cover image The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad

The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad

Karl Evanzz. Pantheon Books, $28.5 (688pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44260-8

As a followup to his acclaimed The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X, Evanzz recounts the ""incredible and multidimensional"" life of Elijah Muhammad, cofounder of the Nation of Islam. Evanzz begins by meticulously reviewing the history of Muhammad's family during slavery and Reconstruction, leading up to his birth in Georgia in 1897, during the brutal Jim Crow era, which shaped his belief that whites are inherently evil. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with Muhammad's family, former associates and rivals, Evanzz reveals a determined, wily and resourceful figure who got rich from his schemes, ruled his followers by intimidation and fathered an enormous number of illegitimate children. He also chronicles Muhammad's powerful influence on key players of the civil rights movement, such as Dr. King, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson and the Black Panthers. Fresh access to FBI files provides several surprises about the NOI's rocky start, the pro-Axis orientation of its leaders during WWII and the government's extensive surveillance and harassment of its followers. The book also includes one of the most complete accounts to date of the final, bitter confrontation between Muhammad and his chief disciple, Malcolm X, arguing that the FBI's COINTELPRO campaign forced the rift between the pair, which resulted in Malcolm's grisly Harlem assassination and the disintegration of the Nation of Islam into a fractured ""Tower of Babble."" Although Evanzz's first-rate analysis may generate dispute among the NOI's thousands of faithful followers, it is a fascinating, long overdue study of one of the most intriguing personalities of the 20th century. (Dec.)