Elijah Muhammad was an African American religious leader of the Nation of Islam, a religious movement based on the principles of Islam, focused specifically on black Muslims. His birth name was Elijah Robert Poole and he was the seventh of thirteen children born to William and Mariah Poole. His parents were Baptist sharecroppers. He only received formal education up till the fourth grade, after which he left school to work in sawmills and brickyards in order to provide for his family. This was a time marred by racial oppression, and Muhammad and his family felt the brunt of it. He married Clara Evans with whom he eventually had eight children.
He moved his family to Michigan where he worked at an automotive factory. While in Michigan, he began attending various meetings of Black Nationalist movements. During one of these meetings, he met William Fard, who gave a speech on Islam and black empowerment. Elijah was impressed and believed Fard to be God, or Allah himself, while he considered himself as a messenger of Islam. He decided to join the movement and became an ardent follower of Fard, as did some of his siblings and his wife. He was given an Islamic name, first Karreim, and later Muhammad. He was soon appointed as the leader of the Chicago headquarters of the movement, named Nation’s Temple No. 2, and later relocated to Detroit. When Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934, Elijah became the leader of the movement. He established a university named “Muhammad University of Islam” but this was challenged by the school boards. There were several violent confrontations between the movement’s members and the police, and Elijah was put on probation.
Other leaders of the movement, including Elijah Muhammad’s own brother, challenged his teachings and authority. Elijah relocated with and without his family several times, and established Temple No. 3 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Temple No. 4 in Washington, D.C. In 1942, he was imprisoned for evading the draft for World War II, for which he spent 4 years in jail. He retained active control of the movement from prison and several new Nation of Islam temples opened up in different states. His teachings of black emancipation from slavery and economic independence attracted several followers and the membership of the movement exceeded 250,000 people. He had holdings in several businesses such as bakeries, barber shops, coffee shops, grocery stores, laundromats, printing plants, retail stores, real estate, schools and banks. The group established more than 47 schools and was estimated to have a net worth of $75 million.
Elijah Muhammad died on February 25, 1975 of congestive heart failure. His legacy as a leader of black Muslims lives on through his expansive movement for social, political and economic revival of black Muslims. He was single handedly responsible for expanding the Nation of Islam from a small movement in Detroit, to a national enterprise consisting of hundreds of thousands of followers. Amongst his most notable followers are Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, and his own son, Warith Deen Mohammed. His career is riddled with controversy, particularly his ideological differences with Malcolm X, who later created his own separatist faction of the Nation of Islam. He also had three more wives and is rumored to have fathered several children outside of marriage. His work, however, has been honored on several platforms, including being named on the list of 100 Greatest African Americans.