In excerpt from a new book of essays, I Wish I’d Been There, delves into the curious origins of the Nation of Islam, and a bizarre, pre–World War II plot by Japanese agents to build a fifth column among African Americans.

The year is 1934. Two slight, nattily dressed men, one black and one white, shake hands in a Chicago area airport. Both seem all but overwhelmed with emotion, the darker, slightly younger man asking when his companion will return, only to be told to look in the Bible for the answer. At last, the lighter-skinned man breaks away, and disappears up into the prairie sky—with or possibly without benefit of airplane…

…or so it is told. The two men were Master Wallace Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad, or at least those were the latest of the all but countless names they would take for themselves, over the course of two of the more unlikely lives in all American history. I wish I had been there to witness their final, known meeting, because it would have told me so much about the fire to come, and the nature of radical black politics to this day. No doubt, it would also have shed some light on one of the most outlandish plots ever conceived against this country, and the unparalleled American proclivity for self-invention.

“God, it is written, appeared to the black people of Detroit’s Paradise Valley slums on July 4, 1930, in the person of a peddler of clothing and silks known variously as Wallace D. Fard, W. Fard Muhammad, F. Muhammad Ali, Wali Farrad, or simply Mr. Farrad,” was how journalist Peter Goldman described him in his seminal, 1973 work, The Death and Life of Malcolm X.

He was a short, dapper, light-skinned man, who went door-to-door selling clothing and cloth that he asserted were what people wore in Africa, but what he liked to talk about most were religion and the benefits of an abstemious, pork- and alcohol-free diet. He claimed that he had been born in the holy city of Mecca, to a black father named Alphonso, and a Russian-Jewish mother from the Caucusus, named Baby Gee. He carried with him a copy of the Bible and the Koran, and recommended—despite the provenance of his mother—the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

How could such an individual gain a growing coterie of adherents? Master Wallace Fard Muhammad—as he then preferred to be called—had come into his ministry at just the right time, a period of both intense disillusionment and radical religious departure within the black community.

In the years between the world wars, American blacks had begun to turn to charismatic, self-proclaimed messiahs such as Father Divine, Sweet Daddy Grace and Mother Horn. Harlem saw the advent of Marcus Garvey’s largely political, but also semimystical, black nationalist, “back to Africa” movement. Thousands more looked to a proliferation of new, often quasiIslamic faiths, including Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA).

Fard seems to have come to Detroit originally as a leading acolyte of Noble Drew Ali’s. He struck out on his own after Drew Ali—formerly a New Jersey trainman named Timothy Drew—expired from tuberculosis, and his remaining followers refused to acknowledge Fard Muhammad as his reincarnation. But where had Fard come from before that? Just who was this exotic little man—and was he even “black”?

Karl Evanzz, in his excellent biography of Elijah Muhammad, The Messenger, utilized sources turned up by the FBI, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and his own investigations to establish with a reasonable degree of certainty that Fard was born Wali Dodd Fard, in 1891, not in Mecca, but New Zealand, to an Anglo mother and a father from the Urdu-speaking region of what is now Pakistan. By 1913 he had emigrated to the West Coast, where he lived a peripatetic existence. In 1926 Fard was arrested for running a small bootlegging and morphine trafficking operation, with a Chinese-American partner named Eddie Donaldson. After serving almost three years in San Quentin, he departed for Chicago, where he found a job as a traveling medical supplies salesman— and hooked up with Noble Drew Ali’s Moors.

The Moors wore beards and red fezzes, considered Noble Drew Ali a prophet and recited a catechism that taught that African Americans were in fact Asians, descended from the Old Testament’s Moabites. Fard the salesman took up this last belief and invented his own densely detailed theology, “The Knowledge of Self and Others.”

Allah, Fard taught, had evolved from a spinning atom some 76 trillion years ago. He was the Original Man, and his descendants—all of the Black People of the earth—were the Original People.They had lived in peace and harmony for eons, their future foreseen by a council of Imams—brilliant, clairvoyant scientist-priests, who had mastered a far more advanced technology than anything we have today.

Every garden has its snake, and in this Eden it was a particularly brilliant and arrogant scientist known as Dr. Yakub, “the Big Head Scientist.” Dr. Yakub and his followers invented white people through thousands of years of diabolical experiments, which included the systematic, clandestine murder of millions of black infants. White people lived in caves in Europe, where they fornicated with animals and dressed in their skins. They were a pathetic, vicious race, and the source of every modern disease.

In the end, the whites were able to turn the tables and take over the world only through the science of “tricknology.” The millions of Africans—or “East Asians”—they transported in the Atlantic slave trade had become slavish imitations of their white masters. But Fard had come to wake them up. The time of the white man was rapidly drawing to a close, and very soon his dominion would be overturned in a vast, apocalyptic reckoning.

In a stroke, Fard had consolidated the various strands of thought that would form the main stem of American black nationalism up to the present day, and it is easy to imagine how heady and liberating this must have all seemed to the thousands of African Americans sweltering in Detroit’s “Black Bottom,” at the nadir of the Depression. Among them was a frail-seeming, unemployed laborer in his mid-30s named Elijah Poole.

Poole had been born in Georgia in 1897, the son of a jackleg preacher and sawmill hand, and a mother who had had a vision when she was only 7 years old that she would one day give birth to a great man. Yet by the time Fard encountered him in Detroit, Elijah’s life had been as frustrated and disappointing as that of almost all other black American men at the time. Poole damaged his already weak lungs working as a forge assistant in a Detroit foundry, and became a semidisabled asthmatic, seeking out whatever temporary work he could find while his wife supported the family as a domestic. Before long he had sunk into alcoholism, unable to find solace in his father’s Christianity, or in the Garvey movement or Noble Drew Ali’s Moors, both of which he joined at different times.

Master Fard was something else again. Poole would claim that he knew right away that Fard was more than just another prophet “the first time I laid eyes on him.” Before many more months had passed, he was pressing Fard to admit that he was the Mahdi, the Messiah—the incarnation of God on earth.

Like most messiahs, Fard cagily hedged and hinted, before finally admitting it was so, only admonishing Elijah to keep the secret of his divinity between them. Overjoyed, Elijah Poole managed to get off the bottle. His asthma receded, and he worked two and three jobs at a time to support his family, all of whom he brought into the fold of Fard’s new “Allah Temple of Islam.” Above all, the Temple of Islam gave Elijah his voice back. He began to preach and proselytize with Fard, and conscientiously mastered the extensive, intricate lessons of the Temple.

Yet Elijah’s rapid advance predictably embittered many of Fard’s earlier converts, especially those who made up the “Fruit of Islam”—a sort of palace guard, trained in the martial arts and organized to maintain order in temple meetings. Some of these individuals even began to desert, joining a shadowy new organization modeled closely after the structure and philosophy of Fard’s Temple of Islam.

The African-American defectors were turning to a pair of Japanese agents. In the early 1930s, a Baron Satokata Takahashi, from the Japanese army’s Kokuryukai, or Black Dragon Society, and one Ashima Takis, a k a Policarpio Manasala, a Filipino national and former Japanese naval officer now posing as a graduate student, entered the country, with the express purpose of turning black Americans into a pro-Japanese fifth column.

Operating brazenly in at least a dozen American cities, Takahashi and Takis promised power and other rewards to African Americans who would help Japan in the war to come— and even suggested that they could do their bit by beginning to kill whites immediately. Ludicrous as their efforts may sound today, they seem to have inspired at least one killing spree by a deranged Filipino in Seattle—and they easily established themselves as the most rhetorically militant black nationalists extant.

According to the ONI, Fard and Baron Takahashi met on several occasions, and the Japanese reportedly offered Fard money if he would become Takahashi’s chief minister. Fard apparently demurred, but the writing was clearly on the wall. Fard would have to at least talk a bigger game, if he was to keep his congregation.

By 1932, accordingly, Fard had begun teaching “The History of the End of the World,” which emphasized the imminent destruction of the white race, to be brought about by “The Mother Ship” or “The Mother Plane”—an airship half a mile by half a mile in size, that had been mistakenly described in the Bible as Ezekiel’s wheel. More pertinent, it seems that Fard’s Mother Plane had been built in Japan by “our Asiatic brothers,” under his supervision. Soon, the faithful at the Allah Temple of Islam were being given a new book, Secret Rituals of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, in which Fard seemed to call—in barely coded words—for every true believer to kill at least four white devils.

These machinations came abruptly to the public’s notice on the Sunday before Thanksgiving 1932, when a deranged black Detroit resident named Robert Harris decided to “initiate” a neighbor into the Temple of Islam by making him into a human sacrifice. The ensuing arrest and police investigation would place unbearable pressure on the Temple. Soon, headlines were trumpeting the discovery of a murderous “voodoo cult” in the Black Bottom. Fard and Elijah insisted that this was unfair, since Harris had only a tangential connection to the Temple, and was performing “rites” he had wholly invented on an innocent black man.

But the predominantly Christian, African-American community of Detroit felt shamed and embarrassed by the ongoing revelations about Fard’s cult. The police investigation turned up Fard’s Secret Rituals, and the master was quickly arrested. A series of tumultuous trials and subsequent investigations over the next three years found that the 400 schoolchildren in the Temple’s “University of Islam” were being taught courses with names such as “General Knowledge of Spook [White] Civilization”—and instructed that they would win a button with Allah’s picture on it, and a trip to Mecca if they, too, were able to “cut off the head of four ‘devils.’ ”

The full force of official Detroit landed on the Temple then. Known members were cut from the welfare rolls, harassed on the streets by police and arrested at their workplaces. Black ministers and community leaders loudly denounced the cult. Elijah, for one, refused to back down, leading hundreds of loyal followers to the courthouse in processions that stunned Detroit’s white police force. Altercations broke out in the courtroom, and Elijah himself was briefly arrested, although he remained an adamant defender of the faith.

Yet Fard seemed oddly quiescent for a man who had just been coolly plotting the demise of the white race. Remanded to the psychopathic ward of Detroit’s Receiving Hospital after his arrest, he claimed that his followers had misunderstood his teachings, and meekly promised a judge to disband the Allah Temple of Islam, and leave Detroit forever. On December 7, 1932, two detectives escorted him to the Chicago train, but he was back within a month—changing the name of the Allah Temple of Islam to the Nation of Islam, handing down new names to his followers and instructing them to discard their distinctive red fezzes.

This subterfuge had no chance to succeed in a community as insular as the Black Bottom, and by May 25, 1933, Fard had been arrested again. Now, he allegedly confessed to his police interrogators that all of his teachings and the Nation of Islam were “a racket,” and that this time he really would leave the city for good. A few days later he drove away in a “sleek black Ford automobile,” after telling the weeping faithful: “Don’t worry. I am with you; I will be with you in the near future to lead you out of this hell.” Turning to hug his first lieutenant, he added, “Tell them, Elijah, I love them.”

There is no documented report that anyone ever saw Wallace Fard Muhammad again…which is where the real mystery begins. He may have snuck back into Detroit several more times through the early months of 1934, and Elijah claimed that he traveled to Chicago on other occasions to meet with the master and to learn his wishes. Elijah told the congregation back in Detroit that he was to be known as Elijah Muhammad—“God manifest” and Fard’s anointed successor. In Fard’s name he preached the imminent end of the world, and support for his Japanese “brothers,” with renewed vigor.

All this simply brought the police and the social workers down on the heads of the Nation again, and increasingly alienated rank-and-file Muslims. Elijah’s descriptions of what had happened to Fard were often vague and contradictory, and led to growing rumors of skullduggery. Soon, Elijah counted threequarters of the Detroit Muslims as “hypocrites,” i.e., his enemies. By 1935 he was forced to take to the road in fear of his life, and the next several years were spent on a lonely hegira, taking refuge in any of the small, ancillary communities of the Nation of Islam that still supported his claim.

But just what had happened to Fard? FBI agents managed to turn up his ex-wife, Hazel, who told them that Fard had returned to visit her and their son in Los Angeles, sometime in 1934, but that he had left again after a month, saying that he intended to return to New Zealand. Evanzz points out that the month of his departure was the same month that his old partner, Eddie Donaldson, was released from San Quentin. Other reports put Fard in Gary, Ind., in 1940, at the head of another quasiIslamic organization.

None of these reports have been objectively confirmed. One would have had to have actually been at that last meeting between Fard and Elijah to gain a sense of what Fard’s intentions were, and what his departure portended. Did Elijah evince any resentment over the renunciation of the faith that the Detroit police purportedly extracted from his old master? Did Fard actually make him his successor? Did Fard achieve that greatest feat of any messiah, and make a clean getaway? Or was there, in fact, the foul play involved that so many of Elijah’s rivals suspected?

The answers would give one considerable insight into the mind and personality of Elijah Muhammad, the man who would continue to run the Nation of Islam as his personal fiefdom until his death in 1975. Above all, they would tell one so much about the pathology that dogged the Nation of Islam almost from its inception, the legacy of violence that would claim not only the life of its greatest leader, Malcolm X, but also continue with the massacres of “hypocrites,” both for the crime of defying Elijah, well into the 1970s. To have been there at the end of the beginning—to see Master Fard fly away with airplane or without— would have been a chance to glimpse not only into a religious mystery but also into the proud, contorted, rejectionist heart of black nationalism itself.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.