Reference Entry

Farrakhan, Louis Abdul (born 1933), Organization Founder / Official, Islamic Leader, Nation of Islam Adherent / Leader

Sholomo B. Levy

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Farrakhan, Louis Abdul (born 1933), Organization Founder / Official, Islamic Leader, Nation of Islam Adherent / Leader

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leader of the Nation of Islam, was born Louis Eugene Walcott in the Bronx, New York City, to Sarah Mae Manning, a native of St. Kitts, who worked as a domestic. Farrakhan's biological father was Manning's husband, Percival Clarke, a light-skinned Jamaican cab driver. By the time young Louis was born, however, Manning had left Clarke and was living with Louis Walcott. Manning hoped her baby would be a girl and have a dark complexion like herself and Walcott. Nevertheless, when the child was born male and with a light complexion, she named him Louis and listed Walcott as the father (Magida, 10). Walcott stayed with the family during their move to the Roxbury section of Boston in 1937, but departed shortly thereafter.Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, addresses an audience in Chicago during the annual Saviour's Day celebration, 25 February 2001. (AP Images.)Raising two young children alone during the Depression was difficult, but Sarah Mae kept her boys from harm and attended to their cultural as well as material needs. At the age of six Louis started violin lessons. He later studied with a Jewish instructor, among others, and became a local prodigy, appearing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour at the age of sixteen. Louis was also an altar boy and choir member at St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church. Next to the church stood Toussaint L'Ouverture Hall, formerly the Boston headquarters for black nationalist Marcus Garvey, one of Louis's childhood heroes. Louis was an exceptionally bright student whose academic promise earned him a place at the prestigious Boston Latin School. Not comfortable in those elite surroundings, Louis transferred to the English High School, where black students were still in the minority, but where he could thrive academically and shine as a popular track star.He had dreams of attending the Juilliard School, but by his teen years Louis's taste in music had broadened to include calypso, and he wondered if he might not more easily become the next Harry Belafonte than a black Jascha Heifetz. Thus, when the all-black Winston-Salem Teacher's College offered him an athletic scholarship, he left for North Carolina—quite unprepared for the racism and segregation he would encounter. Although there were seven female students for every male student at the college, Louis was in love with Betsy Ross, a young, black Roman Catholic woman back in Roxbury. By the summer following his sophomore year, Betsy was pregnant with the first of their nine children. College had been a disappointment, so instead of returning to campus in September 1953, he married Betsy at St. Cyprian's. For the next few years, Louis supported his family and pursued a career as a calypso entertainer. His melodic voice, suggestive lyrics, provocative dancing, and colorful outfits paid tribute to his West Indian parentage and earned him the stage name “The Charmer.”While touring in Chicago as the feature performer with the Calypso Follies in February 1955, Louis was invited by a friend to attend a meeting of the Nation of Islam (NOI). When Louis arrived at the converted synagogue on Chicago's South Side, he was not impressed by the oratorical ability of Elijah Muhammad, the organization's leader, thinking to himself, “This man can't even speak well” (Magida, 31). However, Muhammad's message of black nationalism and his powerful indictment of the white race for a litany of wrongs perpetrated against black people resonated profoundly in Louis's heart and mind. Back in Boston, Malcolm X, the most dynamic and articulate of Muhammad's ministers, personally oversaw much of Louis's conversion and training. Louis X, as he was then known, rose quickly within the ranks of the Nation of Islam from acolyte to a captain of the Fruit of Islam, a security and fraternal auxiliary. In 1959 Louis X became the minister of Temple No. 11 in Boston, which was located in a building that had formerly been the Boston Rabbinical College. Apparently unaware that the property had changed hands, the city directory listed Louis X as “Rabbi Eugene L. Walcott.”Within five years Louis X had tripled the membership in the Boston mosque to approximately three hundred members, with many more sympathizers and supporters. Like W. D. Fard, the mysterious founder of the NOI who adopted much of the pseudo-Islamic teachings of Noble Drew Ali, Louis X propagated the doctrine that their unique form of Islam was the true religion of black people in America, who were, they believed, the lost tribe of Shabazz, and that the “white man” was the devil incarnate (Lincoln, 77–81). Louis X projected the organization's carefully cultivated image of black men who were proud and defiant, well dressed in their trademark bow ties, and able defenders of the black community. To their credit, the NOI was more effective than most rival organizations at rehabilitating criminals, helping drug addicts, and inculcating their particular values, which prohibit drinking, smoking, and extramarital relations. Louis X drew on his artistic talents to aid in recruitment by recording songs such as “A White Man's Heaven Is a Black Man's Hell” and “Look at My Chains,” and he wrote two plays: The Trial, which literally put the white race on trial for crimes against humanity, and Orgena (“A Negro” spelled backward).In 1964, when Malcolm X informed his protégé that their leader, Elijah Muhammad, had fathered several children with his teenage secretaries, Louis X made it clear that if a conflict should emerge, he would side with Muhammad. When the split occurred that March, an internecine struggle ensued. In December 1964 Louis X published an article in Muhammad Speaks declaring Malcolm X a traitor and ominously announced, “The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape…. Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.” On 14 February 1965 Malcolm and his family narrowly escaped when their home was bombed; then on 21 February, Malcolm was fatally shot at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Convicted of the murder were three members of the NOI, one of whom was connected to the Newark mosque where Louis X had been the morning of the assassination. Thirty years later, while not admitting to a direct role in the murder, Louis X acknowledged that his rhetoric contributed to a hostile atmosphere.Three months after the assassination of Malcolm X, Muhammad gave Louis X the name Abdul Farrakhan and appointed him to lead Malcolm's Harlem mosque. Within two years Minister Farrakhan had risen to Malcolm's former position as national spokesman of the NOI. When Elijah Muhammad died of congestive heart failure in 1975, many expected Farrakhan to be named as his successor and were surprised to learn that Muhammad had chosen his fifth son, Wallace (now Warith) Muhammad to be the next supreme minister. Wallace restructured the NOI in an effort to bring its beliefs and practices in line with the majority of Sunni Muslims throughout the world, a move that required purging the organization of its racial ideology. In October 1976 the NOI was officially dissolved in order to give birth to the World Community of al-Islam, which ultimately became the American Society of Muslims. Farrakhan, who had been transferred to the Chicago headquarters during the reorganization, believed these changes had gone too far, and in September 1977 he called on dissenting ministers and members to join him in restoring the NOI under his leadership.The resurrection of the Nation of Islam began in a funeral home that Farrakhan purchased in Chicago. From that location he started the newspaper Final Call and began to buy properties liquidated by Wallace. In 1986 he purchased Elijah Muhammad's mansion in Hyde Park for $500,000, and in 1988 he acquired the flagship mosque of the NOI in Chicago, which he renamed Mosque Maryam. With a $5 million, interest-free loan from the Libyan leader Mu'ammar Gadhafi in 1985, Farrakhan launched a line of cosmetic products. The NOI also owns farmland and small businesses and broadcasts on several television and radio stations. Though Farrakhan succeeded in rebuilding the NOI, membership in the organization has never exceeded fifty thousand, and he did not come to national attention until the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1984. Farrakhan was on the board of directors of Operation PUSH, Jackson's organization, and he traveled with Jackson to Syria that December to secure the release of U.S. Navy lieutenant Robert O. Goodman, an African American airman who had been shot down over Lebanon. Farrakhan received little publicity until Jackson's anti-Semitic reference to New York City as “Hymietown” was reported by the African American journalist Milton Coleman. Farrakhan responded with an oblique threat on Coleman's life and implied the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to perpetuate black subordination. Farrakhan and his spokesman, Khallid Abdul Muhammad, soon found themselves at the center of a firestorm of charges of anti-Semitism, denials, and countercharges.Farrakhan has referred to Adolf Hitler as “a very great man” (later explaining he meant “wickedly great”), to the Jewish people as the “killer of all the prophets,” and to Judaism as a “dirty religion” (Magida, 146–149). Because his remarks range from harsh but legitimate criticisms to ugly stereotyping, different constituencies champion or attack isolated aspects of his persona while ignoring that which does not fit the image they have of him. Farrakhan portrays himself as the paladin of unspoken truth—as with the publication of The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews (1991)—and his opponents portray themselves as defenders against a rising tide of black anti-Semitism. Farrakhan is aware that his obsession with Jews is unhealthy and easily exploited, but he says, “It's like I'm locked now in a struggle. It's like both of us got a hold on each other, and each of us is filled with electricity. I can't let them go, and they can't let me go” (Gates, 145).The pinnacle of Farrakhan's influence was reached on 16 October 1995, when he convened the “Million Man March,” a mass gathering of black men on the Washington Mall for a day of atonement. The goals of the march were introspective, focusing on accepting personal responsibility and healing the internal wounds of the black family, rather than hurling grievances at the government. The African American community was polarized between those who supported the objectives of the rally and those who would not participate as long as women were excluded and as long as Farrakhan refused to disavow his anti-Semitism. According to some estimates, a million men may indeed have attended. By all accounts the Million Man March far surpassed the size but not the influence of the 1963 March on Washington, and Farrakhan himself had much of the popularity but little of the stature of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; yet, he had undeniably tapped into a deep yearning in the souls of many black folk. In the years following the march, continuing controversy and growing health problems sidelined Farrakhan from mainstream view. On February 25, 2007, Farrakhan gave an address widely held to be his last as leader of the NOI. Farrakhan did, however, continue to make comments on public affairs, and has been very critical of the foreign policies of President Barack Obama, in particular its support for the Libyan rebels who overthrew the Qadaffi regime in 2011.

Reference Entry.  1921 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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