Many black Americans wrote off Louis Farrakhan Sr. now 87 years when already suspecting him of instigating Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, he made remarks to the effect that what business was it of people outside the Nation of Islam (NOI) if it dealt with a traitor the way it saw fit.
It didn’t help that when Farrakhan joined the NOI, an African-American organization rooted in American Islam and black nationalism in 1955, he became Malcolm’s assistant. When Malcolm broke with the Nation over political and personal differences with then leader Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan took his place as minister of Harlem’s Temple No. 7 and then replaced him as the organization’s national spokesman.
But the man born Louis Eugene Walcott, who became Louis X and then Louis Farrakhan, had an interesting start to life. He was born in the Bronx, New York to Percival Clark, a Jamaican father, and Sarah Mae Manning from Saint Kitts on May 11, 1933. The couple soon separated and, according to Farrakhan, he never knew his biological father.
His mother moved in with Louis Walcott from Barbados, who became his stepfather. After his stepfather died in 1936, the Walcott family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where they settled in the West Indian neighborhood of Roxbury.
Few know Farrakhan to be a pianist and violinist, but he received his first violin at the age of five and by the time he was 12 years old, he had been on tour with the Boston College Orchestra. It marks his early years as an entertainer. In 1946, he was one of the first black performers to appear on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, where he also won an award. Walcott and his family were active members of the Episcopal St. Cyprian’s Church in Roxbury making Farrakhan a Christian at this stage.
Walcott attended the Boston Latin School, and later the English High School, from which he graduated. He completed three years at Winston-Salem Teachers College, where he had a track scholarship.
A far cry from his fiery speeches denouncing acts of the white race as demonic, Farrakhan in the 1950s worked as a professional musician billed as “The Charmer”. Falling on his Caribbean roots, Farrakhan recorded and released tunes in the mixed mento/calypso style, including “Ugly Woman”, “Stone Cold Me” and calypso standards like “Zombie Jamboree”, “Hol ‘Em Joe”, “Mary Ann” and “Brown Skin Girl”.
His life would take a monumental turn when in February 1955, as a headline act in Chicago, Illinois, his friend and saxophonist Rodney Smith invited him to the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviours’ Day address by Elijah Muhammad.
That same year, Farrakhan became a registered Muslim receiving his “X” placeholder, used to indicate that Nation of Islam members’ original African family names had been lost. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation he inherited from Wallace D. Fard Muhammad eventually replaced his “X” with the “holy name” Farrakhan, an Arabic name meaning “The Criterion”.
Soon after his conversion, Elijah Muhammad stated that all musicians in the NOI had to choose between music and the Nation of Islam. Many folks couldn’t lose their income source so left the Nation, but Farrakhan although uncertain stayed on. The move ended his professional music and dancing career.
A test of character came for Farrakhan, who had previously served as the minister of mosques in Boston and Harlem and had been appointed National Representative of the Nation of Islam when its leader Elijah Muhammad died in 1975.
Farrakhan was stunned when he was not named Muhammad’s successor following his death. Instead a son of Elijah, Warith Deen Muhammad was settled upon. He reorganized the original NOI into the orthodox Sunni Islamic group American Society of Muslims, with the aim of moving American Muslims into traditional Islam as practiced in the Orient. Meanwhile, he wanted to retain the ‘Americaness’ of their version of Islam so led a breakaway group in 1978, which he also called the Nation of Islam.
He began to rebuild the NOI as “Final Call”. In 1981, he officially adopted the name “Nation of Islam”, reviving the group and establishing its headquarters at Mosque Maryam. Farrakhan’s group preserved the original teachings of Muhammad, unlike his successor, the fifth of Muhammad’s six sons.
In October 1995, he organized and led the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Due to health issues, he reduced his responsibilities with the NOI in 2007. However, Farrakhan has continued to deliver sermons at NOI events. In 2015, he led the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March: Justice or Else.
He was also active in the fight against drugs and crime, advocating for clean living and black self-help.
In 1991, Farrakhan was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After his diagnosis, he toned down on the racial rhetoric. He suffered a reoccurrence in 2007, but after a long surgery, the prostate and cancerous tissues were removed.
In 1953, he married Betsy Ross (later known as Khadijah Farrakhan) while he was in college. They share nine children in total, four sons and five daughters together.