Elijah Muhammad

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As the leader of the Black religious organization, the Nation of Islam, from 1934 to 1975, Elijah Muhammad was one of the most significant Black nationalist leaders in the twentieth century. Having been exposed to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s, Mr. Muhammad served as a bridge that mediated much of Garvey's political and economic ideology of Black autonomy and self-sufficiency into the 1960s. While Garvey's UNIA looked to Africa for cultural and political inspiration, Elijah Muhammad argued for the creation of a separate state or nation for Black people in the U.S. He was driven to strengthen the Nation's economic base, and as early as 1942 the Nation had purchased some 140 acres of land and owned a number of businesses in Chicago. As an avowed separatist, he opposed any involvement or participation in the United States government, including the military draft, and was imprisoned along with some of his followers in 1942 for draft evasion and sedition. He considered integration to be a hypocritical offer by America, which had already demonstrated through slavery and Jim Crow segregation its inability to guarantee social justice for Black people. Even in the face of the growing popularity of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, Mr. Muhammad maintained his separatist stance regarding political participation. This position eventually became a major point of contention between him and his Minister Malcolm X, who sought to become more involved in the movement. Mr. Muhammad's religious condemnations of racism as the work of "white devils"-as eloquently articulated by ministers like Malcolm X-and the Nation of Islam's success in building independent Black institutions often obscured Mr. Muhammad's political conservatism. Ironically, despite this position, he continued to be championed by activists of the Black Power era that followed the height of the Civil Rights Movement.