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The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Malcolm X

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Johnson, now Khalil Islam, was one of Elijah Muhammad's enforcers.   

“I thought this was the secret knowledge hidden since slavery, when we weren’t even allowed to read a book. I got so excited. I never thought like that … The truth is, I never thought at all.”

Out of jail, Khalil headed to Muhammad’s Temple No. 7. “I’d walked by the place for years to buy dope and never once noticed it. Now I was in the mosque every day. Funny how the center of your life can shift like that—less than half a block away.

“My parents noticed a change. I’d kicked dope, was dressing up, being neat. I wouldn’t eat pork. My mother asked me who told me not to eat pork. I told her: the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. It was in his book, How to Eat to Live, how the hog was a hybrid, grafted animal, a combination of cat, dog, and rat. I wasn’t going to eat no rat.

“My mother, a nice Christian lady, reminded me that when I was young, I wouldn’t eat pork. She’d make ribs, bacon, and I’d refuse to eat it. My father would beat me in the attic about it. ‘We’re not making special food just for you,’ he’d scream. Still wouldn’t eat it. It didn’t taste right. My mother said she could understand me not eating pork now I was a follower of Elijah Muhammad. She wanted to know, Who told you then?” The question haunted Khalil, because “how did I know not to eat pork when I was 5 years old? I think I’ve always had a spiritual calling inside me. That’s what the drugs were about, trying to find another reality, beyond the surface.”

Khalil soon became “a tremendous Black Muslim.” To get one’s X (it stands for the unknown African/“Asiatic” name stolen by slave traders; he was Thomas 15X because fourteen other Thomases had joined No. 7 before him), the applicant had to submit a letter, in “perfect cursive,” to “Mr. W.F. Muhammad, our Dear Savior Allah, our Deliverer.” It often took prospective Muslims weeks to craft an acceptable draft. “But I got mine on the first shot,” Khalil said. Seen as a man of promise, he was sent out to peddle copies of Muhammad Speaks.

“They gave me a squad, and I’d make those guys sell those papers. I’d take their watch and wouldn’t give it back until the papers were gone. To me, this wasn’t just another newspaper—it was the word of the Messenger of God. You had to get that out. In 1961, I got recognized for selling the most Muhammad Speaks. I was driven down to Baltimore in a brand-new Caddy for a dinner. The sisters were eyeing me then.”

Khalil advanced quickly, making lieutenant in a year, a rare accomplishment. Malcolm X complimented Khalil, saying, “You must be a righteous Muslim.”

Asked if he believed Elijah Muhammad’s stories about Yakub and how whites created gorillas in a failed attempt to turn themselves back into blacks, Khalil says, “You mean when I was Thomas 15X? Absolutely. We all did.” All would include the supposedly clear-eyed Malcolm, who oversaw the opening of dozens of mosques and was more responsible than anyone for disseminating Elijah Muhammad’s religious-social package.

After all, there could be no denying the appeal of Elijah’s message, especially as an answer to the question almost always asked by oppressed groups: How did we get into this impossible situation, and how are we going to get out of it? Like the Native American Ghost Dancers, who created instant rituals in hope of ridding themselves of the genocidal John Waynes who suddenly appeared on the horizon (the shaman Wovoka told followers, “White people are only a bad dream”), the Nation of Islam was a cult born of existential crisis. As Jamaican Rastafarians sought salvation in the notion that Haile Selassie, a five-foot-four Ethiopian dictator, was the living God on Earth, Elijah Muhammad offered a stern (no ganja nor dreadlocks here) cosmology rooted in technological Armageddon.

A prime Fard/Elijah precept is “the mother plane.” A baroque sci-fi update of the prophet Ezekiel’s biblical vision of a fiery wheel in the middle of the air (Ezekiel 10:2), Elijah’s key text, Message to the Black Man in America (Chapter 125, “Battle in the Sky Is Near”), describes the mother plane as being “one-half mile by a half mile … the largest mechanical man-made object in the sky.” Designed by “the finest brains,” with bombs constructed of “the toughest of steel,” and capable of staying “in outer space six to twelve months at a time,” the craft carries a payload of “fifteen hundred bombing planes with most deadliest explosives.” America will be the mother plane’s first target, Elijah writes; the country’s “doom is set like a die.” The attack is “only one of the things in store for the white man’s evil world ... Believe it or believe it not!”


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