by Askia Muhammad
In the late-1960s when I came up in the Nation of Islam (NOI), a large number of college students were attracted into the ranks. There was the militant NOI rhetoric which had fueled the national prominence of Brother Malcolm X.
Despite the unsettling circumstances of Brother Malcolm’s departure and the false allegations that The Honorable Elijah Muhammad was responsible for, or somehow involved in Brother Malcolm’s assassination, young people on college campuses were still attracted to the NOI, especially as Brother Malcolm’s successor – Minister Louis Farrakhan – gained prominence, both as leader of the Harlem Mosque, and as Mr. Muhammad’s National spokesman.
And then there was the plight of that brash young boxer – the Heavyweight Champion of the World – Brother Muhammad Ali, and his epic struggle against being drafted into the U.S. Army in order to not be cannon fodder for the United States in her unjust war in Vietnam that was also spreading like wildfire among college men.
Ironically, none of those four, enduring, larger-than-life-symbols of the Nation of Islam’s popularity on college campuses during the Civil Rights-era uprising among Black youth had a college degree, and yet their wisdom confounded the reigning scholars and intellectuals of their day.
Mr. Muhammad completed only the third grade in a segregated school in Georgia, yet he defined the message which was taken up by his prized pupils, and which stands 60 years later as a foundation for academic confirmation in every field of study. Brother Malcolm is still today, the valedictorian and most prominent alumnus of America’s School of Hard Knocks – the criminal justice system which seems to have been built not for “justice,” but rather for “just us.”
For more than a decade, high school graduate Muhammad Ali never met his match either inside of it, or most especially outside of the boxing ring. Minister Farrakhan did attend college for a couple of years before he dropped out in order to provide for a wife and baby girl before his NOI career began.
But the atmosphere inside the Nation was not at all conducive to collegiate achievement at that time. Students were expected to attend all meetings four days a week and none were exempted from the expectation that they would sell hundreds of copies of the Muhammad Speaks newspaper each week. Many college students complained that the Nation was “anti-intellectual.” Many abandoned the ranks. Others simply abandoned their college studies.
And the academy was clearly hostile at every turn to the Nation of Islam, suppressing scholarship sympathetic to the cause, and often cruel to Muslim students on campuses. So virtually all of the respected academic research about the NOI up to this very minute, has been conducted by scholars who were loathe not only to Islam itself, but by those who held the unorthodox (to say the least) views and the outspoken leaders of the Nation itself up for special contempt.
This anti-Islamic philosophy persists inside the academy today, and the hostility to the NOI continues to be bitter and generally undisguised. Take for example the recent candidacy of Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the great grandson of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and son of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times photographer Ozier Muhammad who sought to become director of the prestigious Schomburg Library in New York. When Dr. Muhammad emerged as a leading contender the academic knives came out, unsuccessfully, I can report, but many opposed him despite his qualifications, simply because of his great-grandfather’s identity. I hope he goes on to become one of the Schomburg’s greatest director/curators, ever.