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31 2 The Life of Elijah Muhammad Elijah Muhammad lived through some of the most racially turbulent times in American history. He was born in 1897—a time of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings. As a young man, he experienced the worst of southern racism and eyewitnessed two separate lynchings. Later, he would be part of the Great Migration of over a million African Americans to the northern United States to escape the racism and poverty of the rural South. He discovered, along with the other migrants, that the North was also rife with racism. And, with the onset of the Great Depression, the North experienced poverty as well, which hit African Americans disproportionately hard. However, a new religion, Islam, would transform him and his understanding of the world. After several years of struggle with obscurity and imprisonment, his movement, the Nation of Islam, would achieve phenomenal success and transform the lives of thousands of African Americans , including Malcolm X. Yet, despite devoting himself to Islam and the “uplifting” of African Americans, he would find himself reviled by other Muslims and even some leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Only after his death in 1975 was his remarkable influence on both American Islam and the African American struggle for equality truly recognized. The sources for reconstructing the life of Elijah Muhammad must be used with caution. Given that Elijah Muhammad is a religious figure who arose so recently, the need for caution may seem surprising. For the most part, however, our early biographical information comes from only two main sources. The first is the Nation of Islam and consists mostly of materials penned or dictated by Elijah Muhammad himself. These materials, not surprisingly, are informed by what the man had become, not necessarily by what he had been. The second source is the extensive FBI files on Elijah Muhammad. These, however, were produced by an organization that actively sought to discredit him. Neither set of sources, therefore, provides an unbiased account: the former set is often hagiographic, while the latter is often hostile. 32 The Life of Elijah Muhammad Elijah Poole: From Georgia to Michigan Elijah Poole was born in 1897 in Sandersville, Georgia.1 His father, William Poole, was a sharecropper and a Baptist preacher. Some sources claim that he was known as Wali Poole, suggesting some vestige of Islam.2 For his mother, Marie, who worked as a domestic servant, Elijah was the sixth of thirteen children.3 But Elijah Poole was special in the eyes of his mother: she spoke of a vision that she had as a child in which she would give birth to a great man. And, even as a youngster, he was thought by her to display a pronounced race consciousness and leadership abilities.4 In the eyes of his father, however, his son could be frustrating: at an early age Elijah Poole showed a disposition to Bible study, preaching, and, to his father ’s annoyance, theological questioning and debate. However, he would not follow his father’s footsteps, despite feeling an early call to preach; he could not bring himself to preach Christianity. In 1900 the family moved to Cordele, Georgia. In the fourth grade Elijah Poole dropped out of school to help support his family. He and his sister chopped firewood on their farm and went to town to sell it. On one such trip, he witnessed the lynching of an African American accused of insulting a white woman. At eighteen he worked for a white farmer who paid him only eight dollars a month to work from dawn till dusk. This farmer regularly whipped the wives of his African American workers at gunpoint. Later, Elijah Poole worked as a manual laborer in Georgia and served as a foreman. At the age of twenty-three, he saw his second lynching , after which the body was dragged behind a truck.5 In 1923, at the age of twenty-five, after a white employer insulted him, he moved with his wife, Clara, and their two children to Detroit in search of a better life. Thus, he took part in the early phase of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North between 1914 and 1950. Unskilled labor such as his was needed in Detroit’s factories, at least until the Great Depression. In 1929, Elijah Muhammad lost his job and was forced to go on relief. His wife, Clara, had to work to help support the family when her...


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