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The Honorable Elijah Muhammad was born this month in 1897, and the late Nation of Islam leader has remained something of a mystery. Leading the NOI from 1934 until his passing in 1975, the religious figure inspired pride and hope within the Black community while also attracting some controversy.

Muhammad was born Elijah Robert Poole on or around October 7, 1897, although his actual birthday is not known. Raised in Georgia, Muhammad and his wife Clara left the rural south for Michigan for greater opportunity. This lead to Muhammad encountering the teachings of Wallace Fard Muhammad in Detroit in 1931, who taught what he referred to as Islam to the city’s Black residents.

The enigmatic Fard Muhammad took Poole under his wing and the pair began forming the basis of the Nation of Islam. The Black nationalist teachings resonated with Poole and he began following the movement along with his brother, then he assumed leadership of Chicago’s Temple No. 2. As the Detroit group began to grow, Fard Muhammad introduced the name the Nation of Islam, but he mysteriously vanished in 1934.

In 1934, the re-named Elijah Muhammad began publishing the group’s newspaper, “The Final Call to Islam,” the first of many publications he produced. In 1942, Muhammad was in Washington, D.C. studying religious texts and was arrested for reportedly dodging the military draft.

In his book, “Message To The Blackman,” Muhammad said he refused the draft on the basis that he viewed himself as a Muslim, and was over the age limit to get drafted. In the ’50’s, Muhammad’s greatest pupil, Malcolm X, was promoted to National Spokesman for the NOI, and the group’s numbers exploded. Around this time, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, the NOI’s current leader, joined the religion as well.

Labeled a hate group by mainstream media, Muhammad deployed the young ministers to represent the group as nationalist in scope. However, Malcolm X broke from the group in the ’60’s among increasing dissent in the ranks including the discovery that Muhammad had fathered multiple children outside his marriage. After Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, the group’s mainstream influence declined.

But with Farrakhan taking over as face of the NOI and Muhammad a quiet leader behind the scenes, the Nation still appealed to many and thrived until Muhammad’s death in 1975 at the age of 77. Since then, the Nation Of Islam has remained under the direction of Farrakhan, who, after the success of the Million Man March in 1995, has kept a lower profile with age.

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