Louis Farrakhan (born Louis Eugene Walcott, 1933) is a leader of one branch of the Nation of Islam, more popularly known as the Black Muslims. Beginning in the mid-1970s he emerged as a popular and militant spokesman for Black Nationalism.
Louis Eugene Walcott was born on May 11, 1933, and grew up in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. After joining the Nation of Islam in the 1950s, he took the name Louis X (a standard Nation of Islam practice indicating that one's identity and culture were stolen during slavery) and later Louis Farrakhan. In high school he was an honor student, a good track athlete, and an active Episcopalian. After two years of college he embarked on a career as a professional violinist and singer who used such stage names as "Calypso Gene" and "The Charmer."
At the age of 21, in 1955, Farrakhan was taken by a friend to hear Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad was the second head of the movement, having attained his position following the mysterious disappearance of founder W.D. Fard in 1934, and had overseen its growth to tens or hundreds of thousands of members with an extensive network of farms, restaurants, stores, schools, and other businesses and institutions. Muhammad's message excoriated "white devils" and promised that the day would soon arrive when God would restore African Americans, who were regarded as the original humans, to their rightful position as leaders of the world. Muhammad also imposed strict standards of behavior on his followers, who were forbidden from smoking, drinking, fighting, eating pork, and other behaviors regarded as destructive and were commanded to say prayers, attend religious services regularly, improve their education, and provide extensive service to the movement. Farrakhan joined the movement soon after hearing its leader speak.
The newcomer's ability and dedication were quickly appreciated by Muhammad, who appointed him minister of the Boston mosque. After the death of Malcolm X in 1965 he was appointed leader of the important Harlem Temple No. 7 and official spokesperson for Elijah Muhammad. He was also given the symbolically important task of introducing Muhammad at rallies on Savior's Day, a major Nation of Islam holiday celebrating Fard's birthday.
Elijah Muhammad died in 1975 and was succeeded by his son Wallace Muhammad, who proved much quieter and more moderate than his father. At Wallace Muhammad's invitation Farrakhan moved to Chicago to work in the movement's headquarters. Soon Wallace Muhammad began to pursue a program of moderation for the movement, abandoning its antiwhite rhetoric (and even admitting whites to membership) and building bridges to the larger world from the Islamic community. That program resulted in a movement that today functions as a relatively conventional expression of Islam.
Farrakhan became a major voice of the "purist" faction composed of members who rejected the move toward moderation. He resigned from the movement in 1978 and organized a new Nation of Islam that closely resembled Elijah Muhammad's original movement, with dress and behavior codes and Muslim institutions and businesses. The racial theology and bitterly antiwhite rhetoric of Elijah Muhammad once again became standard. The reconstituted movement grew quietly but steadily as Farrakhan opened mosques in American cities and reached out to the wider African American community through publications and a radio show.
Farrakhan's movement, which in 1983 was estimated to have between five and ten thousand members, remained relatively obscure until March 1984, when controversy suddenly erupted over his association with presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Farrakhan, who had earlier counseled his devoted followers to avoid political involvements, had thrown his movement behind Jackson, providing, in addition to rhetorical support before African American audiences, bodyguards for the candidate. Farrakhan had registered to vote for the first time and urged his followers to do the same. Jackson had returned the favor by appearing as the featured speaker at the Muslim Savior's Day rally in February 1984.
In March, however, Farrakhan condemned Milton Coleman, an African American reporter for Washington Post, as a traitor after Coleman disclosed that Jackson had, in a conversation with campaign aides, referred to Jews as "Hymies" and to New York City as "Hymietown." In a speech, Farrakhan said of Coleman, "One day soon we will punish you with death," although he later denied that he was threatening Coleman's life. In the ensuing controversy it became known that Farrakhan had acclaimed Hitler as "a very great man" and had pronounced Judaism a "gutter religion." He also described the creation of Israel as an "outlaw act." Jackson never repudiated Farrakhan's support, but the Muslim's profile was lowered throughout the rest of the campaign.
Controversy about Farrakhan deepened when it became known that during the 1980s he had visited Libya and received a $5-million interest-free loan from dictator Muammar Gaddafi to help build Muslim institutions and businesses. Farrakhan explained that he sought to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for African American self-improvement programs from all of the groups, including Arabs, that had been involved in the slave trade and the destruction of African culture.
After his time of greatest publicity during the presidential campaign of 1984, Farrakhan continued his extensive public speaking schedule and continued to wield influence among African Americans far beyond the membership of his own movement. He and his wife, Betsy, had nine children and lived in a mainly white upscale neighborhood on the far South Side of Chicago.
In 1993, on his 60th birthday, Farrakhan performed a violin concert on Chicago's South Side in an attempt to better his image. The "concert" was held at a Temple, in hopes that tensions between Farrakhan and the Jewish community could be mended. Besides the "Clean n Fresh" product line, Farrakhan opened a $5 million restaurant in March 1995. The Salaam Restaurant and Bakery was built with funds collected from followers and the sale of the Final Call, an Islamic newspaper.
Farrakhan has always had a loyal following. This fact was most evident on October 16, 1995 in Washington D.C. Farrakhan had called upon at least one million African American men to converge on the nation's capital to reinvigorate their community. The "Million Man March" was to create a solidarity amongst the African American community. Many feel that the march was also designed to help bridge a gap between white and African America. Farrakhan had support from the likes of Maya Angelou, Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and a host of other notable personalities. The march surprised many, not only because of the sheer force of attendance, but because Farrakhan was able to not only promote, but deliver a non-violent protest in Washington D.C.
Further Reading on Louis Farrakhan
Farrakhan has given few interviews and has not been the subject of a major biographical study. One helpful article is Clarence Page's "Deciphering Farrakhan," in Chicago magazine (August 1984). The Nation of Islam's newspaper, The Final Call, provides a general exposition of Farrakhan's outlook. Other articles pertaining to Farrakhan include "No Innocent Abroad" by Jack E. White, Time (February 26, 1996) and "Million Man March" by Eric Pooley, Time (October 16, 1995).