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Born in the USA : AN ORIGINAL MAN: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. By Claude Andrew Clegg III . St. Martin's Press: 377 pp., $25.95

March 02, 1997|ANTHONY M. PLATT | Anthony M. Platt is the author of "E. Franklin Frazier Reconsidered" (Rutgers University Press)

After World War I, a generation of new African Americans came of age and formed the cutting edge of a movement that would irrevocably change the politics of race relations in the United States. Included in this talented group were important writers like Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and such well-known activists as A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. Together with W.E.B. Du Bois, by then a veteran of many civil rights struggles, they set about in different ways to bury the accommodationist ideas of Booker T. Washington.

Nobody in this distinguished group, however, left more of a mark on black consciousness than a slight, unimposing man who started out life in rural Georgia in 1897 as Elijah Poole and rose to become the supreme minister of the Nation of Islam and self-proclaimed "messenger of Allah." For more than 40 years, he remained in control of the Nation of Islam, taking it from a minor sect in the 1930s to the most admired and feared radical organization of the 1970s. When he died after a long illness in 1975, he was buried in a silver-lined coffin. Thousands of mourners, including foreign dignitaries and a representative of the Ford administration, attended his funeral.

Elijah Muhammad's life is the stuff of legend. Our knowledge of the man whom James Baldwin once called a "royal presence," is derived from people with either too many myths to sustain or too many axes to grind. There's Muhammad the betrayer as told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X; a pious Muhammad as interpreted by actor Al Freeman Jr. in Spike Lee's version of history; or Muhammad as public enemy No. 1 according to J. Edgar Hoover's planted stories. In "An Original Man," Claude Clegg III, professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University, gives us more information than we've ever had before and new ways to think about the man whose organization bequeathed us Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, two of the most controversial African American leaders of the 20th century. Drawing upon previously classified government documents, interviews with relatives and a wide variety of public information, Clegg sets out to do what nobody else has tried to do: Make Elijah Muhammad into a flesh-and-blood person.

The origins of the Nation of Islam, like Elijah Muhammad's youth and early adulthood, remain murky because Clegg has to rely on self-serving accounts and suspect data gleaned from FBI databanks. Those who know the most refused repeated requests for interviews, thus preserving the mythic history. The author picks through what evidence is available, hedging his analysis with speculative cautions, but provides little more than an outline of Muhammad's formative years in Detroit in the 1930s. Between a variety of industrial jobs and long bouts of unemployment, Muhammad somehow linked up with W.D. Fard, a hustler who stood out from the pack of self-proclaimed gurus and quickly built up a loyal following, that included a mesmerized Elijah Poole.

When Clegg moves on to interpretation, he gives us much to reconsider about the man who would be king. He shows that though the Nation of Islam was founded as a religious organization, it never resembled any recognized faith and has always been regarded by serious Muslim organizations as a fringe group of heretics. Under Wallace Fard Muhammad, the Nation of Islam was born, not as the foreign import conjured up by its enemies but, according to Clegg's convincing interpretation, as a thoroughly home-grown hybrid. In addition to its trappings of unorthodox Islam, the movement's canon drew upon Christian scriptures, Jewish parables, rituals of the black church and of fraternal societies and science fiction. The Masons provided Fard and his followers with their affinity for mysticism and numerology and, despite the movement's bedrock anti-Semitism, it was from Jews that they derived their earliest dietary restrictions and their self-identification as a chosen people.

If it was Fard who gave the Nation of Islam its foundational myths, Clegg demonstrates that it was his successor, the renamed Elijah Muhammad, whose single-mindedness and organizational acumen transformed it into a "military theocracy arranged along dictatorial lines." With about 20,000 members at its high point in the early 1960s, the core of the Nation of Islam was predominantly poor, urban, male and young. But the influence of the movement far exceeded the size of its cadre. By 1962, more than 150 radio stations were broadcasting Sunday addresses by Muhammad, and the money was rolling in--from agricultural projects and food stores, from sales of "Muhammad Speaks," from fishing operations in Peru and interest-free loans from Libya and from massive fund-raising efforts, such as the annual Savior's Day conventions at which it was not unusual for several thousand attendees to each donate $125.

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