Redefining the Boundaries of the Nation of Islam’s Political Participation

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with The Journal of Civil and Human Rights on Garrett Felber’s Those Who Know Don’t Say.

Prison is not a death sentence (Rising Thermals, Flickr)

In the last decade, literature and documentary media on both the Nation of Islam and the growth of the American carceral state each have exponentially increased on their own.  Literature on the Nation of Islam in recent years has focused on the seeming paradox of women’s empowerment in patriarchy, the role of women in building, promoting, and publicizing the Nation of Islam’s message, and the organization’s reliance on the American legal system to ensure its practitioners’ constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and religion.  Of course, the iconic figure of Malcolm X continues to loom large in American popular culture resulting in new books expounding on the relationship between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr., on Malcolm’s evolution as an activist, the utility and importance of Malcolm iconography, reflections on his legacy, and a 2020 Netflix documentary entitled Who Killed Malcolm X?

Academic literature on the history and impact of the carceral state can barely keep up with a rapidly changing legal, political, and social landscape. As Americans take to the streets to protest police brutality and murder in the midst of the current COVID-19 public health crisis, they are informed by academics like Heather Ann Thompson, Michelle Alexander, Elizabeth Hinton, and most recently, Stuart Schraeder and Tanya Golash-Boza.  As the reality of the steady growth, militarization, and commercialization of the American carceral state becomes clear to activists, they are beginning to cut the threads of systemic racism and institutional oppression that hold the web of the carceral state together. Garrett Felber’s new monograph, Those Who Don’t Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State, fuses both of these bodies of literature together to demonstrate, through attention specifically to the prison system, how the Nation of Islam was integral not only to the fight of Black people against it, but also the formation of the carceral state itself.

Those Who Know Don’t Say proceeds in five chapters, each of which explores the relationship between federal and state prison policy and the growth of the Nation of Islam inside and outside prison walls. Between 1959 and 1961 negative publicity in the form of Mike Wallace’s documentary, The Hate the Hate Produced, and C. Eric Lincoln’s The Black Muslims in America instigated a 180-degree shift in the way that Muslim inmates were viewed by prison authorities. Instead of the model inmates who filled America’s prisons as conscientious objectors during World War II, Nation of Islam members were characterized as fundamental threats to prison order (44-48).  As penal institutions cracked down on Muslim religious practice and demands in the 1960s, acting as arbiters of religious legitimacy, Muslims inside and outside of prison responded with tactics seemingly ripped from the headlines of the Southern Civil Rights struggle, including hunger strikes, intentionally filling solitary confinement units, engaging in policy discussions, and preparing litigation (65-70). Felber calls this relationship between “Black protest and escalating punitive state discipline,” the dialectics of discipline (2). This neologism suggests a constantly fluid relationship between the tactics used by the state to control, discipline, and surveil Black people and the ways that those under its thumb have sought to evade them.

Felber’s most important intervention is his argument that the Nation of Islam was politically active and politically significant. In practice, this has been be a difficult claim for historians to sustain, primarily because the Nation of Islam itself eschewed any political orientation, at times denied that its members were even American citizens, and was well known for publicly discouraging Black political participation. However, as those who study the history of the Nation of Islam know, the relationship between the Nation’s public discourse and organizational action is much more complicated and more paradoxical than most. This case is successfully made by Felber’s focus on the American prison. This lens broadens our understanding of bottom-up activism by focusing on prisoners—people who have been effectively quarantined from society and constantly surveilled. Using the prison as a staging ground for political protest, prisoners at Attica and Clinton prisons in New York demanded pork-free meals, the right to congregate to pray, access to the Qur’an, and the right to receive subscriptions to Muhammad Speaks and local Black newspapers. When they were met with solitary confinement and loss of accrued good behavior, instead of backing down, Muslims organized and committed additional violations, flooding solitary confinement cells and making their continued punishment and isolation untenable for authorities. Qualitatively, this activism had “shades” of the Civil Rights tactics that were concurrently sweeping the Southern United States and represented a bottom-up activism from the soil beneath the grassroots (65-70; 77-81).

In addition to Felber’s focus on rank-and-file members confined inside America’s prisons, he successfully demonstrates the ways Nation members also engaged politically outside of prison.  Nation of Islam leadership actively assisted prisoners litigating oppressive conditions in prison and denial of their rights to practice the Nation of Islam’s particular brand of Islam (77-81). As police baited Nation members into violence and then prosecuted them for violent crimes, Nation members packed courtrooms and courthouses for their trials, with men in distinctive bowties and military style jackets and women in hijabs (138-146). The Nation of Islam sought to bring attention to these inequities by partnering with others invested in the Black freedom struggle. Felber examines what scholars have otherwise noted as ephemeral partnerships—such as the Harlem based Emergency Committee for Unity on Social and Economic Problems—and it becomes clear that Nation leaders were not marginal to the Black freedom movement, but a central presence at the bargaining table (104-115). Thus, Those Who Know Don’t Say centralizes Nation of Islam leadership and membership in the debate surrounding the growth of the carceral state and demonstrates their involvement in strategies to combat that growth.

Those Who Know Don’t Say employs a rich archival base that diligently pieces together the mutual relationship between state and federal policy and grassroots action. The most interesting, most original, sauciest, and most page-turning evidence is a collection of prison administrator and official documents articulating their panic at the growing numbers of Black Muslims in their midst. In addition to exposing prison policy, these records expose the interior lives of Black Muslim prisoners and gives support to Those Who Know Don’t Say’s central argument that the Nation’s political activity was significant. Felber’s secondary reliance on Muhammad Speaks and Black newspapers such as the Amsterdam News and the Pittsburgh Courier give us a view into the internal lives of Black people that was not filtered through the lens of white bureaucrats and officials, but this does not come without its own drawbacks. Those Who Know Don’t Say excels at making the Nation of Islam look really good. The organization appears like a perfectly coordinated, powerful organization led by intellectually informed men, steeped in a specific strategy of Black global unity, and intimately in tune with global Islamic movements. I agree with this assessment for the most part, but I wonder about the instances in which this wasn’t the case. How did the Nation of Islam act in paradoxical, self-defeating, or apolitical ways? In making the Nation look like a political force to be reckoned with, Felber misses an opportunity to explore the very human dimensions of the existence of religious and political organization itself.

From an evidentiary standpoint, this over-reliance on printed materials creates a missed opportunity for oral testimony and memory to play some role in reconstructing the story of the Nation’s political engagement. Oral testimony had the potential to provide insight into the effectiveness of the Nation’s political theater court tactics, for example.

Felber is excellent at teasing out the Nation of Islam’s patriarchal gender politics and the ways that these were marshalled by Nation leaders to condemn police incursions into religious space and Black family life (96-97). He indicates that Black women played a critical role in the Nation’s performance of political theater in court. And he engages with previous scholarship on women, gender, and patriarchy in the Nation of Islam, most notably Ula Taylor’s 2017 monograph exploring the politics of the Nation’s “promise of patriarchy” to Black American women.  However, this is not the only way in which Felber could turn our attention to women’s religious practice, political engagement, and organizational leadership. In the same way that Felber meticulously investigated the activities of male rank-and-file members of the Nation of Islam, there was room to explore women’s prison activism as well. For example, were there parallel movements in women’s prisons? How did these politics differ from those evident among male Nation members?  Where the archives were lacking, letters to the editor, columns written by Black Nation women, and oral histories conducted by the author could have helped fill these gaps. Despite these challenges, Those Who Know Don’t Say is a wonderful contribution to the historiography on Black freedom and the carceral state. It redirects our attention to the Nation of Islam and its importance in the history of the quest for Black liberation and freedom.

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Alaina Morgan

Alaina Morgan is a historian of race, religion, and politics in the African Diaspora. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Islam in North America in the Department of Religious Studies and the Sohail and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University. She is currently editing her book manuscript, Atlantic Crescent: Black Muslim Internationalism, Anti-Colonialism, and Transnational Community Formation, which explores the ways that Islam and ideas of Blackness were used by Muslims in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Anglophone Caribbean to form the basis of transnational anti-colonial and anti-imperial political networks.

Comments on “Redefining the Boundaries of the Nation of Islam’s Political Participation

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    Im very anxious to read these books on the NOI. I was an international correspondent FOR muhammad Speaks Newspaper in the late 1960s to early 1970s.

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