By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
October 29, 1985
There again were the black suits and red ties, the bodyguards in blue uniforms, the women in white, the aloof cast of the eyes and the earthly manner: the Nation of Islam. Twenty-five years ago it was Malcolm X's show, though he could never have filled Madison Square Garden. On October 7, 25,000 people turned out to hear Louis Farrakhan.
They queued up outsidethe poor and the young, the unemployed and the gang members, the middle-class Negroes. They were anxious to get in and hear someone attack the people they felt were responsible for their positions in the burgeoning illiterate mass; or they were there out of curiosity, intent on hearing for themselves what Farrakhan was about. Many came because they were happy to support a black man the "white-controlled" media unanimously hated. Or because Mayor Koch had called Farrakhan "the devil," usurping the Muslims' term for the white enemyif Koch hated him, he might be lovable, an understandable reaction given the long-standing antipathy between the mayor and New York's black community. I also think many were there, especially the young, because they had never been to a mass black rally to hear a speaker who didn't appear to care what white people thought of him, a man who seemed to think their ears were more important than those of Caucasians.
The atmosphere at Madison Square Garden was unusual. Though the speeches started two and a half hours late, the audience was patient, partly out of respect and partly out of awareness that the Fruit of Islam doesn't play. A fool and his seat would soon have parted. I overheard one young black man saying that he would look at the Muslims with their neatness and their discipline, their sense of confidence and their disdain for white privilege, and understand their appeal: "They look like the last thing they ever think about is kissing some white boody." After repeatedly telling a blond female photographer that she couldn't sit in the aisle, one of the FOI said, to the joy of the black people listening, "Miss, I asked you three times to pleasenot sit in the aisle. Now you will either get your behind over or you will get your behind out." And there was something else. As one woman put it, "Well, what can you say? Nobody looks better than a black man in a uniform. Look at all those handsome black men. I know I wouldn't want to be in the Nation, but I wouldn't mind if they lived on myblock. I bet there wouldn't be any mugging and dope dealing and all of that. "From the outside, at least, Farrakhan's group projects a vision of restraint and morality. It's about smoothing things out, upholding the family, respecting the woman, doing an honest day's work, avoiding dissipation, and defining the difference between the path of the righteous and the way of the wicked. At one point the commander of the FOI came to the microphone and said that he could smell reefer smoke. He asked that anyone who saw those guilty parties report them to "the nearest brother." Wherever the puffing was going on, it stopped.
Beginning in 1959, when the press started bird-dogging Malcolm X, the Muslims' disdain for white people seared through the networks, eventually influencing the tone, the philosophy, and the tactics of black politics. The Nation of Islam offered a rageful revision that would soon have far more assenters than converts. Though it seemed at first only a fanatical cult committed to a bizarre version of Islam, Elijah Muhammad's homemade Nation was far from an aberration. The Nation fit perfectly in a century we might appropriately call "The Age of Redefinition." Its public emergence coincided with the assault on Western convention, middle-class values, and second-class citizenship that shaped the '60s in America. The whole question of what constituted civilized behavior and civilized tradition was being answered in a variety of wild ways. So Elijah Muhammad's sect was part of the motion that presaged transcendental meditation, sexual revolution, LSD, cultural nationalism, black power, the Black Panther Party, the anti-Vietnam war movement, feminism, and other trends that surely appalled the Muslims as thoroughly as the Nation did its roughest critics. As much as anything else, these angry home-grown Muslims foretold the spirit of what was later known as "the counterculture."
But Elijah Muhammad's counterculture was black. Where others explained the world's problems with complex theories ranging from economic exploitation to sexism, Muhammad simply pinned the tail on the white man. In his view, black integrationists were only asking for membership in hell, since the white man was a devil "grafted" from black people in an evil genetic experiment by a mad, pumpkin-headed scientist named Yacub. That experiment took place 6000 years ago. Now the white man was doomed, sentenced to destruction by Allah. If "so-called American Negroes" separated themselves form the imposed values of white culture, then moved into their own land, black suffering would cease. In calling for five or six states as "back payment for slavery," Muhammad reiterated a Negro Zionism rooted in the "back to Africa" schemes of the middle 19 th century, which had last fizzled under the leadership of Marcus Garvey.