The Role of the Nation of Islam in the Civil Rights Movement

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The Nation of Islam had different views on the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights Movement. In this lesson you will learn about the ideas of Black Nationalism and the Nation of Islam in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam (NOI), formed in 1930, combined the teachings of Islam with the ideas of Black Nationalism including Black pride and separation from Whites. The Nation of Islam thrived in major U.S. cities, and by the time the decade was over, its teachings had spread across the Northeast and the Midwest.

Elijah Muhammad led the NOI in 1934
Elijah Muhammad

However, Blacks in the segregated South could ill afford to challenge the status quo. Notions of Black pride conflicted greatly with the ideas of White supremacy that governed the South. Blacks were taught that they were inferior to Whites, and needed to be controlled by strict rules that reinforced their inferior status. Therefore, the NOI was able to grow in the integrated Northeast but never took hold in the South.

The Nation of Islam and the Civil Rights Movement

The peaceful protest to end segregation, known as the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), began in the 1950s predominantly in the South. Separatism and Black Nationalism were antithetical to the cause of Black inclusion. There were two separate movements taking place simultaneously regarding Blacks and obtaining civil rights.

In the CRM, Blacks wanted to integrate and be a readily accepted part of White society with full access to White goods and services. The NOI, however, sought to totally break contact between the races. They desired Black communities to control their own economic, political, and social future with no room for Whites, who they referred to as 'devils'.

The NOI didn't agree with the non-violent protests of the CRM. They saw the violence perpetrated against the peaceful protestors as worthy of retaliation, and the peaceful protestors' non-violent reaction to violence as blasphemy.

The NOI's teachings of Black pride looked down on accepting violence as simply fear deserving of compassion and understanding. Black pride meant returning violence with violence, and since Whites were 'devils', separating from them was the answer, not integrating with them.

Malcolm X in the NOI

Malcolm X was a charismatic figure who converted to the NOI while incarcerated in the 1940s. Immediately following his release from prison, then leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, granted Malcolm a private audience. Malcolm had presence, and his unwavering belief in Elijah Muhammad as a prophet endeared him to the NOI's leader.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X

By mid 1950s, Malcolm was the head of of the NOI's temples in Harlem, Boston, and Philadelphia. Malcolm's sermons were full of passion and fire, but he never spoke as head of the NOI without prefacing his words with ''The honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us…''.

In the early 1960s, Malcolm X also befriended Cassius Clay and began a very public conversion of the nation's most popular athlete that grabbed headlines. When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and joined the NOI, Malcolm's influence could clearly be seen within the NOI and the Black community.

Whenever Malcolm X spoke in public, throngs of supporters and media would flock to hear him speak. Eventually however, Malcolm's fire and brimstone speeches reached critical mass when he compared the assassination of President Kennedy to ''chickens coming home to roost…''. Malcolm's words were seen as incendiary and when newspapers and magazines printed his comments Blacks and Whites were shocked.

Malcolm X was punished by Elijah Muhammad for his 1963 comments about Kennedy's assassination by being 'silenced'. He couldn't speak at any of his temples, and was not to make any public speeches to the media.

Break From the NOI

1964 would be a year of transition for Malcolm. His relationship with Elijah Muhammad had become strained, and his thoughts about Islam had begun to evolve away from the NOI. It didn't help that Malcolm X had also revealed Elijah Muhammad's adulterous nature.

Malcolm X officially left the NOI and formed Muslim Mosque, Inc. He then traveled to Mecca and returned to the U.S. a changed man. No longer did he deem Whites to be 'devil's, and now that his words were his own and not Elijah Muhammad's, he spoke about the CRM and its leader Dr. Martin Luther King much differently.

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