More than 100 people attended Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture at Luther College. Ula Taylor, Ph.D associate professor of African American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley spoke about “Black Power and the Nation of Islam,” during a presentation sponsored by Luther’s Department of Africana Studies. (Decorah Newspapers photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.)
Just hours after the nation watched the United States' first African American president take his second oath of office, his hand on a Bible that belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., more than a hundred people braved below-zero wind-chills to attend Luther College's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day lecture.
They gathered in celebration of Dr. King's life and legacy -- echoes of which were heard earlier that day, in President Barack Obama's inaugural speech.
Ula Taylor, Ph.D., associate professor of African American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, spoke about "Black Power and the Nation of Islam" Monday night, in a presentation sponsored by the Department of Africana Studies.
Taylor began her presentation by calling Dr. King a "rare leader -- blessed as a gifted preacher, charismatic, courageous and highly intelligent."
While celebrating that he lived, she also noted his death occurred at a pivotal moment in American history -- when the Civil Rights Movement was shifting away from the philosophy of non-violent resistance he had long espoused, and toward a more radical approach to social change.
Specifically, she said, "King's murder happened when black students were calling for black power across the nation."
But Taylor's presentation Monday night complicated more commonly held discussions of the transition from the rhetoric of non-violent protest to that of radical resistance and revolution -- especially as those discussions might focus on the man who stood at a kind of crossroad in that transition, Malcolm X.
In particular, Taylor described the experiences of people she called "political refugees" of both Civil Rights- and Black Power-era movements like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snik") and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense -- to embrace what they saw as a kind of less theoretical approach taken to social change by the Nation of Islam.
Nation of Islam: A brief history
The Nation of Islam (NOI) was a religious movement founded in Detroit, Mich. by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in July 1930.
"People begin to look for religious answers when they're feeling overwhelmed," Taylor said; "and Fard Muhammad began to completely take advantage of this." Calling his followers a "community of believers," she added, he aimed to "empower black folks in an individual nation within the United States."
A year later, in 1931, Elijah Muhammad and his wife, Clara, joined the Nation of Islam.
After Fard Muhammad "mysteriously disappeared" from Detroit in 1934, Taylor said, the Nation of Islam was led by Elijah Muhammad -- who was advising black people not to accept Social Security numbers, because the numbers provided a way to keep them under surveillance.
"We begin to see a complete rejection of institutions and a critique of white supremacy," she said.
Under Elijah Muhammad's leadership, the Nation of Islam established places of worship -- temples -- as well as businesses, farms and real estate holdings in the United States and abroad.
Malcolm X and Black Nationalism
Meanwhile, Malcolm Little -- while in prison (for breaking and entering) from 1946-1952 - had converted to the Nation of Islam, renaming himself Malcolm X. By 1954, Malcolm X had been assigned by Elijah Muhammad to Temple No. 7 in Harlem, becoming the Nation's "most public minister," Taylor said.
His message of black pride, self-sufficiency and self-defense stood in contrast to the Civil Rights Movement's emphasis on non-violence. But as he rose to prominence and his influence expanded, his relationship with the Nation of Islam soured; and in 1965, he was assassinated by two of its members.
Malcom X's rhetoric appealed to people who were dispossessed, Taylor said; and by the time of his death, "civil rights liberalism was beginning to give way to eclectic expressions of black nationalism," especially among students.
By 1965, activists like SNCC's Stokely Carmichael had "become weary of non-violent passive resistance as a tactic for the liberation struggle," Taylor said. And by the fall of 1966, she added, a black student movement had begun to "march to a different drummer -- i.e., the drum of black power."
Critiques of the movement
But, Taylor argued, the years following Malcom X's assassination also saw disillusionment among students who had aligned themselves with the goals and ideals of the Black Power Movement.
Anna Karim, for example -- a student who had been involved with SNCC from 1964-1967 and who, in 1966, had been willing to arm herself in service of the revolution -- was beginning to critique Carmichael's (and others') notion that power was at the end of a gun.
Karim, like other movement people who were questioning its leadership, "had begun to look at the predicament of the black masses," Taylor said, and recognized their own relative privilege as college students.
"They wondered, would they continue to reproduce the inequities they were fighting against? In many ways, they were caught between the nation they were critiquing and the nation they wanted to build," she said.
The Nation of Islam began to take on a new appeal to many of these former movement activists -- frustrated as they were by what they saw as the superficial rhetoric of revolution in the Black Power movement, Taylor said.
While Carmichael -- one-time honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party -- and other Black Power leaders were hitting the lecture circuit, requesting honorariums and first-class airplane tickets in the process, Taylor said, members of the Nation of Islam were prepared to go into communities and teach, lead and rebuild.
"(Carmichael and others) didn't address rebuilding after the rebellions," she said. "Racial pride and self love alone could not fill the bellies of black children in Mississippi."