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When We Were Kins, or a primer on Elijah Muhammad’s Economic Blueprint

The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) led the Nation of Islam as self-described Messenger (not prophet) of Allah. He offered a plan to uplift African-Americans from institutional racism and generational poverty.
The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) led the Nation of Islam as self-described Messenger (not prophet) of Allah. He offered a plan to uplift African-Americans from institutional racism and generational poverty.
Nation of Islam

Throughout his life, particularly in Message to the Blackman in America, the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Messenger of Allah to the Nation of Islam, taught that the “plan for the solution of the black and white conflict,” indeed, the “only answer to the problem between two people,” was separatism incubated for a period lasting several decades, with contemporaneously white-owned resources. During the transition period the black Muslims would seek equality under the law, but because of the socioeconomic and political untenability of this, the dynamic’s logical conclusion would unequivocally remain leaving the unequal society altogether and establishing a self-sufficient domain inasmuch as black demand matched a supply of black-produced goods. This would be the case, Muhammad theorized, and it was so in the skeletal iterations of his Economic Blueprint. This program and its appendages succeeded in empowering African-Americans through alternative economic paths and knowledge of self. Despite shortcomings attributable to internal ecclesiastical fractures, Muhammad’s framework should be dissected and magnified for the benefit of historically oppressed peoples seeking a concrete avenue to systematic liberation.

Muhammad justifies his plan on the following moral grounds: “We want our people in America whose parents or grandparents were descendants from slaves to be allowed to establish a separate state or territory of their own–either on this continent or elsewhere. We believe that our former slave-masters are obligated to provide such land and that the area must be fertile and minerally rich. We believe that our former slave-masters are obligated to maintain and supply our needs in this separate territory for the next 20 or 25 years until we are able to produce and supply our own needs.” (161, Blackman) It is worth noting, however, that Muhammad distinguished his plan from the back-to-Africa program of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association on the grounds that “the white man… belongs in Europe and by force took America from ‘our Asiatic brother, the Indian’,” according to NoI Minister James Shabazz in the preface to Blackman. (xiii-xiv)

The pendulum of oppression evinces that separatism is the sole solution to the race problem, Muhammad continues: “Since we cannot get along with them in peace and equality after giving them 400 years of our sweat and blood and receiving in return some of the worst treatment human beings have ever experienced, we believe our contributions to this land and the suffering forced upon us by white America justifies our demand for complete separation in a state or territory of our own.” (161)

“The following blueprint shows the way:

  1. Recognize the necessity for unity and group operation (activities).
  2. Pool your resources, physically as well as financially.
  3. Stop wanton criticisms of everything that is black-owned and black-operated.
  4. Keep in mind — jealousy destroys from within.
  5. Observe the operations of the white man. He is successful. He makes no excuses for his failures. He works hard in a collective manner. You do the same.
  6. If there are six or eight Muslims with knowledge and experience of the grocery business — pool your knowledge, open a grocery store — and you work collectively and harmoniously, Allah will bless you with success.

“If there are those with knowledge of dressmaking, merchandising, trades, maintenance — pool such knowledge. Do not be ashamed to seek guidance and instructions from the brother or sister who has more experience, education and training than you have had. Accept his or her assistance. The white man spends his money with his own kind, which is natural. You, too, must do this. Help to make jobs for your own kind. Take a lesson from the Chinese and Japanese and go give employment and assistance to your own kind when they are in need. This is the first law of nature. Defend and support your own kind. True Muslims do this.” (174)

On this concept of homogeneous economic solidarity in the black Muslim community, Bennett Harrison observes in the Journal of Economic Literature:

“[They] have been extremely successful in developing a network of small black businesses in several large American cities. Their most important long-range economic goal is, however, the creation of a geographically isolated, agricultural-based nation in the American South. An industrial structure would emerge gradually over an agrarian base, through a regime of austere consumption with profits from the sale of agricultural products within the Nation, to neighbors, and to the Muslim stores in Northern cities.”

Indeed, Wikipedia says:“In his time as leader of The Nation of Islam, Muhammad had developed the Nation of Islam from a small movement in Detroit to an empire consisting of banks, schools, restaurants and stores across 46 cities in America. The Nation also owned over 15,000 acres of farmland, their own truck- and air- transport systems, as well as a publishing company that printed the country’s largest Black newspaper.”

On the history of black financial cooperation, Harrison offers a footnote: “The admonition to ‘buy black’ has a long history. Black churches have always encouraged their parishioners to patronize black enterprises (while continuing to respect the capitalist ethic). Endorsement of private business by the church, and constant propaganda in the black press, black civic organizations, and black social clubs, emphasized ‘the duty of Negroes to trade with Negroes and [promised] ultimate racial ‘salvation’ if they [would] support racial business enterprise.” As Lawrence L. Tyler highlights in Phylon: “T]he religious ethic of the Black Muslims does indeed qualify as the manifestation of asceticism. The Black Muslim ethic both in its demands upon its adherents and in its practical effect upon their lives ironically parallels Weber’s ‘Protestant ethic’ which so greatly facilitated the economic inequality that the Muslims are retaliating against… This savings, like that of the early Protestant, is not to be hoarded or squandered. Muhammad stresses three economic values for the proper use of savings: (1) responsibility for economic self-improvement, (2) investment in Muslim-owned collective business enterprise, (3) responsibility for the welfare of the Muslim community. A good Muslim also patronizes Muslim businesses and contributes his ‘Duty’ or tithe.”

Muhammad’s plan is unlikely to come into fruition with the same initial steps he offered. Full equality under the law is not tenable nor desirable using today’s mechanisms; they inherently coerce businesses to sacrifice freedom of association for diversity, for example. Discrimination laws, as I explain in the Examiner, also prevent progress in terms of homogeneous economic solidarity. But because we live in a world where one’s income is determined by another’s spending, concentrating it in a geographically- or racially- limited way is by definition the way to mainline prosperity.

A society with its basis in voluntaryism, or a society without non-retaliatory coercion, would be best accommodating to bring about Muhammad’s plan. This is not here yet. Still, Muhammad’s plan offers a new way of considering economics and certainly a better way to uplift a historically oppressed people. A paper presented to the 33rd annual National Council for Black Studies had among its findings these two key points:

“2. It succeeded in turning the lives of many Muslim and non-Muslim blacks into lives of economically independent followers 3. The happiness that flowed from these members is testimony to the success of the economic program. Conclusions show that black economic development can be beneficial in countering economic oppression in America and can advance the socioeconomic status of African Americans.”

Works cited:

  1. Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. 1965. Reprint. Atlanta, Georgia: Messenger Elijah Muhammad Propagation Society (M.E.M.P.S.), 1997. Print.
  2. Harrison, Bennett. “Ghetto Economic Development: A Survey.” Journal of Economic Literature 12: 1-37. Print.
  3. Tyler, Lawrence. “The Protestant Ethic among the Black Muslims.” Phylon27: 5-14. Print.
  4. Davila Martinez, Melvin. “Reforming and repealing LBJ’s Civil Rights Act, 50 years later.” Examiner. Apr. 16, 2014.
  5. Muhammad, Nafeesa.”The Economic Philosophy And Program of Elijah Muhammad” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 33rd Annual National Council for Black Studies, Renaissance Atlanta Hotel Downtown, Atlanta, GA, Mar 19, 2009<Not Available>. 2013-12-13<>
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