This week in history: Chicago Daily News reporter goes undercover in the Nation of Islam
In 1962, Chicago Daily News reporter Ben Holman went undercover and joined the Nation of Islam to report on what really went on at meetings. Here’s a look at what he wrote.
As reported in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Nation of Islam as a hate group, citing examples of racist, anti-semitic and anti-LGBTQ language used by prominent members of the group.
In the early 1960s, however, not much was known about the movement or its leader and Chicago resident, Elijah Muhammad. Did the group promote violence? What doctrine did members follow? What did meetings of Black Muslims really look like?
In 1962, the Chicago Daily News sent Ben Holman, the paper’s first Black reporter, undercover to learn more about the NOI and what really went on at its meetings. The paper published his series of reports beginning Aug. 13, 1962.
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“Holman, using an assumed name, posed as a follower of Muhammad,” the paper explained. “To gain further insight into the Black Muslim movement, he investigated the group’s activities in Los Angeles and New York, and interviewed scores of persons, white and [Black], in and out of the movement.”
Holman’s first report came from a meeting at Temple of Islam No. 2, 5335 S. Greenwood Ave. (part of the building still stands today). He created the alias Nathaniel W. Parker, an unemployed South Sider who came to learn more about Elijah Muhammad’s Black supremacy movement on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
When he arrived, a man at the door said Holman would need to be “examined” as no alcohol, weapons or cigarettes were permitted. In the lobby, “another husky young man proceeded to give me the most efficient and thorough frisking I have ever experienced or seen.”
Afterward, they led Holman into a largely empty 500-seat auditorium, the report said. Women sat in the center section and men to the left and right. One of the men led Holman up to the front row where four other men — “new blood” — sat.
“In spite of the Black Muslims’ claims of rapid growth, I never found more than 10 or 15 persons in this section in any of the many weeks I was to return to the temple,” Holman wrote.
On the stage, Minister James, a Muhammad lieutenant, spoke to the crowd in a style that Holman described as a “blend of a revival preacher and a ward-heeling politician, delivered in a calm voice full of unctuous earnestness.” He appeared to not need a script, but Holman soon found out that he gave the same speech every Sunday.
James’ speech ridiculed Christianity and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he referred to as an Uncle Tom, but he saved most of his ire for the white man, Holman wrote. In the crowd, listeners responded with “That’s right!” and “You tell them!”
Initiation began after the meeting. James wished Holman a warm “welcome to the flock, brother,” and sent him to the adjacent building where a secretary handed him a letter of application.
“We were instructed by her to copy carefully the model handed us and mail it to the designated address,” Holman explained. “The addressee was ‘Allah’ and his address, 4847 S. Woodlawn, the plush Hyde Park mansion of Elijah Muhammad.”
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Each week, Holman needed to ask the secretary about his letter, and by the fourth week, she handed him back his letter with corrections marked in red.
“I had made none of the errors in spelling that trip up most of the inmates,” he said. “All my ‘errors’ were in penmanship. On the back side of my letter was a note: ‘You must take your time in writing and be neater.’”
Holman rewrote and resubmitted his letter and continued attending meetings, so many that he thought he could have “recited Minister James’ lecture for him.” Finally, after about two months, the secretary announced he’d been approved. He could now call himself Nathaniel X: “an unswerving loyal believer in Elijah Muhammad, Messenger of Allah — willing to die for him, if necessary, or any of my brothers who was mistreated by the hated ‘white devils.’”
Holman’s reports ran all week long, covering the group’s ideology, its publicity strategies and violence connected to the movement. According to Holman’s obituary (he died in 2007), the paper promoted his report by plastering his face on the side of their delivery trucks, which led to him being beaten for his reporting by those unhappy with what they read.