years.

Q: About Farrakhan's alleged involvement in Malcolm X's demise?
A: The key to her answer, of course, was what she meant by involvement. Farrakhan himself has admitted that he was involved, but only in the sense that he helped created the volatile atmosphere in which Malcolm X was assassinated.


Karl Evanzz on Karl Evanzz

Q: In the acknowledgments of THE JUDAS FACTOR you state that you were a former gang member. When was this, and when did you first discover Malcolm X?
A: I was a member of a couple of gangs as a youngster. When I was about twelve, I was transferred to a junior high school where the almost all the kids were little gangsters -- even the girls! I grew up in St. Louis -- site of the 1904 World's Fair, the Arch and all that, and the apartment my parents rented was located in a pretty tough area. It was in the heart of the city, that is to say the ghetto. The first gang I joined was called the Taylor & Cottage Boys, or "TCs" for short. To survive junior high in my neighborhood, you had to join the TCs, the Evans Boys, the Vandeventer Bugs, or one of the other gangs. Each gang ruled a given territory. I had the distinguished misfortune of living on the border of territory controlled by the TCs and the Evans Boys.

Q: Why do you say misfortune?
A: Because half of the kids in my neighborhood were members of the Evans Boys -- all the territories were based upon bizarre school boundaries -- and the rest were sent to Turner, where most joined the TCs. We were doing most the things then that young black men and Latinos in California and Asians in D.C. and New York are doing now -- petty drug sales, having turf wars, but mostly just foolishly maiming and killing one another. For me, that began to change after Dr. King was assassinated. Overnight, it seems, a new consciousness engulfed the community. While I was aware of the so-called Black Power groups, I paid them little or no attention until 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King.

Q: So you're saying you discovered Malcolm X after Dr. King's assassination? That seems incongruous.
A: Maybe it does, but that's exactly what happened. My parents weren't too keen on Malcolm X, and I was only twelve when he was killed. But some of the older guys in the neighborhood were spitting fire over his assassination. That was the first time in my life that I heard black men talking seriously about killing white people. Then, when Dr. King was assassinated, my political consciousness was elevated to a whole new level. My parents felt that any society evil enough to assassinate Dr. King had no good left in it. She worked overtime and triple-time to earn enough money for a seat on a bus headed for the March on Washington in 1963. She worshiped Dr. King, she really did. After his assassination I began hearing dour comments from my parents and my friend's parents about how wicked the government was for conspiring to kill King, and I was also approached by several neighborhood youths who had joined something called the Nation of Islam.


Q: So, that's when you decided to join the Black Muslims?
A: I never joined the Black Muslims, although many of my colleagues did. But I did begin attending their temple in St. Louis on a regular basis - which had a lot of converts after King's assassination. I think if the riot hadn't occurred in St. Louis that year, the Nation of Islam might have seduced me and others to sign our names in the "Book of Lamb" or "the Lamb's Book of Life." That's what they call it when you write the letter requesting permission to join the sect -- getting your name in the Book of Life or, depending on how worked up the minister was, the Book of Lamb.

The riot in St. Louis and other large cities released anger that had nowhere else to go. In those days, one rioted or joined the Nation of Islam, which was preaching that it knew that white people would kill Dr. King as soon as he became a threat to national security. His outspokenness on the Vietnam War, the Nation of Islam taught, was one of the reasons an assassin's bullet silenced him. I totally repudiated Christianity after his murder. Things I heard from the Muslims about Christ gave me a radical new perspective.

Q: How so?
A: I attended a Catholic elementary school, and was horrified by depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. When the Black Muslims told me that Christ was a black man and that white people had been killing black people since the beginning of time, it doubled the anger I felt over King's assassination. As I began to study African American history, there seemed to be a pattern of death for certain black people. Those who confronted the status quo often ended up being murdered or otherwise broken, like Paul Robeson. I later realized, of course, that the same was true of anyone who confronted the powers that be, but at that time in my life, I had tunnel vision. All I could see were the wrongs white people committed against Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. I felt that everything I had been taught in school had been a lie.

There was Muslim minister named Abraham X at the St. Louis mosque in those days. I asked him how I could reconcile what I learned at school with what Elijah Muhammad was teaching. "You can't," he said, "because a lie is inconsistent with the truth." I'll never forget Minister Abraham. He had a mouth full of gold-capped teeth, but he really seemed to be a man dedicated to what he was doing and above all, he impressed me as someone who had a kind heart. For a while I thought of dropping out of school, but the minister was like a big brother to me in that he cautioned me against it. "The white man is teaching the truth about the natural sciences -- biology and chemistry and things like that," he said. But all the other stuff -- philosophy and history and sociology -- is a pack of lies. Mr. Muhammad, he said, needed people adept at the hard sciences to help him build a nation, so he advised me to stay in school and master those subjects. If I did well, he said, I could go far in the Nation of Islam

Q: There's a rumor that you were once a Black Panther Party member. True?
A: I decided that the Black Muslims were definitely not for me. I also decided to become my own leader. In the fall of 1969, I formed the Black Student Union at the high school I attended [Charles Sumner High in St. Louis], and later that same year I joined a black militant group known as the Black Liberators. A few months after I joined, the headquarters of the Black Liberators was riddled with gunfire. A subsequent investigation revealed that most of the gunfire had come from police. I had left the headquarters only one half hour earlier. When my mother heard about the attack -my parents had recently separated -- she insisted that I quit the organization. It was one of the few times during my tumultuous youth that I quickly took her advice.
Q: So what happened?
A: In the fall of 1970, I formed a coalition with black militants at

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"Evanzz is a stellar researcher, and no one interested in understanding black America?or in critiquing it?can skip this book."?Salon

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