In the Shadow of Death

A Mystery Virus Triggers Rumors of a Murder Plot Against the Cancer-Stricken Louis Farrakhan and Talk of a Power Struggle Inside His Nation Of Islam

Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, who is suffering from prostate cancer, may be dying. But it is not the cancer that is killing him, according to members of the Minister's Ruling council. Farrakhan, they charge, was poisoned in an assassination attempt by the U.S. government.

If Farrakhan, 65, dies— and it subsequently is determined that poisoning was not the cause of death— he would be the third prominent African American activist to succumb to prostate cancer in less than two years. Kwame Ture, the 1960s activist who popularized the phrase "Black Power," died on November 15 in his adopted homeland of Guinea, in West Africa.

He was 57. Shortly before he died, Ture blamed his death on "an FBI-induced cancer."

Will to live: Minister Farrakhan at last month's Saviours' Day celebration
Eric Ture Muhammad
Will to live: Minister Farrakhan at last month's Saviours' Day celebration

Ture's death came on the heels of the passing of Eldridge Cleaver, the fiery former Black Panther information minister, whose prison book Soul on Ice became the seminal work of the Black Power movement. He was 62.

One of the country's most visible African American leaders, Farrakhan has canceled all of his public appearances and faded from view as the Nation carries out an investigation into the alleged murder plot.

"The Minister says he knows who, he knows where, and he knows why; he just doesn't know what [was used to] poison him," says a Muslim insider with strong ties to the NOI's National Board of Laborers, which was set up by Farrakhan to run the organization during his absence. The source demanded anonymity.

He described how, on a visit to New York City in January, Farrakhan rapidly turned from an energetic leader into a man who would fall asleep at any place and time of the day, could not focus his attention for more than a few seconds, and appeared to be totally withdrawn from reality.

Last Wednesday night, shortly after Farrakhan, under tight security, was spirited out of Chicago's Hyde Park, where the NOI's palace is located, the board issued an alert to regional leaders, informing them that Farrakhan would be "gone for four months," the source says.

The Minister's whereabouts have become the main topic of conversation among concerned followers. In Harlem, a Farrakhan loyalist told the Voice that Farrakhan has considered returning to Libya, where he was treated for prostate cancer last year by the personal physicians of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy.

On February 26, after seven weeks out of public view, Farrakhan resurfaced at the NOI's annual Saviours' Day celebration in Chicago. His disappearance had been the talk of the Nation, prompting rumors that he was seriously ill with complications from radiation treatment for the cancer, and that he was dying.

Although he looked gaunt, Farrakhan gave the impression of being in excellent health, and in good form. "[T]hose of you who thought you would come out here to see a weak, fragile, decrepit Farrakhan, I want you to look at this," said the tanned and nattily attired Farrakhan, gesturing and thumping his chest amid wild cheers. "I am here and I'm strong," he declared, "and I will look down on all of my enemies for he [NOI late spiritual leader Elijah Muhammad] promised me . . . 'I [will] make all your enemies your footstool.' "

While some speculated that an assassination attempt might have originated from within his own Nation, Farrakhan fingered the usual suspect. "And if you doubt that I am from God and God is with me, and in me," he thundered, "then I say to the government of America, 'Lose no stone; do everything you can to destroy me and watch my God, Allah, destroy you, and ALL of my enemies!"

Rumors of the murder plot and Farrakhan's failing health heightened fears that an all-out power struggle— not seen since the breakup of the Nation of Islam following the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975— would erupt between hard-liners and moderates in the event of Farrakhan's death (see "The Pretenders").

Although Farrakhan has advocated that the National Board of Laborers should run the Nation in his absence, that body would be led by a point man of his choosing. Some say that such a role should be bequeathed to the supreme captain of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation's elite guard.

"If something should happen to the Minister, the person who immediately takes charge of the Nation of Islam— if it works right— is the supreme captain," says a NOI constitutional scholar who asked not to be identified. Others predict that the supreme captain eventually would break with the board and seize power himself in "a bloody or bloodless" military-style coup.

A recent uproar in the FOI over the possible recruitment of whites into the black separatist theocracy triggered speculation that Farrakhan was about to lose power.

According to an insider, Farrakhan had called a special Laborers meeting in which he planned to announce that he was considering allowing whites to join the Nation, but also would decree that his black disciples must not marry their white brothers or sisters. Usually, when testing reaction to controversial shifts in policy, the supreme captain and his lieutenants would rally to the Minister's side in a show of support.

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