Biography of Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam Leader

Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan

Monica Morgan / Getty Images

Minister Louis Farrakhan (born May 11, 1933) is the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. This Black minister and orator, who has remained influential in American politics and religion, has been known to speak out against racial injustice toward the Black community and voice profoundly anti-Semitic views as well as sexist and homophobic sentiments. Learn more about the life of the Nation of Islam leader and how he's gained recognition from supporters and critics alike.

Fast Facts: Louis Farrakhan

  • Known For: Civil rights activist, minister, leader of the Nation of Islam (1977–present)
  • Born: May 11, 1933, in the Bronx, New York City
  • Parents: Sarah Mae Manning (Mae) and Percival Clarke
  • Education: Winston-Salem State University, The English High School
  • Published Works: A Torchlight for America
  • Spouse: Khadijah
  • Children: nine

Early Years

Like so many notable Americans, Louis Farrakhan grew up in an immigrant family. He was born on May 11, 1933, in the Bronx, New York City. Both of his parents immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean. His mother Sarah Mae Manning came from the island of St. Kitts, while his father Percival Clark was from Jamaica. In 1996, Farrakhan said his father, who reportedly had Portuguese heritage, may have been Jewish. Scholar and historian Henry Louis Gates called Farrakhan’s claim credible since Iberians in Jamaica tend to have Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Because Farrakhan has proven himself to be an anti-Semite and displayed hostility toward the Jewish community time and again, his claims about his father’s ancestry are remarkable, if true.

Farrakhan's birth name, Louis Eugene Walcott, came from a former relationship of his mother's. Farrakhan said his father’s philandering had driven his mother into the arms of a man named Louis Wolcott, with whom she had a child and for whom she converted to Islam. She planned to start a new life with Wolcott, but briefly reconciled with Clark, resulting in an unplanned pregnancy. Manning repeatedly tried to abort the pregnancy, according to Farrakhan, but eventually gave up on termination. When the child arrived with light skin and curly, auburn hair, Wolcott knew the baby wasn’t his and he left Manning. That didn’t stop her from naming the child “Louis” after him. Farrakhan’s biological father didn’t play an active role in his life either.

Farrakhan's mother raised him in a spiritual and structured household, encouraging him to work hard and think for himself. A music lover, she also introduced him to the violin. He didn’t immediately take interest in the instrument.

“I [eventually] fell in love with the instrument,” he recalled, “and I was driving her crazy because now I would go in the bathroom to practice because it had a sound like you’re in a studio and so people couldn’t get in the bathroom because Louis was in the bathroom practicing.”

He said that by age 12, he played well enough to perform with the Boston civic symphony, the Boston College orchestra, and its glee club. In addition to playing the violin, Farrakhan sang well. In 1954, using the name “The Charmer,” he even recorded the hit single “Back to Back, Belly to Belly,” a cover of “Jumbie Jamboree.” A year before the recording, Farrakhan married his wife Khadijah. They went on to have nine children together.

Minister Louis Farrakhan holding a violin and smiling
Minister Louis Farrakhan smiles at the crowd after performing at The Wright Museum in Detroit, Michigan in 2014. Monica Morgan / Getty Images

Nation of Islam

The musically inclined Farrakhan used his talents in the service of the Nation of Islam. While performing in Chicago, he was invited to attend a meeting of the group, which Elijah Muhammad started in 1930 in Detroit. As a leader, Muhammad sought a separate state for Black Americans and endorsed racial segregation. Prominent NOI leader Malcolm X persuaded Farrakhan to join the group.

Farrakhan did just that, only a year after recording his hit single. Initially, Farrakhan was known as Louis X, the X a placeholder while he waited for his Islamic name and formal renunciation of the "slave name" imposed upon him, and he wrote the song “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell” for the Nation. This song, which would become like an anthem for the Nation of Islam, explicitly names numerous injustices against Black people by White people through history:

"From China, he took silk and gunpowder
From India, he took juice, manganese, and rubber
He raped Africa of her diamonds and her gold
From the Mideast he took barrels of oil untold
Raping, robbing, and murdering everything in his path
The whole Black world has tasted of the White man's wrath
So, my friend, it's not hard to tell
A White man's heaven is a Black man's hell."

Eventually, Muhammad gave Farrakhan the surname he’s known by today. Farrakhan rapidly rose through the ranks of the group. He assisted Malcolm X at the group’s Boston mosque and assumed his superior’s role when Malcolm left Boston to preach in Harlem.

Elijah Muhammad standing at a podium and speaking into a microphone
Elijah Muhammad delivers a speech in Chicago, Illinois during 1966 Saviour's Day celebrations. Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images

Malcolm X

In 1964, ongoing tensions with Muhammad led Malcolm X to leave the Nation. After his departure, Farrakhan essentially took his place, deepening his relationship with Muhammad. In contrast, Farrakhan and Malcolm X’s relationship grew strained when the latter criticized the group and its leader.

Specifically, Malcolm X told the world that Muhammad had fathered children with many of his secretaries. Malcolm X considered him a hypocrite as the NOI preached against extramarital sex. But Farrakhan considered Malcolm X a traitor for divulging this news to the public. Two months before Malcolm’s assassination in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965, Farrakhan said of him, “such a man is worthy of death.”

When police arrested three NOI members for assassinating 39-year-old Malcolm X, many wondered if Farrakhan played a role in the murder. Farrakhan admitted that his harsh words about Malcolm X likely “helped create the atmosphere” for the killing.

“I may have been complicit in words that I spoke leading up to February 21,” Farrakhan told Malcolm X’s daughter Atallah Shabazz and “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace in 2000. “I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.”

A 6-year-old Shabazz saw the shooting, along with her siblings and mother. She thanked Farrakhan for taking some responsibility but said she did not forgive him. “He’s never admitted this before publicly,” she said. “Until now, he’s never caressed my father’s children. I thank him for acknowledging his culpability and I wish him peace.”

Malcolm X’s widow, the late Betty Shabazz, had accused Farrakhan of having a hand in the assassination. She seemingly made amends with him in 1994, when her daughter Qubilah faced charges, later dropped, for conspiring to kill Farrakhan.

Malcolm X points finger and frowns during speech
Malcolm X pictured speaking at a rally calling for Black and White Americans to be completely separated. Bettmann / Getty Images

NOI Splinter Group

Eleven years after Malcolm X’s killing, Elijah Muhammad died. It was 1975 and the group’s future appeared uncertain. Muhammad had left his son Warith Deen Mohammad in charge, and this younger Muhammad wanted to turn the NOI into a more conventionally Muslim group called the American Muslim Mission. (Malcolm X had also embraced traditional Islam after leaving the NOI.) Warith Deen Mohammad rejected his father’s separatist teachings, but Farrakhan disagreed with this vision and left the group to start a version of the NOI that aligned with Elijah Muhammad’s philosophy. He also started The Final Call newspaper to publicize his group’s beliefs.

Farrakhan got involved with politics as well. Previously, the NOI told members to refrain from political involvement, but Farrakhan decided to endorse the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 bid for president. Both the NOI and Jackson’s civil rights group, Operation PUSH, were based on Chicago’s South Side. Fruit of Islam, part of the NOI, even guarded Jackson during his campaign.

Jesse Jackson

“I believe that Rev. Jackson’s candidacy has lifted the seal forever from the thinking of Black people, particularly Black youth,” Farrakhan said. “Never again will our youth think that all they can be is singers and dancers, musicians and football players and sportsmen. But through Reverend Jackson, we see that we can be theoreticians, scientists, and whatnot. For that one thing he did alone, he would have my vote.''

Jackson, however, didn’t win his presidential bid in 1984 or in 1988. He derailed his first campaign when he referred to Jewish people as “Hymies” and New York City as “Hymietown,” both anti-Semitic terms, during an interview with a Black Washington Post reporter. A wave of protests ensued. Initially, Jackson denied the remarks. Then he changed his tune and wrongfully accused Jewish people of trying to sink his campaign. He later admitted making the comments and asked the Jewish community to forgive him.

Jackson refused to part ways with Farrakhan. Farrakhan tried to defend his friend by going on the radio and threatening the Post reporter, Milton Coleman, and Jewish people about their treatment of Jackson.

“If you harm this brother [Jackson], it will be the last one you harm,” he said.

Farrakhan reportedly called Coleman a traitor and told the Black community to shun him. The NOI leader also faced accusations of threatening Coleman’s life.

“One day soon we will punish you with death,” Farrakhan remarked. Afterward, he denied threatening Coleman.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Minister Louis Farrakhan standing together
Rev. Jesse Jackson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Minister Louis Farrakhan attend a Palm Sunday mass at St. Sabina's church in Chicago in 2004. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Million Man March

Although Farrakhan has a long history of anti-Semitism and has criticized high profile Black civic groups such as the NAACP, he has still managed to gain supporters and stay relevant. On Oct. 16, 1995, for example, he organized the historic Million Man March on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks, Jackson, and Shabazz, gathered at the event designed for young Black men to ponder the pressing issues affecting the Black community. According to some estimates, about a half-million people turned out for the march. Other estimates report a crowd as large as 2 million. In any case, there’s no doubt that a massive crowd gathered for the occasion. However, only men were allowed to attend, and Farrakhan was criticized for this blatant display of sexism. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. For many years, Farrakhan barred women from attending his events and encouraged them to care for their families and husbands rather than pursue careers or hobbies, as he believed this was the only type of life that could make a woman happy. Complaints made in response to these remarks and others were dismissed as plots by political opponents.

The Nation of Islam’s website points out that the march challenged stereotypes of Black men:

“The world did not see thieves, criminals, and savages as usually portrayed through mainstream music, movies and other forms of media; on that day, the world saw a vastly different picture of the Black man in America. The world saw Black men demonstrating the willingness to shoulder the responsibility of improving themselves and the community. There was neither one fight nor one arrest that day. There was no smoking or drinking. The Washington Mall, where the March was held, was left as clean as it was found.”

Farrakhan later organized the 2000 Million Family March. And 20 years after the Million Man March, he commemorated the landmark event.

A crowd of thousands of Black people march attendees raise fists and peace signs
Million Man March participants raise their hands in fists and peace signs at historic 1995 gathering organized by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Porter Gifford / Getty Images 

Later Years

Farrakhan earned praise for the Million Man March, but just a year later, he sparked controversy again. In 1996, he visited Libya. The Libyan ruler at the time, Muammar al-Qaddafi, made a donation to the Nation of Islam, but the federal government didn’t let Farrakhan accept the gift. Farrakhan was heavily criticized in America for supporting al-Qaddafi, who had been involved in some way with terrorist attacks around the world.

But although he has a history of conflict with many groups and has made anti-White and anti-Semitic remarks for years, he does have followers. The NOI has won the support of individuals in and outside of the Black community because it has been at the forefront of Black advocacy for decades and because the group's anti-Semitic agenda is seen not as a primary concern but as one of many obstacles to Black freedom. Members applaud the NOI for fighting against social injustice, advocating for education, and pushing back against gang violence, among other issues. Some who do not oppose Jewish people are able to overlook the bigotry of the extremist group in the interest of these causes while others feel that Farrakhan's anti-Semitic views are justified, which means that the NOI is composed of both anti-Semites and those who respect or are indifferent to the Jewish community. This fact contributes to the NOI's ability to remain relevant, controversial as it is on the whole.

With that said, there is no denying that the Nation of Islam is a threatening group. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent nonprofit committed to fighting racial injustice, classifies the NOI as a hate group. In an effort to promote Black superiority, Farrakhan and other NOI leaders including Elijah Muhammad and Nuri Muhammad have made hateful statements and openly expressed hostility directed at demographics seen as interfering with Black freedom. Because of this and due to the fact that the NOI has been tied to many violent organizations throughout the years, the group is classified as a hate group that targets Jewish people, White people, gay people, and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Gay people have been the target of the NOI's resentment for many years, and Farrakhan did not hesitate to criticize President Obama's decision to endorse and later legalize gay marriage, which he called a sin.

The Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, a White Roman Catholic priest with a predominantly Black parish on Chicago's South Side, is an example of a high profile NOI supporter. He has known Farrakhan for over 30 years and has called him his closest adviser.

“I’ve lost friends and I’ve lost support—I’ve been disinvited from places—because of my relationship with Farrakhan,” the priest told the New Yorker in 2016. But he added, "I’d take a bullet for [him and others] any day of the week.”

Meanwhile, Farrakhan continues to generate publicity for his cutting comments. Shortly after President Donald Trump's inauguration, he called the United States "the most rotten nation on Earth." On May 2, 2019, Farrakhan was banned from Facebook and Instagram for violations of Facebook’s policies against hate speech.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Biography of Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam Leader." ThoughtCo, Jan. 15, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, January 15). Biography of Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam Leader. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Biography of Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam Leader." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 24, 2021).