Read an Excerpt from “Believing in South Central”
In Believing in South Central, Pamela J. Prickett takes a close look at the Los Angeles neighborhood of South Central—an area often overshadowed by stereotypes—and illuminates the lives and history of a community of Black Muslims centered around the Masjid al-Quran (MAQ). In this excerpt, she highlights a time during the mosque’s formation, telling the story of its origins in the mid-twentieth century as the Nation of Islam (NOI) expanded beyond Detroit. She discusses how the MAQ fostered the growth of economic, racial, and communal solidarity in South Central and how figures like Malcolm X were integral to the story of the Nation of Islam and to this group of Black Muslim Angelenos.
The Rise of a “Ghetto” Counterpublic
The Nation of Islam grew rapidly during the late 1950s and early 1960s as a result of the appeal of Elijah Muhammad’s race empowerment ideology. In 1956, it had ten temples, concentrated in the Midwest and along the East Coast. By 1975, that number had increased to more than one hundred throughout the United States, including the one established in 1957 in South Central. As with many NOI temples, MAQ members had little choice but to set up their community in one of the poorest and most blighted areas of their city. Until World War II, few Blacks in Los Angeles lived or worked outside South Central. Even after the Housing Act of 1949, these residents continued to live behind a visible color line, segregated into the dense area south and southwest of the downtown business district via restrictive covenants and redlining practices.
Forced residential racial segregation allowed city officials to essentially ignore the problems of Black Angelenos by keeping them physically contained in an undesirable part of the city. For much of the twentieth century, municipal funds earmarked for traffic safety, sewerage, street repairs, and so on were diverted from poor Black areas to wealthier white neighborhoods. City officials also “ignored or relaxed zoning ordinances to accommodate commercial growth in residential areas,” enabling several chemical companies and food processing plants to set up in the area around the NOI temple. The industrial debris and hazardous waste these plants produced turned South Central into the “dump-yard of the city of Los Angeles,” driving down property values and creating public health crises. Along with its physical deterioration, South Central offered residents fewer employment, transportation, and retail options.
Despite violence and intimidation, members of the African American Muslim community in Los Angeles continued to build their economic empire.
Ironically, all this helped the NOI temple strengthen its foothold in South Central during the 1950s and 1960s, creating new jobs and retail options for Blacks trapped in a depressed urban environment. In his famed 1961 account of the Nation, sociologist C. Eric Lincoln wrote, “The Muslim leaders tend to live and to build their temples in the areas from which they draw their major support—the heart of the black ghetto. The ghetto houses the most dissident and disinherited, the people who wake up to society’s kick in the teeth each morning and fall exhausted with a parting kick each night. These are the people who are ready for revolution.” The NOI reinterpreted the problems of the inner city—unemployment, municipal neglect, commercial divestment, poor housing—as opportunities for Black residents to reinvent themselves by becoming “soldiers” for the movement. Temple leaders walked through the streets of the neighborhood
recruiting poor, disenfranchised residents. New recruits learned that the Black man would rise out of poverty through self-discipline, knowledge, and hard work, not by depending on government assistance or anything originating in white America. The Nation viewed politics “as an extension of righteous behavior, a tool with which to achieve the race’s destiny.” Members didn’t seek new laws to govern change but advocated instead for the principle of self-determination to govern the individual. This emphasis on economic separatism distinguished the Nation from other Black political movements of the 1960s. Under the leadership of local ministers, temple members in Los Angeles established fish and soul food restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries. These brick and mortar operations, combined with the bow ties and bean pies, raised the profile of Muslims in Los Angeles. Said Imam Khalid, “We didn’t eat pork and didn’t sell it. We didn’t smoke and we didn’t sell cigarettes. We didn’t sell alcohol. They said you couldn’t survive in business if you didn’t sell those things. We showed [them] wrong!”
Not everyone could be so easily convinced to see the positive influences that the Nation produced. Many powerful and wealthy whites in the city perceived MAQ members as “aggressive” and “militant.” Within a few years of its founding, the community found itself in several physical confrontations with law enforcement. In 1961, members of the old NOI temple clashed with white security guards outside a grocery store on Western Avenue. According to Los Angeles historian Josh Sides, “Six Muslims (five of them under the age of twenty-five) attacked the guards, stomping and beating them.” The event contributed to perceptions that the Nation of Islam promoted violence, despite members’ persistent claims that weapons weren’t allowed, and violence permitted only in self-defense.
Over the next several years, the situation with law enforcement worsened. LAPD engaged in a “campaign of repression” against the NOI temple and its members, including surveillance and organized violence. The campaign reached its climax in 1962 in what believers described as a “fierce run-in” with the police. Officers raided the temple, supposedly in search of weapons. Community members said the officers “shot up the masjid” without just cause, killing one brother, paralyzing another, and injuring five more. The police never found any weapons on the men or in the building, and by all published accounts it was indeed an unprovoked attack. A jury of twelve whites would later rule the shooting justifiable in the trial that followed.
The shooting outside the Los Angeles temple became a turning point in the history of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X had helped establish and build that community, and he was close to the murdered brother. He perceived the LAPD raid as a personal attack on his religious beliefs. At the funeral for the slain brother, Malcolm told the audience of more than two thousand mourners,
They were praying when they were shot down. They were saying, “Allahu Akbar.” And it shook the officers up, cuz they haven’t heard Black people talk any kind of talk but what they [whites] taught. And two of the brothers who were shot in the back were telling me as they lay on the sidewalk they were holding hands. They held hands with each other, saying, “Allahu Akbar,” and the blood was seeping out of them where the bullets had torn into their sides and they still said, “Allahu Akbar.”
After the funeral, Malcolm pressured NOI headquarters to fight back with physical force against the police in Los Angeles. Eljiah Muhammad rejected the notion, advocating instead for patience and encouraging Malcolm to channel his energies into economic activities. The two men’s divergent views on how to pursue justice contributed to Malcolm’s later retreat from the Nation and, more generally, indicated a growing ideological schism within the organization, signaling that “two different visions of religious identity” were forming within the movement.
While Nation leaders quarreled in Chicago, back on the ground in Los Angeles members of the local temple thought “the war was coming” with LAPD. Imam Khalid said that it was the success of the Los Angeles brothers in “reaching hearts and minds” of people in the Black community that threatened police, not actual physical force. He emphasized that officers found no weapons the two other times they “broke in” at the mosque in the 1960s. The Nation didn’t teach violence, Khalid emphasized, pointing out that members lived in the neighborhood and for the most part “prevented violence.”
Few scholars writing about race in Los Angeles have devoted attention to this moment in the city’s history, in part because the police department and the whites that dominated it successfully framed the Nation of Islam as a militant group rather than a religious movement and consequently minimized the shooting in public accounts. Instead, the arrest of Marquette Frye by a California Highway Patrol officer in August 1965 became the watershed moment when racial injustice manifested in social unrest, culminating in six days of rioting in and around the Watts neighborhood. It was the deadliest and most expensive of the more than one hundred urban riots that spread across US cities in the 1960s. Yet even if the city had forgotten about the 1962 shooting of an unarmed African American Muslim man, believers at MAQ had not. The event remained significant enough in the collective memory of members that forty-six years later, they shared the story when I first entered the masjid, recounting the loss of the brother and pointing to this past violence by LAPD as proof that African American Muslims have always faced discrimination from law enforcement. This was their response to questions I asked about 9/11 and whether the terrorist attack brought additional police attention to the MAQ community.
Despite violence and intimidation, members of the African American Muslim community in Los Angeles continued to build their economic empire. Sisters cooked food, made uniforms, and taught children, while brothers sold newspapers and ran businesses; none of the proprietors were over the age of thirty-five. When Imam Khalid took control of the temple in 1973, he added a dry-cleaning business and led the community’s successful fish importing operation. The Nation imported thousands of pounds of whiting fish every week from Peru, which brothers received at the Port of Los Angeles and transferred to the community’s warehouse in South Central. These transactions brought African American Muslims into contact with foreign entities, a far cry from the perception of the inner-city “ghetto” as isolated and disconnected.
In fact, the MAQ community was experiencing so much growth—financial and otherwise—that members needed more physical space to hold meetings and to educate children. The Los Angeles chapter of the Nation of Islam purchased a nearby building, and in one weekend members transformed a music venue into a religious and educational facility. Khalid boasted that they didn’t wait for city permits before making the changes, although such defiance would later prove costly after a protracted dispute with the City of Los Angeles over the use of a commercial property for schooling.
Believers perceived their actions in the early 1970s as building Black solidarity and contributing to economic uplift in South Central. They organized bazaars, plays, conferences, festivals, and other events, often inviting non-Muslim African Americans from across the city to participate. The events drew famous Black entertainment and sports celebrities as well as local politicians, including the city’s first African American mayor, Tom Bradley. In Imam Khalid’s recollections, these events weren’t so much about teaching religion as they were about building history, culture, and business. He said the intent was to create a sense of “belonging” and “togetherness” built on racial pride.
Pamela J. Prickett, PhD, is an urban ethnographer and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam.