Get our free newsletter
Author Karl Evanzz wants to distinguish the Nation of Islam’s late
messenger from his message.
As a high school student in the late ’60s, Karl Evanzz was nobody’s Frantz Fanon. Evanzz got into some trouble with a local gang in his hometown of St. Louis, but otherwise he was your everyday, ordinary high school student. His politics were shaped by his parents, integrationists who raised him to believe that Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of universal love stood as America’s only hope of civil progress. But for Evanzz, as for many other African-Americans, that all broke down on April 4, 1968, the day King was assassinated. “After King was killed, I saw a lot of black folks just say, ‘Forget it. I’m just going to get high or get drunk, because this country isn’t worth a damn,’” says Evanzz. King’s murder didn’t drive Evanzz to the needle or the bottle, but it did throw a bucket of cold water on a young man who’d been sleepwalking through the social upheaval of the ’60s.
The late ’60s and early ’70s saw the heyday of the Black Power movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had changed its tune and become a hotbed of followers of the late Malcolm X. The Republic of New Africa publicly advocated the creation of an African-American state. The Black Panther Party had offices in almost every major city and had been ostentatiously singled out by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Evanzz stepped into this mix of radical rhetoric with a worldview forged by King’s murder. He began his brief career in social agitation by forming a black student union at his high school and joining a radical group called the Black Liberators. In 1970, Evanzz started a free breakfast program for poor children, modeled after the breakfast programs that the Black Panther Party operated nationwide. When the Panthers decided to organize a St. Louis chapter, they contacted Evanzz. “That was the closest we ever came to some type of revolution in black America,” he reflects romantically.
But Evanzz also saw the unromantic side of a revolution that never was. Throughout the ’60s and into the early ’70s, the FBI implemented a campaign of harassment against civil rights and Black Power groups. The FBI’s counterintelligence measures ranged from bugging the homes of black leaders such as King to inciting deadly shootouts between rival Black Power groups. As a young local activist in St. Louis, Evanzz says, he was under surveillance and often roughed up by the police. “We were seeing [activists] getting shot up in their houses [by the police] and arrested continuously,” he says. Evanzz is prone to talking swiftly, but at this point he pauses and speaks more deliberately: “I was getting arrested.”
When Evanzz recalls the FBI’s secret war against black activist outfits, he’s not speaking only as someone who lived through it, but also as someone who has spent the past 20 years rummaging through the archives of that war. Evanzz’s personal knowledge of the FBI’s attacks on black leadership compelled him, in part, to write his first book, The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X, published in 1992. Mostly based on FBI files secured through the Freedom of Information Act, Judas Factor chronicled the life of Malcolm X and examined the political forces arrayed against him—the people who had an interest in seeing him dead. Evanzz’s two primary suspects were the FBI and the organization that Malcolm X had made famous, the Nation of Islam.
Evanzz argues that, at the very least, the FBI knew that officials within the Nation of Islam wanted to see Malcolm killed. Judas Factor also asserts that the Nation of Islam allowed petty jealousy, along with a good deal of FBI instigation, to turn a political split into an assassination. “The Nation likes to say that Malcolm was a victim of the FBI,” Evanzz maintains. “Well, he was. But he was also the victim of black-on-black crime.”
In his second book, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (Pantheon), published this month, Evanzz returns to the same well of intelligence to debunk the Nation of Islam’s longtime leader. Evanzz’s book does turn to alternate sources, but his biography of Muhammad largely relies on FBI data.
Muhammad is an enigma to most of white America and mysterious even to many African-Americans. Despite his influence as one of the most active African-American theologians of this century, his is not a name you’re likely to hear during Black History Month. Muhammad is often credited with opening the gates for millions of African-Americans to convert to Islam. But his version of Islam asserts that white people are literally a race of devils. Furthermore, Nation dogma argues that black people are “the original man” and were subjugated by warmongering white devils. The Nation of Islam’s founder, Wallace D. Fard, converted Muhammad in the ’30s. And Muhammad, who died in 1975, was in turn responsible for the conversion of Malcolm X.
Apart from theology, the Nation of Islam offered a sense of ethnic pride to African-Americans that they hadn’t experienced since the days of pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey. It was Malcolm X, inspired by Muhammad, who made it cool to refer to oneself as black. The Nation set forth an ideal of black economic self-sufficiency as exemplified by the massive business empire that Muhammad acquired. By the time Muhammad died, the Nation owned farmland, dry cleaners, and restaurants across the country.
Yet, despite contributions to the progress of African-Americans, the group also did its share of damage, much of which is explored in The Messenger. Evanzz re-examines the murder of Malcolm X and also the brutal massacre of the family of ex-Nation member Hamaas Abdul Khaalis by members of the religion. Even more controversially, Evanzz examines how Muhammad seduced and impregnated several of his private secretaries. But the centerpiece of the author’s latest work are the details surrounding Malcolm X’s assassination, which was carried out by members of the Nation.
Evanzz assembles a host of damning quotes from Nation higher-ups. Among them is a line current Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan wrote in the Nation’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks: “The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape….Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death….”
Naturally, the Nation of Islam takes exception to Evanzz’s writings. After an excerpt from The Messenger was published this year in Emerge magazine, Akbar Muhammad, a columnist for the newspaper The Final Call, dismissed the book as an “attack on the Nation of Islam and the personal character of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.” Evanzz insists that he has nothing personal against the Nation of Islam, but that he is providing criticism that is long overdue. “If I’m not openly critical of the Nation, then who will be?” the author asks. “Someone has to be critical, or you get fascism.”
At one point in the early ’70s, Evanzz was actually a prospective convert. He regularly attended the Nation of Islam’s mosque in St. Louis. Like many African-Americans, Evanzz had come to the Nation by way of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
That book is, perhaps, the seminal slave narrative. It traces Malcolm X’s early years as the son of a militant Garveyite to his days as a dope dealer and burglar to his rise as a militant spokesman for the Nation of Islam to his renunciation of the group’s theology. Although the politics of the book prove riveting on their own, the overwhelming theme is the life of discipline that Malcolm X led as an adult. After being imprisoned and then converting, he read voraciously and copied every single word in his prison dictionary. Even after being released, he was reputed to be the most disciplined of ’60s black theologians. Unlike King, Malcolm X was never caught on FBI tape in the midst of illicit affairs.
Evanzz was also attracted to the Nation of Islam because of Malcolm X’s chief protege, Farrakhan. “In the ’70s, I used to listen to Farrakhan, and I was just mesmerized,” Evanzz says. But Evanzz became suspicious of the Nation after he asked the minister at the St. Louis mosque why Malcolm X had left the organization. “He gave me the Muslim perspective of what was going on,” says Evanzz. “Regrettably, [the minister] portrayed Malcolm as traitor” for exposing Elijah Muhammad’s philandering.
Evanzz continued to attend the local mosque and even changed the spelling of his last name in an attempt to make it sound more Islamic. But one day, he arrived at a service with a drunken friend and witnessed the Nation’s strong-arm tactics firsthand: “I was there one Sunday afternoon with a friend—and I’ll never forget it, because he was inebriated,” says Evanzz. “He asked a harmless question about Elijah Muhammad, and they got offended because he was drunk. And, man, they just beat the daylights out of him. The brutality of it just shocked me.”
Almost 30 years removed from his days as a potential convert, Evanzz has become widely regarded as the Nation of Islam’s most credible critic. Mainstream political leaders attack the religion from the perspective of white Americans—Farrakhan is dismissed as a “reverse-racist” and an anti-Semite. Evanzz, however, critiques the Nation from a black perspective and argues that, in recent years, the group has done more than its share of harm to the integrity of black America. Even if the Nation only created an environment for Malcolm X’s assassination, as Farrakhan has publicly admitted, Evanzz argues that its chieftains were still implicated in one of the great tragedies to befall America this century.
“When they took out Malcolm,” says Evanzz, paraphrasing James Baldwin, “it was like they killed something in the universe. I think [Malcolm X’s assassination] smothered our sense of hope.”
Evanzz goes on to argue that the Nation of Islam hasn’t advanced very far since Malcolm X was killed. “I think Elijah was right for his time, and Malcolm was right for the ’60s,” he says. “But if Malcolm preached the same things today that he preached in the ’60s, he’d be out of place.”
Evanzz, who works as an online editor for the Washington Post, says that The Messenger will be his last book on the Nation of Islam. He says that he felt driven to write about the group out of his “love for Malcolm.” Evanzz’s personal bias transpires throughout the book, and it becomes clear that he believes that neither Malcolm X’s protege, Farrakhan, nor his mentor, Muhammad, came close to equaling his importance.
“They all have done some good,” says Evanzz when asked to compare Malcolm X with Muhammad and Farrakhan. “But I would have to say that Malcolm was the sun and they were like the moon. Both give off light, but there’s no comparison in terms of degree.” CP