2016-06-30
Reprinted from "Pillar of Fire" with permission of Simon & Schuster.

Malcolm X's one kindred ally within the Muslim hierarchy-destined to succeed where he failed, as quietly as Malcolm's notoriety would be loud-had been locked away in the federal prison at Sandstone, Minnesota, since his twenty-eighth birthday. This was Wallace D. Muhammad, who, since being named by and for the founder of the Nation of Islam, W.D. Fard, had been marked as the seventh and most religious of Elijah Muhammad's eight children.

In the 1950s, when federal prosecutors denied Wallace Muhammad the military draft deferment due legitimate clergy, Chicago lawyers William Ming and Chauncey Eskridge arranged for him to serve medical duty as a conscientious objector but Elijah [Muhammad] unexpectedly rejected the plea bargain with white law. Much against his will, thinking that his father meant to keep him cloistered and useless, Wallace dutifully entered Sandstone, where taught Islam to inmates in the prison laundry room or on nice days in the baseball bleachers.

For the first time he felt responsible for his own thoughts, and although he attracted a large following of Muslim converts, which excited the fears of most prison authorities, the Sandstone warden became so convinced of the salutary effects on inmate rehabilitation that he invited Wallace to write an article on the Islamic concept of sacrifice for the 1962 Christmas issue of the prison journal..

Turmoil threw Wallace Muhammad together with Malcolm X late in February [1963, after Wallace had been released from prison], when some four thousand Muslims gathered by bus and motorcade for the annual Savior's day convention in Chicago. As always speakers chanted the words "the Honorable Elijah Muhammad" as a practiced mantra, but apprehension ran through the submissive crow because Muhammad himself was absent for the first time, wheezing from asthma at his retreat in Pheonix. Although not a few Muslims believed Muhammad to be immortal, anxiety for him was so intense that cries went up for reassurance from the chosen son, who was observed and hailed upon his return from prison.

Wallace refused to speak. Having received no response to his letters of criticism [about corruption within the Nation of Islam] he was half convinced that his father was avoiding or testing him. Besides, he considered Savior's Day the embodiment of his father's most egregious blasphemy from the 1930s: proclaiming founder W.D. Far as the Savior Allah incarnate, much as Jesus was called the incarnation of the Christian god. More than once, Wallace had asked how his father could demand worship of a human being-Fard-in light of the Q'uran's clear definition of "one god, the everlasting refuge, who begets not nor is he begotten," and Elijah Muhammad said he would not understand.

Malcolm X, who presided in Muhammad's absence, made excuses for Wallace by prearrangement. Very privately, the two men met during the convention as the two most likely successors-friends but possibly rivals-each of whom threatened the top officials at headquarters. When Wallace disclosed his determination to resist his father's bizarre, unorthodox religious teachings, Malcolm defended Elijah's adaptations such as the assertion that white people were devils by creation, saying they fit the experience of black people closely enough to gain their attention, and Elijah could correct come-on doctrines once the "lost-found" people were ready. In a related complaint, Wallace confessed that several of his own relatives prospered off the Nation without knowing the first thing about Islam. His stories about power struggles over jewelry and real estate touched a nerve, and the two men fell into collusion...

[Malcolm X later told Wallace that,] at Elijah Muhammad's home before Savior's Day, two former secretaries appeared on the lawn with their babies and shouted that they were going to stand there in the cold until Mr. Muhammad comforted his abandoned children. The household had reacted strangely, said Malcolm, who told Wallace he rebuffed such rumors until the two frightened and shunned women petitioned in person for help. Wallace replied uncomfortably that he would seek out the secretaries who he knew personally, and he soon confirmed to Malcolm that he believed their confessions. Elijah had told them that his wife, Clara, was dead to him, like Khadijah, the wife of the original Prophet Muhammad, and likewise Elijah felt divinely sanctioned to seek out virgins to produce good seed.

Wallace Muhammad felt the revelations as cruel injustice to his spurned mother, and raged against Elijah as an imposing but distant icon. Wallace scarcely knew his father, who had vanished into hiding for seven years after rival heard to Fard offered a $500 bounty for his death in the 19430. Although disciples arrived with daily tributes and breathless word of the aspiring Messenger, Wallace saw Elijah only a few times throughout his childhood-most notably in 1942 when he watched his mother and brothers roll the newly arrived fugitive under the bed in a rug, in a vain attempt to evade arresting police officers.

Now, as a young man just out of prison, desperate to hang on to something from the bizarre omens of his past, Wallace interpreted the enormity of his father's sins as the price of strength that was implanting a new religion on the continent, allowing people of African descent first to define themselves by their own deity. He steeled himself to face facts, and to recognize that religious births in history tend to spread unseemly trauma over many decades. This became his anthem to Malcolm..

[Wallace Muhammad was frozen out of the Nation after he persisted in his criticism. After Malcolm X's assassination, he sought greater involvement.] On Friday, February 26, 1965, Wallace Muhammad appeared in dramatic submission before the Nation of Islam's Chicago convention. He did not justify or endorse Malcolm's death, as Malcolm's own brothers were required to do publicly. He did not repeat vows of holy war upon heretics who doubted the infallibility of Elijah Muhammad, as did the presiding minister, Louis X [Louis Farrakhan] of Boston.. Wallace Muhammad in a short speech begged reinstatement-"I judged my father when I should have let God do it."

The convention cheered him as the prodigal, anointed son. He was obedient. But because he considered the nation to be blasphemous and corrupt, and refused to teach its concoction of Islam, Elijah Muhammad consigned him to unpaid obscurity. Wallace worked as a baker, welder, painter, and rug cleaner.

In 1974, after a hiatus of nine years, Elijah Muhammad allowed his son Wallace to resume teaching. His adversaries within the Chicago headquarters confiscated tapes of his sermons, eager to prove he was deviating again from the Nation's dogma into Islamic scripture, but the old man said inexplicably, "My son's got it right." When Elijah died in 1975, delegations arrived in limousines to find Wallace, the chosen heir, living like hermit, with a rope tying shut his broken refrigerator door. The next day, February 26, 1975, the ministers swore fealty to the new Supreme Minister on the first day of the national convention, ad did Muhammad Ali. "I was born for this mission," declared Wallace Muhammad.

He survived plots by entrenched officials who accused him of crying "crocodile tears" over this father. Within a year, he renamed New York No. 7 [mosque] for his former ally, Malcolm, saying, "What we should see in Malcolm is a turn for the Nation of Islam from fear and isolation to openness, courage." By 1977, Wallace Muhammad dismantled the Nation's corporate empire, confessed the scandals that Malcolm was killed to hide, and openly renounced his father's claim to divinity. He extracted some purpose from every error and ordeal. "If he hadn't hurt me," Wallace said of his father, "I don't know if I really would have come to Allah like I did."


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