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The rumors of bloodthirsty black men on the prowl were intended as a warning to whites that beatings, lynchings, and assassinations of blacks would not go unanswered. "Kwame did not put out that call," Muhammad emphasized. "Kwame analyzed the call for self-defense. Soon, white folks were telling other white folks about these young Nat Turners and how much they feared them. That's the myth."
Among the separatist groups that fought for black liberation in the '60s and '70s, none was more feared than Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. J.B. Stoner, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, called them "the meanest niggers in the world."
Much of white America's fear of the NOI was rooted in 14 tenets, which the black Muslims call "the Lessons." One Lesson teaches NOI recruits that the white man is the "grafted devil" of a scientist named Yacub. In order to earn a trip to Paradise, the student must bring in the heads of four devils.
"Some brothers took the lessons literally," says Khalid Lateef, a former member of the NOI and one of its most vociferous critics. "The Lessons use the terms devil and white interchangeably," adds Lateef, who is now a member of the rival Society of Muslim Americans. "So in the area where it talks about bringing in the heads of devils, it doesn't say white men; at that point it has already been established who the devil is, which is the white man."
Almost every member of the NOI has heard tales about black Muslim brothers decapitating white men and presenting their heads as installments on their ticket to Paradise. The most fantastic is about a wannabe NOI member who strolled into the now-defunct Salaam Restaurant on 116th Street in Harlem with a garbage bag containing the heads of four white men. "He went to Captain Yusef Shah, showing him these heads," according to Lateef.
He maintains that many NOI Muslims soon discovered that the Lessons were turning them into killers, and they went crazy. In the late 1980s, when Lateef was an Orthodox Muslim chaplain at a psychiatric facility for the criminally insane in New York, he tried to counsel former NOI members who had been institutionalized after attacking whites.
"One gentleman had attacked a Caucasian on the train with a knife," Lateef recalls. "All he recited was the Lessons."
Eric Muhammad confirms that some NOI believers did succumb to criminal behavior due to their misinterpretation of NOI teachings. He says that shortly after Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, which opened an ideological rift within the group, he embarked on a mission with Minister Louis Farrakhan to rein in the "Lost-Founds" and rebuild the NOI.
"Minister Farrakhan was on a campaign to keep violence from hampering the rebuilding effort," Muhammad says. "It was a house divided," he adds. "In some of the households of former followers we visited, the father was a follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, his wife was a follower of Wallace Mohammed [Elijah's son, who denounced his father's racist teachings and turned to Orthodox Islam], and their son was listening to Silis Muhammad [the leader of another faction, which advocated a return to Elijah's teachings]."
Eric Muhammad remembers that in 1979 his field work on behalf of Farrakhan's group led him to a psychiatric center in Alabama. "I saw a brother who had one half of his head shaved bald and the other half was in an Afro," he says. "He was running around quoting the Lessons. I'll never forget how he ran down the hall saying it was all that he had left. And when I went further into the institution, there was a floor full of people who claimed to be Muslims. Some were sitting down singing the Muslim fight song."
Muhammad argues that although it would have been easy to dismiss them as crazy, few had been exposed to a world outside of the NOI. "They were educated in black Muslim universities, sold Muslim newspapers, worked in Muslim restaurants, and married Muslim women," he says. "They worshiped the personality of Elijah Muhammad as opposed to his mission. After the Messenger left, it was a confusing time."
During Farrakhan's attempt to stamp out violence in his revived Nation, Houston prosecutors claimed that in 1982 he ordered two ministers, Khallid and Jabril Muhammad, to travel there to conduct a private investigation into the killing of Minister Raymond Wattlington. Watlington's dismembered body was found in a Houston river. Prosecutors said the two ministers obtained recorded confessions from the people responsible for the slaying. (Khallid told the Voice he and Jabril appeared before a grand jury and took the fifth. No arrests were made.)
A year later, while Farrakhan was still solidifying his grasp on the NOI leadership, he delivered a speech about his plans to revamp the Fruit of Islam, the Nation's elite guard, which he said had "looked upon [itself] as an army of killers." Then, in what some viewed as a veiled message to Wattlington's killers, he repudiated Muslim-on-Muslim violence. "And that's why if you didn't have no devil in front of you to kill, several of you turned on each other, threatening each other, jumping in each other's chest," Farrakhan said.