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Posted: February 06, 2018

Who is Louis Farrakhan? 11 things to know about the Nation of Islam leader, black activist

Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, speaks at a press conference near United Nations headquarters on June 15, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, speaks at a press conference near United Nations headquarters on June 15, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

By Fiza Pirani, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Louis Farrakhan, a prominent African-American religious leader and black activist has drawn both scorn for his anti-Semitic comments and praise for his advocacy for the black community throughout his life

>> Read more trending news

Here are 10 things to know about Louis Farrakhan:

1. He is the leader of the Nation of Islam.

In 1955, Farrakhan joined the Nation of Islam, an African-American movement and organization rooted in elements of traditional Islam and black nationalism.

In 1964, Farrakhan condemned his rival Malcolm X, a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam at the time. But when Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam over political and personal differences with then leader Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan took his place as minister of Harlem’s Temple No. 7.

When Malcolm X was assassinated, Farrakhan replaced him as the organization's national spokesman. In 2000, Farrakhan appeared on "60 Minutes" with Malcolm X's daughter, Qubilah Bahiyah Shabazz, and said he regretted that his writings may have influenced others to assassinate him, CNN reported.

Farrakhan was disappointed when he was not named Muhammad’s successor following his death. He instead led a breakaway group in 1978, which he also called the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan’s group preserved the original teachings of Muhammad, unlike his successor, the fifth of Muhammad’s six sons.

2. He was born in New York.

The 84-year-old religious figure was born Louis Eugene Walcott on May 11, 1933, in the Bronx borough of New York City. He and his family eventually moved from the Bronx to the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston.

>> On AJC.com: Louis Farrakhan: Nation of Islam security force will protect Beyoncé

3. He studied music as a youth, and eventually became a playwright and film producer.

According to Brittanica, Farrakhan studied music while attending Winston-Salem Teachers College, but dropped out after three years to pursue a career in music.

He went on to perform on the Boston nightclub circuit and was known as “The Charmer.” Farrakhan was a violinist, guitarist and singer. He often sang political lyrics to Caribbean music.

According to CNN, Farrakhan wrote two plays, "The Trial" and "Orgena,” which is “a Negro" spelled backward.

>> Related: Louis Farrakhan: 'We need to put the American flag down'

4. He married his wife Khadijah in 1953, and they have nine children.

Farrakhan (then Walcott) married Betsy Ross in 1953. She’s since changed her name to Khadijah. The pair has four sons and five daughters together.

>> Related: Muslims in America, by the numbers

5. He’s known for his controversial anti-Semitic, anti-white and anti-homosexual comments.

Farrakhan came into the American public light when he began supporting Rev. Jesse Jackson’s bid for the presidency. However, when he praised Adolf Hitler, calling him “a very great man,” Farrakhan set off conflict with American-Jewish voters. He would eventually withdraw his support. He’s denied being anti-Semitic.

6. He was also active in the fight against drugs and crime, advocating for clean living and black self-help.

Farrakhan often blamed the American government for conspiring to destroy black people with AIDS and addictive drugs, according to Brittanica.

Under his leadership, the Nation of Islam created a clinic for AIDS patients in Washington, D.C., forcing drug dealers out of public housing projects and private apartment buildings. The Farrakhan-led movement also worked with gang members in Los Angeles to do the same.

He continued to advocate for African-American economic independence.

>> Related: Muslim Americans are more accepting of homosexuality than white evangelicals, Pew research says 

7. He came into the political realm when supporting Jackson's bid for the presidency.

Farrakhan also later filed a lawsuit against President Ronald Reagan, claiming his administration’s sanctions against Libya and travel ban violate freedom to worship and freedom of speech.

He’s been criticized for his early association with anti-American leaders like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Cuba's Fidel Castro, but has dialed back his rhetoric in recent years.

>> Related: Rev. Jesse Jackson diagnosed with Parkinson's disease

8. In 1991, Farrakhan was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

After his diagnosis, Farrakhan toned down on the racial rhetoric. He suffered a reoccurrence in 2007, but after a long surgery, the prostate and cancerous tissue were removed.

9. He co-organized the Million Man March in 1995.

One of largest demonstrations in Washington, D.C., history, the Million Man March (or the Day of Atonement) involved 12 hours of speeches directed at black men to promote self-improvement and encourage them to take responsibility for their families and communities.

>> Related: The Million Man March's understated inclusivity

10. He gave what was known as a farewell speech in 2007.

An aging and ailing 73-year-old Farrakhan delivered a “last public address” on the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviors’ Day in February 2007, calling for Christian-Muslim unity.

He said Jesus and Mohammad "are brothers who come from the same eternal God."

"How dare us try to split up the prophets and make them enemies of each other to justify our being enemies ... If Jesus and Mohammad were on this stage, they would embrace each other with love. If Moses and the prophets and Abraham the father would be on this podium with all the prophets, they would embrace each other,” he said.

Farrakhan later spoke at the Justice or Else rally in Washington, D.C., in 2015 and at a Tehran, Iran, rally marking the 37th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution, CNN reported.

In 2017, Farrakhan strongly criticized President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda involving the Middle East and North Korea. 

>> Related: Trump isn't the anti-Israel candidate Louis Farrakhan is looking for

11. In 2018, Farrakhan made headlines, again.

According to the Daily Caller, a new photo of Farrakhan and former President Barack Obama at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting in 2005 emerged last week.

“The journalist who took the photo said he suppressed its publication to protect Obama’s presidential aspirations,” the Caller reported.

And on Monday, Democratic Illinois Rep. Danny Davis defended him for being an "outstanding human being," inviting harsh criticism.


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