Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) led the Nation of Islam from 1934 to 1975. Though Muhammad faced heavy criticism for his black supremacist and antisemitic views, under his leadership, the Nation of Islam grew from a small organization into a national movement. Notably, Muhammad served as a mentor to Malcolm X until Malcolm X left the organization and disavowed its separatist views. His involvement in Malcolm X’s assassination was never definitively proved, though many speculated he had a hand in the activist’s death.
Under Muhammad’s leadership, the Nation of Islam taught that God, or Allah, is black. The group advanced the view that one of the Devil’s scientists created white men as an experiment; only after the white man’s rule ends will the world return to a state of peace and harmony. Because of this conviction, the Nation of Islam disagreed with the civil rights movement on the subject of racial integration, firmly opposing it.
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin describes Elijah Muhammad’s magnetism, writing that he felt drawn to Muhammad’s “peculiar authority.” In many ways, Baldwin felt like he was back in his father’s house; he recognized the charisma of a preacher in Elijah Muhammad.
Yet Baldwin could not bring himself to agree with Muhammad’s teachings. Though he acknowledges that Muhammad has successfully helped many black men find pride and sobriety, Baldwin remains unconvinced that black separatism is a feasible solution. He concludes that if all white people have to die, he will “perish with them.” Muhammad, finding Baldwin intractable on the subject, believed the reason Baldwin did not view white men as devils was that he had spent too much time under the influence of their teachings and lacked proper instruction.
Baldwin characterizes Elijah Muhammad as a man with nothing left to lose, reminding readers of the traumatic events of Muhammad’s childhood, in which he witnessed the lynching of his father. Baldwin writes that a man with nothing left to lose is one of the “most dangerous creations” in our society, and he cautions against following Muhammad’s example.