Louis Abdul Farrakhan
American religious leader, head of the Nation of Islam, a black religious
organization in the United States that combines some of the practices and beliefs of Islam
with a philosophy of black separatism.
Farrakhan preaches the virtues of personal responsibility, especially for black men,
and advocates black self-sufficiency. Farrakhan’s message has appealed primarily to urban
blacks and draws on a long history of black nationalists who have called for black
self-reliance in the face of economic injustice and white racism. His more inflammatory
remarks have caused critics to claim that he has appealed to black racism and
anti-Semitism to promote his views. Born Louis Eugene Wolcott in New York City,
Farrakhan grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Winston-Salem Teacher’s
College in North Carolina, and worked as a nightclub singer in the early 1950s. In 1955
Malcolm X, a minister for the Nation of Islam, convinced Wolcott to join the organization.
Wolcott dropped his last name and became known as Minister Louis X. The
practice of dropping surnames is common among black Muslims, who often view them as
names that were imposed on slaves and handed down over the years by white society. He
later adopted the name Abdul Haleem Farrakhan and came to be known as Louis
Farrakhan’s speaking and singing abilities helped him to rise to prominence within
the Nation of Islam, and he led the group’s mosque in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1963 a
split developed between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of
Islam, and Malcolm X was suspended as a minister. Malcolm X had become increasingly
dissatisfied with the group’s failure to participate in the growing Civil Rights Movement,
and Muhammad seemed threatened by the growing popularity of Malcolm X. Farrakhan
sided with Muhammad in this dispute. In 1964 Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and
formed a new group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
Farrakhan publicly criticized Malcolm X for his break with the Nation of Islam. In
1965 Malcolm X was assassinated while addressing an OAAU rally in New York City.
Three black Muslims were eventually convicted and jailed for the killing. While Farrakhan
denied any connection with the shooting, and never faced any charges related to Malcolm
X’s death, he later conceded that he had helped to create an atmosphere that may have
induced others to carry out the assassination.
After the death of Malcolm X, Farrakhan became the head of a large mosque in
Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, and was the principal spokesperson for
Muhammad. Farrakhan held high office in the Nation of Islam until Muhammad died in
1975. Muhammad’s son, Wallace Muhammad, succeeded his father and asked Farrakhan
to move to Chicago to assume a new national position. Wallace Muhammad downplayed
Black Nationalism, admitted nonblack members, and stressed strict Islamic beliefs and
practices. Under Wallace Muhammad, the group’s name changed to the World Community
of Islam in the West, and later, to the American Muslim Mission.
In the late 1970s Farrakhan led a dissident faction within the organization that
opposed any changes in the major beliefs and programs that had been instituted by Elijah
Muhammad. In 1978 Farrakhan left Wallace Muhammad’s organization and formed a new
organization that assumed the original name, the Nation of Islam, and reasserted the
principles of black separatism.
Farrakhan’s public profile rose throughout the 1980s as he established new
mosques, used radio appearances to increase his following in black communities, and was
the featured speaker at events that often drew large crowds. His message of black
self-reliance and mistrust of whites struck a responsive chord among young urban blacks,
many of whom viewed Farrakhan as a courageous leader willing to confront a racist
society. His followers praised his insistence that blacks assume moral and economic
responsibility for themselves, that they avoid drugs and crime, that they provide for their
children, and that they stay in school and become involved in their communities.
Controversy surrounding the Nation of Islam also grew, primarily because
Farrakhan attacked white society and voiced the anti-Semitism growing among some
blacks in the inner cities. He was once quoted as calling Judaism a “gutter religion” and
referred to German dictator Adolf Hitler, who was responsible for killing millions of Jews,
as a great man. Farrakhan’s controversial remarks on the radio and at press conferences
were widely condemned by other black leaders.
In the 1990s Farrakhan continued his call for poor blacks to make stronger
commitments to education and to their families. He also called on blacks to end
black-on-black crime and to be less dependent on government welfare. In October 1995
Farrakhan organized the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. At the march, hundreds
of thousands of black men vowed to renew their commitments to family, community, and
personal responsibility. Although the march renewed criticism of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic
statements and some black leaders refused to participate, it was widely regarded as a
successful display of black solidarity. It helped Farrakhan move closer to the political
mainstream, and some people also saw it as indicating the strength of Farrakhan’s appeal
to a significant segment of the black population.
In January 1996 Farrakhan made a 20-nation “world friendship tour” that
included stops in Iran, Libya, and Iraq, all nations that the United States
government regarded as “pariah” states run by dictators. On the tour, Farrakhan
repeatedly criticized the U.S. government, provoking condemnation by U.S. officials.