Louis Farrakhan Muhammad, Sr. (born Louis Eugene Wolcott; May 11, 1933) is the leader of the African-American religious movement the Nation of Islam (NOI). He served as the minister of major mosques in Boston and Harlem, and was appointed by the longtime NOI leader, Elijah Muhammad, before his death in 1975, as the National Representative of the Nation of Islam. After Warith Deen Muhammad disbanded the NOI and started the orthodox Islamic group American Society of Muslims, Farrakhan started rebuilding the NOI. In 1981 he revived the name Nation of Islam for his organization, previously known as Final Call, regaining many of the Nation of Islam’s National properties including the NOI National Headquarters Mosque Maryam, reopening over 130 NOI mosques in America and the world.
Farrakhan is a black religious and social leader and a critic of the United States government on many issues. Farrakhan has been both praised and widely criticized for his often controversial political views and outspoken rhetorical style. In October 1995, he organized and led the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., calling on black men to renew their commitments to their families and communities. Due to health issues, in 2007, Farrakhan reduced his responsibilities with the NOI.
Early life and education
Farrakhan was born Louis Eugene Wolcott (also mistakenly spelled Walcott) in The Bronx, New York, the younger of two sons of Sarah Mae Manning (16 January 1900 – 18 November 1988) and Percival Clark, immigrants from the Caribbean islands. His mother was born in Saint Kitts and Nevis. His father was a Jamaican native and worked as a taxicab driver. After Louis’ father died in 1936, the Wolcott family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where they settled in the West Indian neighborhood of the Roxbury area.
Starting at the age of six, Wolcott received rigorous training in the violin. He received his first violin at the age of six, and by time he was 13 years old, he had played with the Boston College Orchestra, and the Boston Civic Symphony. A year later, he went on to win national competitions. In 1946, he was one of the first black performers to appear on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, where he also won an award. He and his family were active members of the Episcopal St. Cyprian’s Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Wolcott attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, and later the English High School, from which he graduated. He completed three years of college at Winston-Salem Teachers College, where he had a track scholarship.
Marriage and family
Wolcott was married to Betsy Ross while he was in college. (She later took the name Khadijah Farrakhan). She still lived in Boston, Massachusetts, and was pregnant with their child. Due to complications from the pregnancy, Wolcott dropped out after completing his junior year of college to devote time to her and their child.
In the 1950s, Wolcott started his professional music career by recording several calypso albums as a singer under the name “The Charmer”. He also performed on tour. In February 1955, using part of his middle name, Eugene, “Calypso Gene” was headlining a show in Chicago, Illinois, entitled “Calypso Follies.” One of his songs was on the top 100 Billboard Chart for five years in a row. There he first came in contact with the teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI) through Rodney Smith, a friend and saxophonist from Boston, Massachusetts. Wolcott and his wife Betty were invited to the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviours’ Day address by Elijah Muhammad. Prior to going to Saviours’ Day, due to then-Minister Malcolm X‘s popularity in the media, Wolcott had never heard of Elijah Muhammad, and like many outside of the Nation of Islam, Wolcott thought that Malcolm X was the leader of the Nation of Islam.
In 1955, Wolcott fulfilled the requirements to be a registered Muslim/registered believer/registered laborer. He memorized and recited verbatim the 10 questions and answers of the NOI’s Student Enrollment. He then wrote a Saviour’s Letter that must be sent to the NOI’s headquarters in Chicago. The Saviour’s Letter must be copied verbatim, and have the identical handwriting of the Nation of Islam’s founder, Master Wallace Fard Muhammad. After having the Saviour’s Letter reviewed, and approved by the NOI’s headquarters in Chicago in July 1955, Wolcott received a letter of approval from the Nation of Islam acknowledging his official membership as a registered Muslim/registered believer/registered laborer in the NOI. As a result, he received his “X.” The “X” was considered an algebraic placeholder, used to indicate that Nation of Islam’s members original African family names had been lost. They acknowledged European surnames were slave names, often assigned by the slaveowners to mark their ownership. Members of the NOI used the “X” while waiting for their Islamic names, which some NOI members received later in their conversion. Hence, Louis Wolcott became Louis X. Elijah Muhammad then replaced his “X” with the “holy name” Farrakhan, an Arabic name meaning “charmer”.
The summer after Louis’ conversion, Elijah Muhammad stated that all musicians in the NOI had to choose between music and the Nation of Islam. Louis X did so only after performing one final event at the Nevel Country Club.
Louis X quickly rose through the ranks. After only nine months of being a registered Muslim in the NOI and a member of Muhammad’s Temple of Islam in Boston, where Malcolm X was the minister, the former calypso-singer turned Muslim became his assistant minister. Eventually he became the official minister after Elijah Muhammad transferred Malcolm X to Muhammad’s Temple of Islam No. 7 on West 116th St. in Harlem, New York City. Today the mosque is a Sunni Muslim masjid (mosque) named in honor of Malcolm X, Masjid Malcolm Shabazz. Louis X continued to be mentored by Malcolm X, until his assassination in 1965. After Malcolm X’s dismissal from the NOI, and hajj, an Arabic word meaning pilgrimage, to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, several “revolving ministers,” meaning ministers who took turns preaching until an official minister was secured at a particular temple, were used at Muhammad’s Temple of Islam No. 7 in Harlem. This occurred before and after Malcolm’s death. The day that Malcolm Shabazz died in Harlem, Farrakhan happened to be in Newark, New Jersey on rotation, 45 minutes away from where Malcolm X was assassinated. After Malcolm X’s death in 1965, Elijah Muhammad appointed Farrakhan to the two prominent positions that his predecessor, Malcolm X held before being dismissed from the NOI. Farrakhan became the national spokesman/national representative of the NOI until Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975 (a position Farrakhan still calls himself today). He was also appointed in 1965 minister of the influential Harlem Mosque (Temple), where he served from 1965 to 1975.
Considered by many to be a former (and by some, a present) competitor to Malcolm X, Farrakhan made numerous incendiary statements about him, contributing to what was called a “climate of vilification.” This may have contributed to what ultimately led to the assassination of Malcolm X at a time when he was beginning to distance himself from the NOI after his hajj to Mecca. Three men from a Newark, New Jersey, NOI mosque were convicted of the killing and served prison sentences. Farrakhan was the keynote speaker at the Newark temple the same day that Malcolm X was assassinated.
Warith Deen Mohammed, the seventh son of Elijah and Clara Muhammad, was declared the new leader of the Nation of Islam at the annual Saviour’s Day Convention in February 1975, a day after his father died. He made substantial changes to the organization in the late 1970s, taking most members into a closer relationship with traditional (orthodox) Sunni Islam, and renaming the group, Bilalian, and eventually the American Society of Muslims, to indicate the apparent change. He rejected the deification of the founder Wallace D. Fard as Allah in person, the mahdi of the Holy Qur’an and messiah of the Bible, welcomed White worshippers who were once considered beneath them devils and enemies in the NOI as equal brothers and friends. In the beginning of these changes, Chief Min. Warith Deen Mohammed gave some Caucasians X’s, and extended efforts at inter-religious cooperation and outreach to Christians and Jews. Changing his position and title from Chief Minister Wallace Muhammad to Imam Warith huddin Mohammad, and finally Imam Warith Al-Deen Mohammed, he was responsible for the most massive conversion of over 2,000,000 members of the Nation of Islam to traditional Islam without bloodshed in the United States of America.
Farrakhan joined Imam Warith Al-Deen Mohammed who he followed, and eventually became a Sunni Imam under him for 3 1/2 years from 1975-1978. Imam Mohammed gave Imam Farrakhan two attributes of Allah as his middle names, Abdul-Haleem. In 1978, Imam Farrakhan distanced himself from Mohammed’s movement. In a 1990 interview with Emerge magazine, Farrakhan said that he had become disillusioned and decided to “quietly walk away” rather than cause a schism among the members. In 1978, Farrakhan and a small number of supporters decided to rebuild what they considered the original Nation of Islam upon the foundations established by Wallace Fard Muhammad, and Elijah Muhammad. This was done without publicly stating the intent.
In 1979, Farrakhan’s group founded a weekly newspaper entitled The Final Call, Inc. intended to be similar to the original Muhammad Speaks Newspaper that Malcolm X claims to have started. It is a mouthpiece for Farrakhan’s statements. In 1981, Farrakhan and his supporters held their first Saviour’s Day convention in Chicago, Illinois, and took back the name of the Nation of Islam. The event was similar to the earlier Nation’s celebrations, last held in Chicago on February 26, 1975. At the convention’s keynote address, Farrakhan announced his attempt to restore the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad’s teachings.
In October 1989, at a press conference in Washington, DC, Farrakhan described a 1985 vision which he had in the country of Mexico. He was carried up to “a Wheel, or what you call an unidentified flying object“, as in the Bible‘s Book of Ezekiel. During this vision, he heard the voice of Elijah Muhammad, the long-time leader of the Nation of Islam (1934–1975).
On January 12, 1995, Malcolm X‘s daughter Qubilah Shabazz was arrested for conspiracy to assassinate Farrakhan. According to Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, “[her family] resented Farrakhan and had good reason to because he was one of those in the Nation responsible for the climate of vilification that resulted in Malcolm X’s assassination”. Some critics later alleged that the FBI had used paid informant Michael Fitzpatrick to frame Shabazz, who was four years old when her father was killed. Nearly four months later, on the first of May, federal prosecutors dropped their case against Shabazz.
That year in October, Farrakhan convened a broad coalition of one-million men in Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March. Farrakhan and other speakers called for black men to renew their commitments to their families and communities. The event was organized by a wide variety of civil rights and religious organizations and drew men and their sons from across the United States of America. While Farrakhan was the keynote speaker, many other distinguished African American intellectuals addressed the throng including: Maya Angelou; Rosa Parks; Martin Luther King III, Cornel West, Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Chavis. An attorney at the time and not yet a politician, current President of the United States Barack Obama confirmed that he attended the Million Man March. The count however fell far below the hoped-for numbers. The National Parks Service estimated that approximately 440,000 were in attendance . In 2005, together with other prominent African Americans such as the New Black Panther Party leader Malik Zulu Shabazz, the activist Al Sharpton, Addis Daniel and others, Farrakhan marked the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March by holding a second gathering, the Millions More Movement, October 14–17 in Washington D.C.
- 2006, an AP-AOL “Black Voices” poll voted Farrakhan the fifth-most important black leader, with 4 percent of the vote.
In comments in 2005, Farrakhan stated that there was a 25-foot (7.6 m) hole under one of the key levees that failed in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. He implied that the levee’s destruction was a deliberate attempt to wipe out the population of the largely Black sections within the city. Farrakhan later said that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told him of the crater during a meeting in Dallas, Texas. Farrakhan further claimed that the fact the levee broke the day after Hurricane Katrina is proof that the destruction of the levee was not a natural occurrence. Farrakhan has raised additional questions and has called for federal investigations into the source of the levee break. He also asserted that the hurricane was “God’s way of punishing America for its warmongering and racism”.
Experts including the Independent Levee Investigation Team (ILIT) from the University of California, Berkeley have countered his accusations. The report from the ILIT said “The findings of this panel are that the overtopping of the levees by flood waters, the often sub-standard materials used to shore up the levees, and the age of the levees contributed to these “scour holes” found at many of the sites of levee breaks after the hurricane.”
Former support for Barack Obama
In 2008, Farrakhan publicly supported then-Senator Barack Obama who was campaigning at the time to become the president of the United States of America, at the same time criticizing the United States’ problems.
The Obama campaign quickly responded to convey his distance from the minister. “Senator Obama has been clear in his objections to Farrakhan’s past pronouncements and has not solicited the minister’s support,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. Obama “rejected and denounced” Farrakhan’s support during an NBC presidential candidate debate.
Conservative internet sites such as World Net Daily reported that during his February 24, 2008, “Saviours Day” speech Farrakhan had called Obama “the Messiah“. Quoting in context, Farrakhan had said, “Sen. Obama is not the Messiah for sure, but anytime, he gives you a sign of uniting races, ethnic groups, ideologies, religions and makes people feel a sense of oneness, that’s not necessarily Satan’s work, that is I believe the work of God.”
Following the 2008 presidential election, Farrakhan explained, during a BET television interview, that he was “careful” to never endorse Obama during his campaign. “I talked about him — but, in very beautiful and glowing terms, stopping short of endorsing him. And unfortunately, or fortunately, however we look at it, the media said I ‘endorsed’ him, so he renounced my so-called endorsement and support. But that didn’t stop me from supporting him.”
Farrakhan no longer supports Obama, whom he has since called the “first Jewish president”, due to Obama’s support for the 2011 military intervention in Libya, which Farrakhan strongly opposes due to his own support for Muammar al-Gaddafi. At a 31 March 2011 press conference held at the Mosque Maryam, Farrakhan warned that the United States could be “facing a major earthquake as part of God’s divine judgment against the country for her evil”.
Farrakhan announced that he was seriously ill in a September 11, 2006, letter to his staff, Nation of Islam members and supporters. The letter, published in The Final Call newspaper, said that doctors in Cuba had discovered a peptic ulcer. According to the letter subsequent infections caused Farrakhan to lose 35 pounds, and he urged the Nation of Islam leadership to carry on while he recovered.
Farrakhan was released from his five-week hospital stay on January 28, 2007, after major abdominal surgery. The operation was performed to correct damage caused by side effects of a radioactive “seed” implantation procedure that he received years earlier to successfully treat prostate cancer.
Following his hospital stay,Farrakhan released a “Message of Appreciation” to supporters and well wishers and weeks later delivered the keynote address at the Nation of Islam’s annual convention in Detroit.
Criticism and controversy
Farrakhan has been the center of much controversy with critics saying that his views and comments are antisemitic, racist or homophobic. Farrakhan has categorically denied these charges and stated that much of America’s perception of him has been shaped by media. This defense is echoed by religion scholar and anti-Israel activist Mattias Gardell who argues that, when considered in the context of Farrakhan’s typically lengthy lectures, many of Farrakhan’s controversial comments take on a more nuanced meaning that cannot be conveyed in a sound bite.
Malcolm X’s death
Many, including Malcolm X’s family, have accused Louis Farrakhan of being involved in the plot to assassinate Malcolm X. For many years, Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X, harbored resentment toward the Nation of Islam—and Farrakhan in particular—for what she felt was their role in the assassination of her husband. In a heated 1993 speech, Farrakhan seemed to boast of the assassination:
We don’t give a damn about no white man law if you attack what we love. And frankly, it ain’t none of your business. What do you got to say about it? Did you teach Malcolm? Did you make Malcolm? Did you clean up Malcolm? Did you put Malcolm out before the world? Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? You just shut your mouth, and stay out of it. Because in the future, we gonna become a nation. And a nation gotta be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats. The white man deals with his. The Jews deal with theirs.
During a 1994 interview, Gabe Pressman asked Shabazz whether Farrakhan “had anything to do” with Malcolm X’s death. She replied: “Of course, yes. Nobody kept it a secret. It was a badge of honor. Everybody talked about it, yes.” In January 1995, Qubilah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, was charged with trying to hire an assassin to kill Farrakhan in retaliation for the murder of her father, whom she long believed was responsible for it.
In a 60 Minutes interview that aired during May 2000, Farrakhan stated that some of the things he said may have led to the assassination of Malcolm X. “I may have been complicit in words that I spoke”, he said. “I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.” A few days later Farrakhan denied that he “ordered the assassination” of Malcolm X, although he again acknowledged that he “created the atmosphere that ultimately led to Malcolm X’s assassination.”
Farrakhan, known for his frequent association and comparison of whites with devils, said in an ABC interview with Martin Bashir on March 9, 2007 that he would refrain from using such rhetoric. Despite this, Farrakhan used this association to great extent later that month in Mosque Maryam in Chicago, including in one fierce declaration where he stated: “Do you know some of these satanic Jews have taken over BET? They got BET. They got our hair product people. They got Motown. Everything that we built, THEY got it. But the mind of Satan now is running the record industry. Running the movie industry. Running television.”
Farrakhan has alleged that Jewish distributors blocked a major urban economic renewal initiative in 1985 he had championed which was dubbed “P.O.W.E.R.” for People Organized Working for Economic Rebirth. The initiative called for a joint enterprise of businesses and organizations, owned or run by Black people, to produce and distribute a line of cosmetics and toiletries sold under the Clean & Fresh (now defunct) label. Major haircare companies, including Johnson Products Co., backed out of the initiative fearing it could lead to accusations of anti-Semitism. Johnson Products owner George E. Johnson, Sr. maintained that his company’s distributors told him that any dealings with Farrakhan’s P.O.W.E.R. project would lead to having his own products boycotted. “We knew we could not offend our distribution channels,” a Johnson spokesman Dorothy McConner said. “When I saw that,” Farrakhan said, “I recognized that the Blackman will never be free until we address the relationship between Blacks and Jews.”
In 1984, after returning from a visit to Libya Farrakhan delivered a sermon that was recorded by a Chicago Sun Times reporter. A transcript from part of the sermon was published in the New York Times:
Toward the end of that portion of his speech that was recorded, Mr. Farrakhan said: “Now that nation called Israel never has had any peace in 40 years and she will never have any peace because there can be no peace structured on injustice, thievery, lying and deceit and using the name of God to shield your dirty religion under His holy and righteous name.”
Farrakhan has repeatedly denied referring to Judaism as a “gutter religion” explaining that he was instead referring to the Israeli Government‘s use of Judaism as a political tool. In a June 18, 1997, letter to a former Wall Street Journal editor Jude Wanniski he stated:
Countless times over the years I have explained that I never referred to Judaism as a gutter religion, but, clearly referred to the machinations of those who hide behind the shield of Judaism while using unjust political means to achieve their objectives. This was distilled in the New York tabloids and other media saying, ‘Farrakhan calls Judaism a gutter religion.’As a Muslim, I revere Abraham, Moses, and all the Prophets whom Allah (God) sent to the children of Israel. I believe in the scriptures brought by these Prophets and the Laws of Allah (God) as expressed in the Torah. I would never refer to the Revealed Word of Allah (God) — the basis of Jewish Faith — as ‘dirty’ or ‘gutter.’ You know, Jude, as well as I, that the Revealed Word of Allah (God) comes as a Message from Allah (God) to purify us from our evil that has divided us and caused us to fall into the gutter.
Over the centuries, the evils of Christians, Jews and Muslims have dirtied their respective religions. True Faith in the laws and Teaching of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad is not dirty, but, practices in the name of these religions can be unclean and can cause people to look upon the misrepresented religion as being unclean.
“Black Hitler” characterization
In response to Farrakhan’s speech, Nathan Pearlmutter, then Chair of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith, referred to Farrakhan as the new “Black Hitler” and Village Voice journalist Nat Hentoff also characterized the NOI leader as a “Black Hitler” while a guest on a New York radio talk-show.
In response, Farrakhan announced during a March 11, 1984, speech broadcast on a Chicago radio station:
So I said to the members of the press, ‘Why won’t you go and look into what we are saying about the threats on Reverend Jackson’s life?’ Here the Jews don’t like Farrakhan and so they call me ‘Hitler’. Well that’s a good name. Hitler was a very great man. He wasn’t great for me as a Black man but he was a great German and he rose Germany up from the ashes of her defeat by the united force of all of Europe and America after the First World War. Yet Hitler took Germany from the ashes and rose her up and made her the greatest fighting machine of the twentieth century, brothers and sisters, and even though Europe and America had deciphered the code that Hitler was using to speak to his chiefs of staff, they still had trouble defeating Hitler even after knowing his plans in advance. Now I’m not proud of Hitler’s evil toward Jewish people, but that’s a matter of record. He rose Germany up from nothing. Well, in a sense you could say there is a similarity in that we are rising our people up from nothing, but don’t compare me with your wicked killers.