BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Claude Andrew Clegg III, why did you write a book on Elijah Muhammad?
PROFESSOR CLAUDE ANDREW CLEGG III, AUTHOR, "AN ORIGINAL MAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ELIJAH MUHAMMAD": When I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, I read the autobiography of Malcolm X. I thought it was one of the most sincerely written books--memoirs I've ever read. I was fascinated by Malcolm's conversion from drug addict, thief, etc., in prison to a very morally upright man, very articulate, very intelligent individual. And I wanted to know--you know, the basis of that conversion, that transformation.
Malcolm always attributed in his writings and his speeches everything that he had become to one Honorable Elijah Muhammad. In the autobiography and much of the literature, Muhammad appears to be a background figure, even in his own organization. And when I went to look for books on Elijah Muhammad, they weren't there. No biographies, nothing but mostly articles--newspaper, journalism.
So there was no biography to follow up on his life after I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, so I devoted my graduate training at the University of Michigan to pursuing his life, and I was able to get my dissertation published as a biography of him.
LAMB: When'd you start working on this?
PROF. CLEGG: Probably around 1991, '92; shortly after going to Michigan for my graduate work.
LAMB: One of the threads that I read through the book about Elijah Muhammad personally is his indiscretions with women. And you keep coming back to that as being a problem all through his life even with his own followers. How many children did he have in the end?
PROF. CLEGG: Eight by his wife Clara, 13 others by seven women in the movement.
LAMB: Why did that have such a role in your book?
PROF. CLEGG: I think to understand the man, we have to understand both private and public life and experiences of the man, particularly when the private becomes the public and when the private becomes the political. I thought it'd be necessary to talk about this side of the man to help us demystify him. History has done two things to him as far as his life and us conceiving him.
On the one side, members of the organization, partisans, sympathizers, have glorified him, have put him above human standards. On the other side, the press and some detractors and others have--did just the opposite it, written him off as a racist, as a black supremacist, etc.
My goal with the book was to look at him first and foremost as a man, with the same talents and flaws as the rest of us and to judge him by the standards we judge each other. So the discussion of the women has to do with the larger creation of a picture of him as flesh and blood, as a person who is susceptible to the same temptations as the rest of us, but who tries to do
LAMB: Here's a picture of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his wife Clara. When was this taken?
PROF. CLEGG: That was '64, '65.
LAMB: Is she still alive?
PROF. CLEGG: No, she isn't. She passed away in '72.
LAMB: How old was Elijah Muhammad when he died?
PROF. CLEGG: Seventy-seven.
LAMB: What year was that?
PROF. CLEGG: 1975.
LAMB: Where was he when died?
PROF. CLEGG: He died in Chicago in the hospital, actually, battling heart disease. He was a very sick man by February of 1975. He had a decades-long bout with bronchial asthma. He had high blood salt. He had diabetes. So there are a number of different elements that converged to take him to the hospital in February--well, late January of 1975, but eventually his heart fails and he dies on the 25th of February, 1975.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken? Do you know?
PROF. CLEGG: I'm not sure. Probably at one of the Savior's Day events in Chicago, which is a commemoration of Fard Muhammad's life, who was Elijah's spiritual teacher.
LAMB: You call this book "An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad." What's an original man?
PROF. CLEGG: Well, two things there I'm alluding to with the title. First of all, Elijah considered black people--people of African descent--as original people, as the first people on the Earth, as the creators of the universe and all of the natural wonders. So playing on that--saying that they are the original people, thus he's an original man.
But at the same time, instead of saying `the' original man, he's simply `an' original man. So I'm more or less saying that he is one of us. That is, he is not above human standards, he is just one of us. He is `a' man, not more or less `the' man or separate from others.
LAMB: Where are you originally from?
PROF. CLEGG: I'm originally from a small town called Salisbury in North Carolina. I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a while and then went to school in Chapel Hill.
LAMB: Where else did you go to school?
PROF. CLEGG: Michigan. So I lived in very cold Ann Arbor for a while during the early '90s. And right now I live in Graham, North Carolina.
LAMB: Doing what?
PROF. CLEGG: I teach at the university--at North Carolina A&T State University. I teach history so--I've been doing that since '93, along with the writing.
LAMB: What does A&T stand for?
PROF. CLEGG: Agricultural and Technical.
LAMB: And what's the school like?
PROF. CLEGG: It's a predominantly black institution founded back in the early 1890s--about 7,500 students--geared more towards engineering and the sciences, although it has a sizable liberal arts component.
LAMB: Do you talk to your students about Elijah Muhammad?
PROF. CLEGG: Yes, I do. There is a interest in him on the campus and in the larger community. I'll be giving a talk at the university once I return later this month. So there's a general interest there and I talk to whoever who'll listen to me, whoever'll give me their ear to hear me out about Elijah.
LAMB: What do you find that your students think these days about some of the people that you write about. Let's start with Elijah Muhammad. Do they know anything about him when they come to school?
PROF. CLEGG: Very little about him. Everyone knows something about his disciple, Malcolm X. Louis Farrakhan is often in the newspaper, on the television, so they know about him. Muhammad Ali, the boxer, who was also a follower of Elijah Muhammad; people know him through his boxing career. Very little about Elijah Muhammad. Surprising given the longevity of his life, how long he lives, and his kind of sustained impact on the African-American community. But very little do they know.
LAMB: What is his sustained impact?
PROF. CLEGG: I think his significance primarily is his impact on the racial consciousness of African-Americans. That is he made blackness, he made the African--heritage of African-Americans respectable, even to African-Americans during this century. That's his primary impact.
Also, he pushes economics, or the economic initiative of his organization. It's very important as far as his significance is concerned. The real magic of the Nation of Islam was to mobilize largely lower-class people to pool their resources together to go in business. That was the real phenomenon behind the Nation of Islam.
LAMB: Is there still a Nation of Islam?
PROF. CLEGG: There are versions of the Nation of Islam, perhaps as many as a dozen. Of course, Louis Farrakhan's being the most well-known and most prominent. But there are a number of splinter groups.
LAMB: At the height of the Nation of Islam's membership, how many people belonged?
PROF. CLEGG: Interesting question. There are no authoritative figures. I've seen a lot of estimates from about 5,000 to 250,000. Looking at the memberships of the larger mosque and kind of guessing at the patterns of apostasy and conversion, 20,000, 25,000 the height during the '60s and early '70s.
LAMB: When was Elijah Muhammad the most powerful in his life?
PROF. CLEGG: Probably the '60s, from about '62 to--through the '70s really. And when we talk about power, I think we have to talk about it on different levels. The economic empire of the Nation of Islam really takes off during the late '60s and the early '70s. So economically, the organization is most significant during that period of time. When Elijah Muhammad dies in '75, the organization has assets in excess of $40 million, which is sizable for that time. As far as popularity, as far as being in the media, as far as the consciousness of the public regarding the organization, early '60s. I think that's when most of the press and the few books that were published came out.
LAMB: Whatever happened to that $40 million, by the way?
PROF. CLEGG: Forty million dollars, well, the Nation was in debt when Elijah Muhammad died, several million dollars in debt. A number of the businesses were sold to--were liquidated to cover the debt. And I think Wallace Muhammad, who took over after his father, made some of the businesses available for purchase by some of the followers. So over time, you have the gradual breakdown of the empire.
Elijah Muhammad dies controlling at least a few million dollars, and there were protracted court battles among his children--both legitimate and his illegitimate children--over about $3 million, which over time and through years of litigation escalates because of interest to about $6 million or $7 million. Eventually I think that is turned over to the organization that Wallace Muhammad, his son, led.
LAMB: Where is Elijah Muhammad buried?
PROF. CLEGG: He's buried in Chicago to the best of my knowledge. He was exhumed at least one time shortly after his burial by his son, Wallace Muhammad. As far as I know, he's buried in Chicago or in the environs.
LAMB: Why was he exhumed by his son?
PROF. CLEGG: I think that the--it was a precaution. I think that the son, Wallace, believed that there might be those who would steal the body and perhaps challenge his leadership based on having been visited by Elijah Muhammad, that is they would point to the empty grave or the robbed grave and say, `Well, he's gone. He has appointed me, not you, to lead.' I think there's a fear there, so it was exhumed and buried elsewhere.
LAMB: Got a picture here of Elijah Muhammad and others. We'll get a close-up
of it. Tell me who's in that picture.
PROF. CLEGG: OK. Elijah Muhammad is at the podium, before the microphones. Seated in the dark suit on the first row is Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, the hero--heavyweight boxer. To Ali's immediate left is Louis Farrakhan in the back row looking upward towards the podium. And beside Ali in the first row would be James Shabazz, who was minister of the Chicago mosque.
LAMB: Let's go up here to this photo. And who's in this one?
PROF. CLEGG: OK. Elijah Muhammad again seated. His son, to his upper right, Herbert Muhammad, and to Elijah's left would be James Shabazz, the minister of Chicago.
LAMB: Did Elijah Muhammad order the killing of Malcolm X?
PROF. CLEGG: Malcolm thought so, and there were a few others who were followers of Malcolm X who thought so. There were those who called Malcolm in and said--apparently they were insiders in the Chicago headquarters--and said the order had been given. And this was as early as July of 1964. I have seen nothing that independently confirms that there was an order, whether it was written or by telephone or whatever, that Elijah Muhammad said, `Go out and kill this man,' or that he was responsible for the assassination which takes place in February of 1964.
I think Elijah can-- he bears responsibility for creating a murderous atmosphere with some of the very bitter editorials--anti-Malcolm editorials that appeared in the newspaper of the organization. His tolerance, perhaps, is even prodding members of his organization to harass and even assault followers of Malcolm X. Some of the things he says over the telephone are no more than death threats aimed towards Malcolm X. But as far as an explicit order given to the men who carry out the assassination, I have seen nothing that conclusively proves that.
LAMB: When did Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad first meet?
PROF. CLEGG: Malcolm first heard of Elijah Muhammad when he was in prison for larceny back in the late '40s. His brother Reginald was already in the organization, and Malcolm heard it through his brother who visited him sometimes in prison in Massachusetts about this Elijah Muhammad, this Nation of Islam and these teachings. His brother more or less coached him, coached Malcolm, in regard to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad eventually started sending literature and now and then a $5 bill to Malcolm in prison. And Malcolm, over time, becomes steeped in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. And by the time he's released in 1952, he's ready to devote the rest of his life, or at least most of it, to the ministry of Elijah Muhammad.
LAMB: What was Malcolm X's original name?
PROF. CLEGG: Malcolm Little, born in Omaha, Nebraska, 1925.
LAMB: Where does the `X' come from?
PROF. CLEGG: The X was bestowed upon him by Elijah Muhammad himself. The X symbolizes two things. First of all, it symbolizes the lost African name that African-Americans most--except for perhaps exceptions--Alex Haley and those who have actually done the research and gone backwards in time to find those names--the X represents the lost name that African-Americans can't know, the ancestral name from Africa. It also represents the persons as an ex-smoker, ex-drinker, ex-prostitute, ex-drug addict and so forth. So it has that twofold meaning.
LAMB: What did Elijah Muhammad think of white people?
PROF. CLEGG: His views over time moderate. However, in the theology of the Nation of Islam, whites are described as devils, are described as being inherently evil, as being created by a black scientist named Yacub, according to prophecy, and they would be destroyed at the end of the 20th century by a Mother Plane--kind of a spaceship--that would rain bombs on America and put the black man back on his throne which he was believed to have sat on for trillions of years before the creation of the white man. So he didn't think very much of whites.
LAMB: You have this illustration in your book about the Mother Plane. Where did you get this?
PROF. CLEGG: A friend of mine drew that, so it's an artist's conception of it, of the plane based on descriptions by Elijah Muhammad in his writings.
LAMB: Where did he get the idea of the Mother Plane?
PROF. CLEGG: He got it from his teacher Fard Muhammad. And as far as the origins of that particular belief, back in the 1920s and the 1930s, American culture was fascinated with the possibility of a Martian invasion, that there was life on Mars. Of course, H.G. Well's "War of the Worlds" in its adaptation to radio in the late 1930s, the realism, of course, is legendary as far as the belief that there was actually life on Mars and that we might be under attack some day by Martians.
So I think that he's tapping into that. Also at this time, a number of the more powerful countries in the world are building some massive ships, aircraft carriers, etc., so the notion of technologically advanced ships, even spaceships-- this is the era of zeppelin and the airplane--America and the world's fascination with the airplane to 1930s and 1940s. So I think he's playing into that.
But he ties it also allegorically to passages in the Bible such as the book of Ezekiel in which he describes a wheel-shaped or some circular object that apparently he sees in the sky or is revealed to him in the heavens.
LAMB: Where did you go--I know there's not just one place, but where did you
go to get your best material?
PROF. CLEGG: Good question. I went back to Elijah Muhammad's roots back in Sandersville, Georgia, where he was born. The courthouse had a number of things in the probate court had a number of things in their records such as the marriage certificate of his mother and father, such as the census records, so you get a sense of the ages of people, his relatives, his siblings.
I also went to Chicago. His estate records were there at the probate court, the Cook County Probate Court, and I looked at his estate records. That gives us a sense of the finances of the movement, of the economic dealings of the organization. I've probably seen a few thousand newspaper articles, both the Muslim's newspapers, Muhammad Speaks, and also major papers, New York Times, Washington Post, and some of the minor papers, also a number of the black papers like the Chicago Defender.
So that was a way to get an angle on the movement, how the press reported it. His FBI file was very important as far as getting an inside look into the private life. The FBI had a very, very intrusive role in the life of a number of individuals during this time and a number of organizations. So we get a sense of the kind of day-to-day affairs of Elijah Muhammad through the FBI roles where--FBI files--where he was, who he talked with, what flights he took to different places, the kind of--the everyday life of an individual. The FBI, again, tapped his phones so he knew--they knew who he was in contact with.
And, of course, the private affairs, the extra-marital activities are also there. So the FBI gives us an interesting angle in the sense the FBI's done us a favor as far as that--as far as giving us--us as historians that kind of angle, but at the same, of course, at great expense to those individuals who are the victims of their surveillance.
LAMB: You have a picture in here of Bobby Kennedy right down here and of J. Edgar Hoover. Why is this in the book?
PROF. CLEGG: Hoover was very important as far as checking the activism of the Nation of Islam. Over time--after Elijah Muhammad goes to prison during the 1940s for draft evasion and afterwards--we see the Nation of Islam becoming more and more conservative. And I think that Hoover's FBI and its censor of the Nation of Islam and its activism has the effect of making the organization much more conservative, much more non-confrontational, much less political over time. And I think Hoover's FBI was instrumental in--in keeping the Nation of Islam out of politics, keeping it out of some of the earlier protest activities that they were involved in during the '30s and the '40s and kind of serving as a--I don't know--kind of a stone wall between the Nation of Islam and more activist-formed protests. So Hoover--his FBI makes the Nation of Islam, makes Elijah Muhammad, tone down the protest style of the organization after Elijah spends three years in prison.
LAMB: Were you the first to look at the FBI file?
PROF. CLEGG: Not the first, but as far as the most extensive use of the FBI files, as far as I'm aware, no one else has more extensively used the FBI files on his life than I.
LAMB: How did you go about getting them?
PROF. CLEGG: The Freedom of Information Act, I think 1974, was instrumental. Many of the files on individuals who are dead, like Elijah Muhammad, have been declassified. Of course, the FBI has edited out a lot of information, particularly if it reveals informants' names or makes the organization look particularly bad--the FBI look particularly bad. But beyond that, a very invaluable source as far as the private and the non-public life of the individual.
LAMB: But how did you do it?
PROF. CLEGG: Well, I ordered some of the file and they send it to you 10 cents a copy. So I ordered part of the file and then I also went to the FBI reading room in Washington where you can read those files at your leisure.
LAMB: How long does it take you to get the information?
PROF. CLEGG: Elijah Muhammad's files are a little over 2,700 pages. So that would be about a foot and a half, so it's a big stack of documents. It perhaps would take you a week's time, eight hours a day, to go through it thoroughly and do note cards and everything. So I did that with his file. So a week's time to do his file.
LAMB: How often did you go, `Wow, I didn't know that was the case,' when you were looking at the file?
PROF. CLEGG: Oh, many times. Not only with the FBI files, but a number of other sources. I started the project perhaps with some of the misconceptions that others have about him. I didn't know very much. I kind of had bought or consumed uncritically much of what the Nation of Islam said about him as being this kind of savior of black people, as being kind of a messiah. I was not--I have never been a believer or a follower of Elijah Muhammad or the Nation of Islam, but I had a very romanticized view of him, I think.
Going through the FBI file, again, makes him more human. It shows that he had very ordinary conversation with people, he slept late sometimes, he flew planes, he missed planes like ordinary people, he read mail, etc., he wrote letters. So it makes him more tangible as far as kind of ordinariness of his life, but at the same time the FBI files again show also the unflattering --the philandering that he's involved in during the 1960s and perhaps even back into the '50s. There are some of the threats he makes against Malcolm X's life over the telephone, and other things which are unflattering come out in the FBI's file.
And, yeah, I found myself going, `Wow,' you know, `this is hard to believe.' And by cross-examining the FBI files with other records, I found that the files tend to be accurate on matters of fact. That is, if he was here on this day or talked to this person or said that, the FBI file was pretty accurate on that. Matters of opinion are where the FBI has its problem. That is they saw Communists and subversion, etc., everywhere. They thought the Nation of Islam was a radical group that's going to bring in the Armageddon, it's going to overthrow the US government.
So as far as analyzing the facts that they had gathered, the FBI had problems there, because they were looking through a very anti-Communist, anti-subversive pair of glasses. But other than that, matters of fact very accurate, as far as I can tell, the files are.
LAMB: What is the Fruit of Islam?
PROF. CLEGG: The Fruit of Islam were all of the males in the Nation of Islam. They were believed to be the best of humanity, the best of the world, the original men, lords of the universe, kind of divine individuals; all blacks were believed to be divine individuals by the organization. So they were kind of the cream of the crop as far as the earth are concerned, the Fruit of Islam. And they were the protectors of the women, they were the ones that spoke up for the race, they were the ones who guarded Muhammad and his ministers at the rallies, etc. They were supposed to epitomize what black manhood was supposed to be.
LAMB: When we see Louis Farrakhan today and we see the men standing behind him with the bow ties, are those Fruit of Islam?
PROF. CLEGG: Yes. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: If you tap them--if you get inside their heads as to why they do
what they do, what would they tell you?
PROF. CLEGG: They would tell you that they are protecting a man of God. They would tell you that Minister Farrakhan or Elijah Muhammad, whatever the case might be, are the instruments of God and that they speak the words of God and that they, Fruit of Islam, must obey those words because they are divine utterances and that they are loyal to the death. That's what they would tell you.
LAMB: A number of things I wrote down that--they're anti-Catholic?
PROF. CLEGG: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Why anti-Catholic? What's the reason?
PROF. CLEGG: I think it has something to do with some of the early influences on the Nation of Islam. Again, it is--it comes out of Depression. During the 1920s anti-Catholicism is very rampant in the country, whether it's the KKK, whether it's other groups on the scene during this time that are anti-Catholic--the Jehovah Witnesses, Judge Rutherford, their leader, extremely anti-Catholic. And he also has an impact on Nation of Islam
So I think it's the case of the Nation of Islam being very much American in its criticism of Catholics, but not only Catholics. There’d be other groups that they would be critical of, but the Catholics--I think it was a case of the Nation of Islam buying into some of the other anti-Catholicism coming out of other quarters of the American public at the time--the 1920s, 1930s.
LAMB: How many times did Elijah Muhammad go to jail?
PROF. CLEGG: He went to jail once during the early '30s for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. That is, he wouldn't let his children go to the regular public schools; said he wanted them to go to the University of Islam, which is a grade school, to be taught by Muslim instruction--instructors, excuse me. Also, in 1935 a number of them go to prison--go to jail because of their appearance in a court in support of one of their fellow believers, which becomes violent. They have a clash with the guards there in the court, and a number go to jail then. He goes to jail in '42 in Washington for refusing to obey his Selective Service orders to be in--register for the draft. And he then goes to prison in '43.
LAMB: Where did he live in his life?
PROF. CLEGG: He was born in Sandersville...
PROF. CLEGG: Georgia, yes--a small town called Sandersville. He moved--the family moved when he was about three in 1900 to Cordele, Georgia, which is in south central Georgia. Then he moved when he was about 25, 26 to Detroit, Michigan; moved to Chicago, stayed for a few weeks in Milwaukee when he goes on the run from a number of his organizational enemies. Wandered along the West Coast for--the East Coast for a while between 1935 and 1942, eventually comes back to Chicago. Again, he's imprisoned in Moline, Michigan. He settles in Chicago, so that's the big place. He also lives in Phoenix for a while because of the healthier climate for his bronchial asthma.
LAMB: How did he live? What kind of--when he was at his peak in the '60s, what kind of house did he have?
PROF. CLEGG: A 19-bedroom mansion in Chicago. He lived very extravagantly by the 1960s. He also had properties in Phoenix and a number of the organization's businesses were in his name. So he lived very well. And by the 1970s he'd be building a mansion rumored to cost $1 million. So he was very comfortable by the 1960s.
LAMB: What was the reaction of his followers to that?
PROF. CLEGG: I think most of them could cope with that. I think even some wanted their leader to live well. Elijah Muhammad was fond of saying that he drove a Cadillac not because he had a fancy for expensive, luxurious cars, but because he didn't want anyone to say that Islam had made him poor. So many of the followers perhaps desired to see their leader doing well, and perhaps that was a gauge as far as how the Nation was doing. If the leader did well, perhaps that would bring blessings on the rest of the following.
There are those who had problems with it, particularly those around Elijah Muhammad who were using organizational funds for private usages. By the 1970s there would be some minor rebellions in the Nation of Islam where there'd be some splinter groups breaking away and some actual violence regarding some of the lifestyles of those around Elijah Muhammad, perhaps him--Elijah Muhammad himself. But most of the followers don't--if they had a problem with it, they didn't voice it and they were--they simply coped with it.
LAMB: Who is Fard Muhammad?
PROF. CLEGG: Fard Muhammad is Elijah Muhammad's spiritual teacher. In the Nation of Islam theology, he is God in person or Allah in person. It's very hard to conclusively sketch out his background before he appears in Detroit in 1930. FBI and police records give a rather unflattering view of Fard Muhammad as a petty criminal out in California for a while, gets involved in narcotics, goes to prison in San Quentin for three years and then arrives in Detroit to teach a very peculiar kind of Islam to African-Americans there.
That's the FBI-LAPD version of him. It's a bit credible, looking at the sources, the portrayal by the establishment or law enforcement's a bit credible. But I don't conclusively--I haven't been able to conclusively prove that that's, in fact, his background. Some say that he came from Saudi Arabia; others say that he was Turkish. Fard Muhammad would say that he was--he came from the Koresh tribe in Saudi Arabia, same tribe that the prophet Muhammad was from, and that he was sent to teach African-Americans about Islam or to save them before, of course, the judgment.
Over time Elijah Muhammad and Fard kind of invent him as God. That is, over time he goes from Master Fard Muhammad to a kind of Christlike figure and then to a kind of prophetic figure and then to God. So it's a process in which you have stages of deification of this individual by Elijah Muhammad.
LAMB: Let me just read what you wrote on Page 34. `Fard Muhammad was more candid than before about his presence in the Motor City,' meaning Detroit, `and stated for the record that the Nation of Islam, its teachings and Muslim activities in general were, quote, "a racket," unquote, from the start. His whole purpose behind organizing the black community in Detroit was reportedly to get, quote, "all the money out of it he could," unquote.' Was that--how'd you find that particular conclusion, and did that give you problems when you saw it?
PROF. CLEGG: That was largely from a police record--Detroit Police Department record. And that's their transcript of what he said. Again, it--there could be some exaggeration on the part of the Police Department. It could be that they made up that story. It could be the truth. And I'm not sure either way whether it's something they made up, leaked out to the press to reduce the credibility of Fard Muhammad and his organization, or whether it was a case of Fard Muhammad coming clean with them and telling them the truth. But I thought it was interesting that if it, in fact, is the truth, which again I'm not sure it is--if it is, in fact, the truth, it wasn't played up as much as it could have been by the Police Department. Again, that was an article that I saw. And if they really wanted to do in the Nation of Islam, they perhaps would have had him say that publicly.
LAMB: On Page 30--and I'm--it's a long paragraph, but I want to read through and get your reaction as we go, and I--because it tells a story that I want you to tell us why you put it in there. It says here, `On November the 20th, Robert Harris, a 44-year-old black militant'--I'm sorry--`migrant'--big difference--`from Tennessee invited a neighbor, James Smith, into his home around 9:00 in the morning. According to his later confession, Harris informed his guest that Harris had been commanded to kill someone by the gods of Islam and that the order was based on a 1,500-year prophecy. Smith, uncooperative at first, later resigned himself to be the sacrificial victim after being told that death would make him, quote, "the savior of the world,"
`At noon, the appointed time for that immolation, Harris forced his wife, "the Queen"'--in quotes--`Bertha, to hold a clock while Smith was positioned in a chair before an altar. As stipulated by the gods, the killing could not take place before the victim freely consented. The executioner asked his guest, quote, "Smith, do you still want to die?"' question mark, unquote. `The seated man nodded and replied, "Yes," but apparently thought better of the situation and put up some resistance. Harris, to quiet him, seized a conveniently placed rear-wheel axle and struck Smith, crushing the skull.'
`Discarding the 75-pound auto part, Harris hoisted the fallen man onto the altar. Methodically and with conviction, he impaled the savior in the heart with an eight-inch knife thrust to the hilt. Smith died on the improvised altar and the sacrificial instrument was left in him for hours. When the body was discovered by neighbors later in the day, Harris and his wife, the prime suspects, were immediately taken into police custody. The crime, premeditated and heinous, would have conclusive ramifications for the Nation of Islam.'
I'm sorry that took so long, but it seemed to be a powerful story. What
was--what is all that about?
PROF. CLEGG: Well, Robert Harris had evidently been either in the Nation of Islam at one time or some other group that had Islamic sentiments. And apparently, Harris had been mentally disturbed; he'd eventually be committed to a mental institution. Perhaps he had misinterpreted some of the teachings of the Nation of Islam or even taken very literally one of their teachings that you were supposed to sacrifice for devils in order to get to Mecca or get to heaven, which is an earthly place for the Nation of Islam. But he had somehow warped that or twisted it to lead to this sacrifice of this individual or to rationalize the sacrifice of this individual.
The impact on the Nation of Islam is that it would bring the law enforcement community down onto Fard Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. It was more or less a pretext for the Detroit Police Department and others to arrest Fard Muhammad and a number of others, to disrupt the organization, even to force Fard Muhammad out of town, eventually. So this story, while in itself an interesting story, its relation to the Nation of Islam is it is more or less the first incident in the history of the organization that leads to a massive attempt by the law enforcement community to squelch the organization.
LAMB: Do you think the law enforcement community was in error?
PROF. CLEGG: In--as far as this case is concerned, no. I think, you know, this is murder. I think that they were quite correct in arresting Harris and perhaps even a number of others who had ties to Harris. I think they were quite correct in doing that. As far as the kind of generalized suppression of the Nation of Islam and other Islamic groups--not only the Nation of Islam, but other Islamic groups in Detroit and other places, they were wrong in doing that is persecuting everyone of that faith or of some version of that faith when just one or two individuals are caught involved in unlawful activity.
LAMB: Where did Fard Muhammad--or what was his original name, and where did he end up after--and how--I mean, did he disappear?
PROF. CLEGG: When he appears in Detroit, he is referred to as W.D. Fard. I think he goes by a number of different names, Fard Ali, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Fard, etc. He is known by Elijah Muhammad when they part in 1934 as W. Fard Muhammad. So that's the last name that we know him by.
He virtually disappears in 1934. Even the FBI loses track of him in 1934, which is kind of amazing considering their interest in the organization. I've heard rumors that he recently died in California under an assumed name back in '92. And again, that's a rumor. According to the Nation of Islam, he was born in 1877. If he died in 1992, he would have been 100 and--115 years old, which is conceivable but highly unlikely. According to the FBI, the dates for his birthday have him born in 1891, so if he died in 1992, 101 years old, again, possible but probably, again, unlikely. But that's a rumor again.
LAMB: Did you go to St. Martin's Press originally to sell this book to them?
PROF. CLEGG: A number of presses. I thought I would have to go for a university press, since the book is a spin-off or an expansion and a revision of my Ph.D. dissertation, but I did appeal to a number of the commercial big publishing houses like St. Martin's for asking them to accept a book.
St. Martin's really kind of jumped on it, although I was contacted by a number of university presses. St. Martin's really kind of jumped on it. They saw the need for a biography of Elijah Muhammad. And they have been wonderful. I think they've done a fine job of the editing of the book. They have made the book--or request that I tone down the academic tone of the book, I think, for the better. And they've been very wonderful, so...
LAMB: How many copies did they print? Do you know?
PROF. CLEGG: Twenty thousand. This was a good first printing.
LAMB: Lots of other definitions in here. What's a hypocrite in the Nation of Islam?
PROF. CLEGG: Mm. Very good question. Compared to kind of American usage of the word `hypocrite,' it's not as damning a word as it is within the Muslim terminology. Hypocrite, according to the Nation of Islam, is the worst kind of person. It's the person who either pretends to believe and doesn't really believe or a person who wants to believe then and later denounces the movement. So you could be a hypocrite by pretending, or you could be a hypocrite by breaking away. Staying in an organization or leaving, you're a hypocrite both ways.
Once you were labeled a hypocrite by the 1960s, that was something to be concerned about, particularly if you were a well-known individual in the organization and you were tagged with that label. It meant that you were forever--or you were likely to be perpetually persona non grata in the Nation of Islam. You were one who had went against the wishes and the will and the beliefs of Elijah Muhammad, the messenger of Allah. You were an individual to be detested. You were an individual who was back in the grave or the larger secular world, an individual who had fallen from grace. And again, by the 1960s and the 1970s, that was not a pleasant thing to be named. It could mean that there would be persons visiting you at night or following you around or even assaulting you or even worse, depending on the level of your quote, unquote, "hypocrisy."
LAMB: Why did you feel the need for this terminology list of the Nation of Islam?
PROF. CLEGG: I think that the average reader perhaps might get lost on some of the terms that I use in the book. I use terms such as `hypocrite,' such as the `the grave,' such as `original people.' Some of the terms that they use are in the book, and the average reader wouldn't know those terms.
LAMB: Is there really a word called `tricknology'?
PROF. CLEGG: Was it--to the Nation of Islam, it's a word. But it's not in any dictionary I've seen.
LAMB: What is it?
PROF. CLEGG: It's--according to the Nation of Islam theology, it is any deception, any lying nature or any surreptitious...
LAMB: Tre--tre--I can read it--`treacherous and abusive behavior practiced by whites...'
PROF. CLEGG: Yes.
LAMB: `...to maintain their dominance over black people.'
PROF. CLEGG: Yes, that's the belief. That's the belief.
LAMB: I don't know whether you can characterize all black people, but do black people today think whites still want to dominate them?
PROF. CLEGG: I would say that less believe that today than perhaps during Elijah Muhammad's day. I think that--it would depend. It would really depend on the socioeconomic level of the person, the person has done well in the society. Gender perhaps has something to do with it. Age, I would think--if a person remembers the time when the--when Elijah was growing up and the law was clearly anti-black and the society was clearly racist, I think that those people, older people, would definitely--would concur with that sentiment. But again, I think it would depend on who you ask.
LAMB: Who's the devil in the terminology world?
PROF. CLEGG: The devil would be white people collectively. They would be the devil. They would be people created by this black god, Yacub, 6,000 years ago, according to Nation of Islam prophecy, who would dominate the world. And they were, of course, inferior to blacks, both intellectually, morally and physically. They were weaker. Their brains didn't weigh as much. Their blood was thin. Their bones were brittle. They embodied everything that was sinister or evil, according to the Nation of Islam.
LAMB: You have a source note that Berry Gordy Jr., the Motown founder, the record man, came from the same city, Sandersville, Georgia, and went to school with Elijah Muhammad.
PROF. CLEGG: Yes. According to Berry Gordy's sister Esther Edwards, she said that--and also there's a book or two that mentions this connection, too. The Gordys are from Sandersville. Apparently, Berry Gordy Jr.'s father went to school with Elijah Muhammad or there's some connection. I've been asked whether there's a family tie. And it's very possible that there's a family tie between the two-- between the two families.
LAMB: So Junior's the one that founded the Motown label.
PROF. CLEGG: Yes. Mm-hmm. Yes.
LAMB: Berry Jr.
PROF. CLEGG: Yes.
LAMB: Elijah Muhammad's original name?
PROF. CLEGG: Elijah Poole.
LAMB: Who was the family--the Poole family?
PROF. CLEGG: There are two Poole families. There was a Pool--a white Pool clan or large Pool family of European ancestry in Sandersville, who had migrated there from North Carolina back in the early 19th century and settled down there. They owned a number of slaves, a very well-to-do family that owned slaves. One of the slaves they owned was Irwin Poole, Elijah's grandfather. So Elijah's family picks up the Pool name from this slave master who owned Elijah's grandfather Irwin. And they keep the name and just add an E to the end. The white Pools spelled theirs P-O-O-L, and the black Pooles, P-O-O-L-E, to distinguish them from, I guess, the white Pools in Sandersville.
LAMB: When did he--I mean, what--you said that he moved out of there and eventually got to Detroit. But what was it in his early life in Georgia that had an impact on him? What kind of a life was it for Elijah Muhammad?
PROF. CLEGG: It was a very hard life, very hard life growing up in early 20th century Georgia. By this time lynchings, the kind of mob murder of people, was the--was a very horrifying pattern of life.
LAMB: Where is this picture, by the way, from?
PROF. CLEGG: That's in Georgia, down near the southern border, I think.
LAMB: And why'd you put that in the book?
PROF. CLEGG: To give all readers a kind of graphic depiction of what Elijah and others were unfortunate enough to see on occasion in Georgia. So it was a very hard life. The family was very poor. The family was sharecroppers most of the time, although his father was also a minister. It was a very large family. Elijah had at least 12 other siblings, including a half-brother, in Sandersville. The educational experience of Elijah--very meager. At best, he perhaps made it to the eighth grade. That would be the furthest he went in formal education.
He was unfortunate enough to see the aftermath of two lynchings. And also, he was unfortunate enough to not have some of the skills that were required to be gainfully and stably employed at any particular place. So he holds a few jobs in Georgia, from fuel work--he works on the railroad; that's the last job he worked on--but nothing stable in Georgia. And again, by the First World War with the boll weevil plight that destroys the cotton crop and then the increased demand for industrial labor in Northern and Midwestern centers because of the war, he's pulled away from Georgia because of that and, of course, racial discrimination, other things going on in the South.
LAMB: People that follow the Nation of Islam today--what is it about Islam that is attractive?
PROF. CLEGG: Few things that were--are attractive and were attractive during Elijah Muhammad's stay. I think Elijah's biggest legacy, his biggest significance is that he makes blackness respectable among African-Americans. He's kind of sells black people to themselves. He rejuvenates people's sense of pride and self-esteem and-- their pride in their racial and cultural heritage. Also, the economic initiative of the Nation of Islam; that is, again, largely lower-class people pooling their resources together to buy a major newspaper, a printing press, farmland, grocery stores, jets, a bank, etc. Again, creating an economic model of self-help among people who had never owned or never contributed to the purchase of a grocery store or the purchase of a jet or--etc.
Also, I think, of significance is a moral significance, although there are contradictions in his life as far as his own behavior is concerned. The message--the moral message of the Nation of Islam: `Don't beat your wife. Don't smoke. Don't drink. Don't eat pork. Don't do drugs. Clean up your neighborhoods. Hold a steady job. Don't get on welfare.' I think all of that moral message was appealing to people who had been prostitutes or who had been drug addicts or who had been on the margins of society, who had never lived within boundaries--moral boundaries. Nation of Islam created a structure for those individuals.
And finally, I think he's significant and the appeal of the Nation of Islam has to do with--it has introduced African-Americans to an alternative religious vision outside of Christianity. If Elijah Muhammad had never been, if he had never existed, I don't think that Islam would be the kind of force it is in some American cities and urban areas as it is today. So making people more aware of the Eastern faith of Islam, although Elijah Muhammad teaches a very peculiar kind of Islam, I think are part of his significance.
LAMB: Again, we start off talking about--that he had 21 children, eight of them by his wife Clara...
PROF. CLEGG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and then the rest--whatever that number is--13 by other women. How many other women?
PROF. CLEGG: Seven.
LAMB: And you talk about his own sons turning against him. How did the world begin to know that he was other than pure?
PROF. CLEGG: OK. Very good question. I think that some always knew. I think that no--those around him--family members, some top advisers--always knew that there were things that Elijah Muhammad indulged in that the rank and file of the organization was forbidden from indulging in. The FBI knew, of course. They kept constant surveillance on his life, so they knew exactly what things went on behind closed doors in his Chicago mansion headquarters. The press really doesn't get a sense of his frailties, besides, of course, labeling him as a white--a black supremist, a racist, etc. But as far as some of his frailties, his moral weaknesses, until around '64 when news of his relationships with a number of young women in the Nation of Islam becomes public knowledge--that's '64. Some of the financial mismanagement that takes place in Chicago comes to public light by '64 also. So by the mid-'60s, it's apparent that everything is not perfect.
LAMB: I mean, how did Malcolm X make him--make a lot of this public?
PROF. CLEGG: Malcolm, after his comments on President Kennedy's death, is more or less saying, `You reap what you sow. President Kennedy had--Kennedy had sat back while blacks had been brutalized in Alabama and sat back as the Congo crisis took place and Patrice Lumumba there, the prime minister, was killed; sat back while violence around the world was taking place and perhaps the US government contributing or at least cultivating a violent status quo in some places, that same violence that simply came back and claimed the president's life.' Elijah Muhammad had explicitly told Malcolm not to comment on the president's life--his death. Again, by this time, Elijah Muhammad's very adverse to any kind of confrontations with the state. So he told his ministers not to comment. It might reflect poorly on the Muslims. It might result in even more repressive action by the government.
Over time this split between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad becomes greater. There are doctrinal differences between the two. Malcolm is much more political in his nationalism, Elijah more religious. So Malcolm wants the Nation of Islam to become more involved in the civil rights movement and protest more, involved in international anti-colonial struggles, etc. Elijah is more or less happy with the economic strivings of the Nation of Islam and waiting on Allah to settle the score between the races. So there are ideological rifts between the two men.
As part of their battle against each other, Malcolm X brings out all the dirty linen in regard to Elijah Muhammad: the women, some of the financial malfeasance and other things--some of the use of violence and some of the mosque to maintain uniformity in thought and practice. All that Malcolm uses against Elijah Muhammad.
LAMB: How does he do it?
PROF. CLEGG: Oh, he goes to the press and gives them an inside scoop on the philandering, on some of the financial misdealings or mismanagement and other things that are happening.
LAMB: What I couldn't understand as I read the book, though--Elijah Muhammad would call him up and order him out to Chicago or Phoenix to have a meeting. And then when Malcolm X would get there, he would defer to him. He would--in his presence, he would, you know, apologize and all that. Did he know what he was doing all along? Was that just a phony move on his part?
PROF. CLEGG: Hard to say. Hard to say. I'm of the belief that Malcolm sincerely did not want to leave the Nation of Islam. I'm of the belief that he sincerely would have liked to remain by the side of Elijah Muhammad, although their beliefs by 1963 were not the same beliefs in some regards. I think he--that Malcolm--he loved the spotlight. He loved the press attention. He loved getting before the cameras and saying some very off-color things, insensitive things. Perhaps Elijah had prodded him to do that on occasion. He knew that grabbed headlines. The press fed on that. And the comment that he said about Kennedy, I think, was a case of Malcolm not being able to resist the temptation of commenting, so he does so.
I don't think that Malcolm was in rebellion against Elijah Muhammad during his tenure as the national minister of the organization or as the minister of the New York mosque. Some have said that Elijah Muhammad had kind of been waiting for Malcolm to slip up, so that Elijah Muhammad could get rid of him, but I don't get that sense. I don't think that Elijah Muhammad was interested in getting rid of Malcolm altogether like that until after he slipped with the Kennedy comment.
LAMB: We only have 30 seconds. Where's the Clegg family come from originally?
PROF. CLEGG: My father is from a small town called Lillington in North Carolina. My mother...
LAMB: Is he the second Clegg?
PROF. CLEGG: He's the second, and then my grandfather's the first. My mother is also from North Carolina. She lived in Salisbury.
LAMB: And here's what the book looks like. "An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad," as you'll be able to see on your screen in just a moment. And we appreciate very much Claude Andrew Clegg III coming by.
PROF. CLEGG: Thank you, sir.
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