History of African-American Muslims Chronology

1897: Robert Poole, who will become known as Elija Muhammad, is born in Sandersvile, Ga., one of 13 children of parents who had been slaves. His formal education stops after the third grade. Later he joins the mass migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities and moves to Detroit. He takes a succession of factory jobs until the Depression forces him into unemployment. Poverty makes him receptive to ideology that fixes blame for the predicament of urban blacks and offers radical change.

1925: Malcolm Little, the future Malcolm X, is born in Omaha. His mother is half white and his father is a self-ordained preacher. Malcolm later says his father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, though police records show he died after being run over by a streetcar. Malcolm grows up in a household where food is sometimes short and the children are often beaten. He shows intelligence in school and dreams of being a lawyer, but never finishes high school. By age 15, Malcolm is living with a relative in Boston, shining shoes and also working as a small-time pimp. It is his entry into the nether world of drug-dealing, theft and illegal gambling.


1930: In Detroit, Elijah Muhammad encounters a peddler known as Wallace Delaney Fard, the enigmatic founder of the Nation of Islam. Though his real origins remain unknown, Mr. Fard encourages his followers to believe he is from Mecca. Claiming that Islam is the true religion of all blacks, he gains a small following in Detroit and Chicago. Mr. Fard also preaches that a day of reckoning between blacks and whites is coming, and that blacks will prevail. But Mr. Fard mysteriously disappears in 1934; Elijah Muhammad bests several rivals to succeed him as head of the embryonic Nation, and deifies Mr. Fard as Allah himself.

1942: After years of drifting from city to city trying to gain converts, Elijah Muhammad is imprisoned for failing to register for the wartime draft. Released in 1946, he slowly attracts new members to the Nation of Islam, offering people a sense of self-worth in exchange for acting as a disciplined group. The vast majority of urban blacks either ignore or reject his preachings. His largest followings are in Chicago, Detroit and New York -- and in the nation's prisons.


1946: Malcolm X is convicted in Boston for a string of robberies and sent to prison, where he reads voraciously; he copies a dictionary page by page. A letter from one of his brothers makes Malcolm aware of the Nation of Islam. Attracted in part by its teachings about "white devils," Malcolm becomes a member by writing to Elijah Muhammad -- and continues to write him almost daily.

1952: Released from prison, Malcolm X meets Elijah Muhammad at his headquarters, in Chicago, and begins a decade of tireless work for the Nation of Islam, first as its minister in Philadelphia and New York and then as national spokesman. He introduces the Nation's message to significantly larger audiences, including white college students. A TV documentary broadcast in 1959 makes the movement famous. And infamous. A year later, a scholarly book by C. Eric Lincoln, a professor of religion, gives the movement a new name: Black Muslims.

1963: Malcolm X creates an uproar with his comments on the assassination of President John Kennedy: "The old devil is dead," Malcolm says. "Chickens coming home to roost never did make me mad; they've always made me glad." Elijah Muhammad uses those remarks as a pretext to forbid Malcolm to make public statements. But tension between them is due largely to Malcolm's becoming a better-known figure than his mentor. Malcolm also learns that Elijah Muhammad has fathered illegitimate children, in violation of the movement's moral code.

1964: Disillusioned, Malcolm X announces his break with the Nation of Islam. After traveling to Mecca, he adopts orthodox Islam and takes a new name: Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. During a tour of Africa, he is regarded as a spokesman for American blacks, a status that largely eluded him in the United States. (In a poll in New York City, 75 percent of the blacks surveyed identify the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the person "doing the best work for Negroes"; 20 percent name Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; and 6 percent choose Malcolm X.) When he returns home, he expresses a willingness to join the civil rights struggle. But he also suggests that violence might be the only way to bring change.

1965: On Feb. 21, as he is about to give a speech in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X is shot and killed. Three men connected with the Nation of Islam are found guilty of the murder, though some questions remain as to whether additional persons were involved. Deprived of its most effective spokesman, the Nation of Islam begins to lose members and influence.

1975: Elijah Muhammad dies at age 78. His estate, valued at about $20 million, becomes the center of a decade-long dispute among his eight legitimate children and 13 illegitimate children. He is succeeded by one of his sons, Wallace Deen Muhammad. Within two years, Wallace Muhammad abandons virtually all of his father's ideology. In its place he offers orthodox Islam. Louis Farrakhan, opposed to the changes, breaks away to form his own organization, taking over the name Nation of Islam.

1992: Wallace Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan remain on their largely separate paths. Wallace Muhammad's orthodox Islam is the version promoted by Malcolm X near the end of his life. Mr. Farrakhan, meanwhile, has gained notoriety by making allegedly anti-Semitic remarks. And his fierce rhetoric embodies some of the anger Malcolm expressed against whites in his early years. In February 1992, Wallace Muhammad becomes the first Islamic clergyman to offer the morning prayer in the U.S. Senate, a measure of the acceptance gained by American Muslims since the time of Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad.