A Biography of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan

Scandal has not dampened his influence over the years

Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan
Mustapha Farrakhan 'son of Minister Louis Farrakhan' and Minister Louis Farrakhan at the Million Man March on October 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. Monica Morgan/Getty Images

Minister Louis Farrakhan is one of the most controversial public figures in the United States. While scandal has brought down a number of leaders, Farrakhan has managed to remain an influential force in American politics, race relations and religion. With this biography, learn more about the life of the Nation of Islam leader and how he’s remained relevant in an increasingly divided America.

Early Years

Like so many notable Americans, Louis Farrakhan grew up in an immigrant family.

He was born May 11, 1933, in the Bronx, New York. Both of his parents immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean. His mother, Sarah Mae Manning, came from the island of St. Kitts, and his father, Percival Clark, came from Jamaica. In 1996, Farrakhan said his father, who reportedly had Portuguese heritage, may have been Jewish. The scholar and historian Henry Louis Gates called Farrakhan’s claim credible, since Iberians in Jamaica tend to have Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Because the Jewish community has often accused Farrakhan of being an anti-Semite, his claims about his father’s ancestry are remarkable, if true.

Farrakhan’s birth name, Louis Eugene Walcott, reveals the discord in his parents’ relationship. 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 left Manning. That didn’t stop her from naming the child “Louis” after him. But Farrakhan’s real father didn’t play an active role in his life either, he said.

His mother remained a stable influence. A music lover, she exposed 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. He went on to have nine children.

Nation of Islam

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

So, he did, just a year after recording his hit single. Initially, Farrakhan was known as Louis X, and he wrote the song “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell” for the Nation.

Eventually, Muhammad gave Farrakhan the surname he’s world famous for 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.

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 Mohammad had fathered children with many of his teenage secretaries.

Malcolm X considered him a hypocrite, since 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, [1965]” 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 six-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 an alleged plot to kill him.

Farrakhan Starts 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. The younger Muhammad wanted to turn NOI into a more conventionally Muslim group called American Muslim Mission. (Malcolm X had also embraced traditional Islam after leaving the NOI. ) Warith Deen Mohammad also rejected his father’s separatist teachings. But Farrakhan disagreed with this vision and left the group to start a version of NOI 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, 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 NOI, even guarded Jackson during his campaign.

“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 Jews 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 accused Jews of trying to sink his campaign. He later admitted making the comments and asked the Jewish community to forgive him. But he refused to part ways with Farrakhan.

Farrakhan tried to defend his friend by going on the radio and threatening both the Post reporter, Milton Coleman, and Jews 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 African American 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.

Farrakhan Leads a National Movement

Although Farrakhan has long faced accusations of anti-Semitism and has criticized black civil groups such as the NAACP, he’s managed to stay relevant in a changing America. 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 African American 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 two million. In any case, there’s no doubt that hundreds of thousands of individuals gathered for the occasion, an impressive achievement for any organizer.

The Nation of Islam’s website points out that the march challenged stereotypes of African American 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 2000’s Million Family March. And 20 years after the Million Man March, he commemorated the landmark event.

Later Years

Farrakhan earned praise for the Million Man March but just a year later sparked controversy again. In 1996, he visited Libya. Then Libyan ruler, the late Muammar al-Qaddafi, made a donation to the Nation of Islam, but the federal government didn’t let Farrakhan accept the gift. Despite such incidents and a long list of inflammatory remarks, Farrakhan has won the support of people in and outside of the black community. They applaud NOI for fighting against social injustice, advocating for education and against gang violence, among other issues.

The Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, a white Roman Catholic priest with a parish on Chicago's South Side is an example. He called Farrakhan 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 Donald Trump's inauguration, he called the United States "the most rotten nation on Earth."

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "A Biography of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan." ThoughtCo, Jun. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/louis-farrakhan-4141172. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2017, June 1). A Biography of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/louis-farrakhan-4141172 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "A Biography of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/louis-farrakhan-4141172 (accessed November 21, 2017).