I got myself into a lot of trouble back when because of becoming so angry when I was taken for a fool. I became convinced that the education system in Belize, where I had studied from 1952 to 1965, had taken me for a fool. I became rebellious. I paid a price for that rebellion. So did some people close to me.
As I mentioned in my midweek column, my generation of Belizeans first learned of the black civil rights struggle in the United States when the 1957 school integration confrontations in Little Rock, Arkansas, were publicized on the monopoly government radio station in British Honduras. (That station was called the British Honduras Broadcasting Service — BHBS).
I do not recall the Rosa Parks bus incident in Alabama and the subsequent drama involving Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., being brought to our attention in Belize in 1955. Why Little Rock and not Rosa Parks? Who knows? Or perhaps I was too young in 1955 to recall properly.
We never heard anything here about the American college students, both black and white, who were risking their lives riding buses (in the fight for racial integration) in the Southern states of America. I believe they were called Freedom Riders. This was in the early 1960s, and Belize was to achieve self-government in January of 1964. Perhaps someone had made a mistake letting us know about Little Rock. I’m looking back into the distant past, and I’m just saying.
We young Belizeans were very excited and optimistic in those years of the early 1960s, because, even though someone like myself was anti-Guatemala and pro-Goldson, the aggressive energy of Mr. Price’s People’s United Party (PUP) influenced our opinion of ourselves positively. We had some self-esteem; we thought we were somebody, or that we were about to become somebody in our region and in the world.
Those of us Belizeans who were of a darker complexion dreamed of going to New York City, where most of the “barrels” came from. We had no idea of how dangerous the African-American struggle for voting rights, integration, and other human rights had become in the Southern states, because New York City, where our relatives lived, was liberal and progressive.
Lighter-skinned Belizeans would mostly travel to New Orleans and its surrounding parishes, like Slidell and Metairie, where they passed for white. That was my sense.
Where I want to go in this column is where I, a clerical black-conscious young adult who had been “converted” by Malcolm X’s autobiography in the winter of 1968, met street, working-class brothers in Belize in late ‘68/early ‘69 who were followers of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam (NOI).
I only knew Malcolm X’s side of the story where his rift with Hon. Elijah was concerned. As a college student in 1968, the teachings of the Nation of Islam seemed extreme to me. Malcolm X had become an orthodox Muslim before he was killed in February of 1965, so that meant he had given up the teachings of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, which appeared to be outright racist. (Orthodox Islam does not differentiate among races.)
When Hon. Elijah’s son, Wallace Deen (who had been friendly with Malcolm), succeeded him as NOI leader on Hon. Elijah’s death in 1975, he moved the NOI to orthodox Islam. But the movement lost momentum. Why? This is what you have to understand. The experiences with white people of those African-Americans who followed Hon. Elijah had been such that the idea that “white men were devils” came across as natural and logical to them. The white man had behaved like a devil in their lives.
When Charles X “Justice” Eagan began to promote the teachings of the Nation of Islam in 1961/62 in British Honduras, at a certain point the authorities arrested and confined him in the mental hospital at the Newtown Barracks, what we referred to as “crazy house” in the streets and later knew as “Seaview.” I am certain that his confinement was for at least a week, but it may have been two weeks.
The feeling in the streets of Belize City in those days was that once they put you in there, if you were not crazy when they put you in there, you would become crazy while you were confined. I am using “crazy,” because in those days things were raw.
Justice was a man of extraordinary strength and vitality, and he survived the Seaview ordeal. But his movement only had two followers in the late 1960s, Ismail Shabazz (formerly George Tucker) and Rudolph Farrakhan (formerly Rudolph Trapp), even though the visit of the charismatic world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, in July of 1965, would give Justice a profile in the population center. Muhammad Ali, who had been close to Malcolm X in 1963 and early 1964, was also a follower of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, as was Justice. Ali sided with Hon. Elijah when the Messenger’s split with Malcolm became final.
Malcolm X could not establish a strong organization based on orthodox Islam in the months of 1964 and 1965 before he was assassinated in February of 1965. The teachings of Hon. Elijah Muhammad resonated powerfully with the Messenger’s followers, even though they seemed outlandish to many outside of the NOI. Malcolm was a great man, my hero, but it was Elijah’s message and organization which had brought Malcolm from prison to international fame.
Charles X Eagan was Ismail Shabazz’s leader, idol, and guru. When the ruling PUP began to bring pressure on me personally in early 1970, Justice’s influence upon me grew to the point where the UBAD movement, of which I was president and Shabazz was secretary/treasurer, became more Justice’s movement than mine. Then, Justice went to jail in January of 1971, and things changed.
I ended Tuesday’s column with a comment which may seem strange. Referring to Justice and Shabazz, I wrote: “So the story of what happened after I met these men in late 1968/early 1969 should help to clarify for you, hopefully soon, some of the circumstances and history of the Malcolm assassination in 1965.” My comment may have been ambitious, or imprecise. I don’t know.
I think what I have tried to do in this column today is give you some idea of the power within the teachings of Hon. Elijah Muhammad, and give you a sense of how much Justice and Shabazz influenced UBAD.
On the face of it, Malcolm X was too great to fall so easily. But those of us on the outside did not realize how impressive Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam was during the Messenger’s lifetime. When Malcolm went against Elijah, Malcolm became vulnerable. The white power structure may have been more afraid of Malcolm than they were of Elijah, because Malcolm’s rhetoric was beginning to reach the wider United States population, and indeed the world. But it may be argued that Elijah, ultimately, was the greater man, because his organizational footprint has been more lasting and impactive. That is why Minister Louis Farrakhan felt he had to revive Hon. Elijah’s teachings after Wallace Deen went orthodox. And that’s a story in itself of great significance. Some other time, Inshallah.
P.S. On leafing through North Amerikkkan Blues on Wednesday morning, I realized that I had read Malcolm X’s autobiography in the winter of 1968, not the winter of 1967 as I had written in the midweek column. The correction is important, because it means that when I visited home for the first time in two years in the summer of 1967, I was not equipped with all the knowledge and insight which Malcolm’s autobiography would later give me.