Jul 16 2012

Black Muslims, the NOI and American Prisons…


In 1961, Time Magazine published an article about what they saw as a terrifying trend: the increasing number of black prisoners who were converting to Islam, joining the Nation of Islam, and then turning to violence inside correctional facilities:

Armed guards now patrol the catwalks over the mess hall in California’s maximum-security Folsom prison—the result of two riots early this month. At San Quentin, wardens and guards have new instructions not to attempt to break up any gathering of Negro convicts without assistance. At the Reformatory for Males in Breathedsville, Md., last week, three inmates had a total of 14 months added to their sentences for savagely beating a guard. In a Washington, D.C.. prison, 38 prisoners in punitive segregation became so noisy, rattling cell doors, throwing food into the corridors, and talking and praying through the night, that tear gas was threatened to restore quiet and order.

The incidents were related. In every case the troublemakers were Black Muslims, members of the brotherhood of Negro supremacists that is dedicated to the extinction of the white race (TIME, Aug. 10, 1959). While their leaders, protected by shaved-head honor guards, are preaching cold hatred to growing crowds in principal U.S. cities, lesser Muslim agents are at work in many a U.S. prison, spreading fanatical doctrines and recruiting new brethren among Negro prisoners. A California law officer estimates that Muslims do 50% of their recruiting in prisons. The Muslim movement behind prison walls, says James W. Curran, Maryland’s superintendent of prisons, has become “steadily stronger and more troublesome. They are vicious fighters, quick to take offense and, in their self-sacrificial way, they don’t care what happens to them.” Source: Recruits Behind Bars. Time, 0040781X, 3/31/1961, Vol. 77, Issue 14


The rise of Black Muslims within the penitentiaries of America starting in the late 1940s was primarily perceived as a threat to law and order. Time Magazine particularly singles out Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad as prominent examples of prisoners who were Nation of Islam converts but they were only two of thousands. The article also tries to analyze the appeal of Islam for black prisoners:

Since most prisons have a large Negro population, prisons are a natural breeding ground for the hate group. Some of the leaders of the Muslim movement have criminal records. Elijah Muhammad (whose “slave-master name” was Elijah Poole), high priest of the Muslims, served three years for draft dodging in World War II. Malcolm X (ne Little), leader of Harlem’s Muslims, is a former pimp, who has been arrested for larceny in two states. Says Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, professor of social philosophy at Atlanta’s Clark College and an authority on Muslims: “The prisons are made to order for Muhammad. Nine times out of ten, the potential convert was arrested by a white policeman, sentenced by a white judge, directed by a white prison guard under a white warden. The prison chaplain was white, and he knew when he got out that he could not go to a white church for help. The Negro church was not interested, but there was Elijah waiting.”

As Claude Andrew Clegg (2001) points out, Elijah Muhammad’s four year imprisonment in the Federal Correctional Institution at Milan, Michigan “made him more sympathetic to the plight of incarcerated members of his race and permanently reserved for them a place in his heart (p.56).”

Clegg (2001) continues:

“Additionally, his detention during World War II also taught him that prisons were fertile recruitment grounds for the Nation of Islam. For simply showing compassion and concern for their well-being, the movement would eventually succeed in transforming hundreds of convicts into loyal, and sometimes lifelong, dues paying members. The Nation benefited from the increased membership, and the inmates profited from the moral empowerment of the teachings which helped them shed the vices and criminal behaviors they had picked up while floundering in the grave (p.56).”

Many reasons have been advanced for black prisoners’ historical attraction to Islam including the overt expression of racial pride that is evident in Black Muslim ideology. In fact, Black Puerto Rican political prisoner Martin Sostre who converted to Islam while incarcerated wrote: “Its Black Nationalist tenets appealed to me; it was similar to the Black Nationalism I had picked up in Harlem as a kid” (Sostre, 1968: 4). Some black prisoners have also likely been attracted to the language of social protest that infuses much of the Nation of Islam’s ideology. Black Muslim prisoners have been very active in filing lawsuits to ensure their rights to worship, to have appropriate food, and to generally oppose mistreatment inside the penitentiary.

The Nation of Islam (NOI) continues to have significant reach inside American prisons. A 1996 article in the Christian Science Monitor examined NOI’s appeal for contemporary black prisoners. The reasons that these men join the NOI are consistent with Sostre’s explanation from the 1960s. The article quotes a prisoner named R. Khalil who explains what attracted him to the NOI:

A lean, light-skinned black man sits upright on a metal folding chair. Decked out in a pressed shirt, a cable-stitched sweater, and a bow tie, R. Khalil hardly fits the image of an inmate housed here at the high-security Maryland House of Corrections.

Mr. Khalil, whose rap sheet ranges from robbery to attempted murder, is aware of the contradictory picture he presents. He used to run with a tough crowd in Baltimore’s blighted inner city, where drug dealing and violence figured prominently in his past. A clean-shaven look and impeccable diction were foreign.

“Black men didn’t have any images we could draw from,” Khalil says.

But while serving time for his first conviction, he learned about the Nation of Islam and its leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan.

“I joined the Nation of Islam during my first time in prison,” Khalil says, leaning forward, his arms braced on his knees, his hands folded. “The time [here] and conditions wear you down…. [We’re] grasping for better ways of living life.”

“The Nation of Islam made me feel like a person of worth more than any time in my life,” Khalil adds. “Mr. Farrakhan was the closest representation of manhood.”

Like a growing number of the black men who are serving time, he is drawn to Farrakhan’s powerfully articulated message of black pride. Source: Nation of Islam extends its reach behind prison walls. By: Kaslow, Amy, Christian Science Monitor, 08827729, 5/20/96, Vol. 88, Issue 122

Incidentally, the role of evangelical Christianity inside American prisons also deserves attention and scrutiny. I hope to focus on that in a future post. Later this week, however, I will continue with this discussion of the role of NOI’s ideology in the penitentiary by featuring Eldridge Cleaver’s critique of Black Muslims from his book, Soul on Ice.

  • By Qasima Wideman, July 17, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t refer to followers of the Nation of Islam as “Black Muslims”. There are actually a lot of Black Muslims who are not members of the Nation of Islam movement, and there are many black prisoners who convert to the faith of Islam who fit in that category. Please try to differentiate between the Nation of Islam and Islam, and don’t conflate the two. I was actually really excited to read an article that discussed the experiences of actual Black Muslim prisoners when I saw the title, and while this is an important topic to discuss, it’s important not to erase the entire demographic of prisoners for whom Islam has been a source of hope and redemption.

  • By prison culture, July 17, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    Thanks for writing and for sharing your thoughts about the post. You are correct that I am writing about the NOI in this post rather than Islam broadly defined. I should have made that more clear in the post. I thank you again for writing.

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