In late March 1963, field minister Arthur 7-X held a press conference in Oklahoma City. Nation of Islam travelers had visited and spread their message in Oklahoma since the 1940s, but Arthur 7-X’s press conference was the NOI’s first publicized event.
“The world of Islam is coming into its own… and no force can stop it!” 7-X told the Daily Oklahoman. “We are seeking freedom and equality… We want something better; we can’t wait any longer.” 7-X was asked about the number of Muslims in Oklahoma and about the possible opening of a mosque.
Throughout the 1960s adherence to the NOI grew in Oklahoma City. A group met in houses and occasionally hosted a traveling minister.
Theodore G. X. arrived in Oklahoma City from Memphis in early 1969. A penniless family man in his mid-30s, he began squatting in a vacant house. He quickly cultivated the image of a “black militant” and sported an afro. Later, he claimed to have been sent to Oklahoma City by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and that his early days in the city were spent “undercover.” Over the next few years, he established himself as the leader of Nation of Islam in Oklahoma City and founded Temple #50, which met in a storefront at 8th and Lottie. The “real worker and soldier,” Captain Franklin 4-X and his wife Joyce assisted the effort. Oklahoma City’s black Muslim community grew rapidly under G. X.’s charismatic leadership and 4-X’s experience and organizational skill. Temple #50 followed the established NOI model of opening black-run business enterprises and being involved in local civil rights struggles.
He controlled Muslim-owned businesses on the city’s northeast side, including a fish market, a school and Muhammad’s Temple of Islam at NE 23 and N Kate Avenue. Known for his dapper appearance, activism and oratorical skills, he was a familiar figure at city council meetings. “He was quite vocal and got lots of media attention every time he opened his mouth,” said Willa Johnson, county commissioner. “He had a lot of respect in the community,” said George Wesley, a former television cameraman. “Respect derived from fear, because no one wanted to go against him.” Police compared the controversial minister to a gang leader and suspected his involvement in crimes. Alfred Brooks, one of his followers, accused him of fatally shooting Judy Webb and injuring Karen Trantham. Theodore G. X. was not charged, and no other allegations against him were proven.1 By 1970, the group had purchased and was renovating a hardware store on 23rd street. Reports involving the Black Panthers, Black Power, and Vietnam filled the airwaves with excitement and rebellion. Bilal El-Amin read a copy of Malcom X’s Autobiography that a cousin had brought back from California, which inspired El-Amin to go looking for the NOI. He remembers Theodore G. X. being a “fiery magician with words,” who filled unshakeable pride into the members of Temple #50 that no taunting or criticism could damage. “For the first time we were proud of ourselves,” he says. In the Oklahoma City black community, only the churches competed with the NOI.
“People were tired of the churches,” El-Amin says. “They weren’t offering any answers about history and culture.”
Services were held Wednesdays and Fridays at 7:00 pm and Sundays at 1:00, mostly centered on Elijah Muhammad’s teachings and the Bible. Members lived frugally and were held to high standards of commitment and conduct. Most people, however, couldn’t maintain the lifestyle and became official “sympathizers” who were willing to attend a demonstration or event when Theodore G. X. put out the call.
Traveling NOI dignitaries considered Temple #50 unique. Its membership drew from Oklahoma City’s black demographic and was economically and socially diverse. Young, old, middle class, working class, and a few former prisoners formed the city’s Nation of Islam membership. Temple #50 fully represented the wider community.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad died in 1975 and the next day his son Warith Deen Mohammed assumed leadership of the organization. W. Deen Mohammed had been trained in Arabic and classical Islamic studies and he concluded the time had come to transform the NOI into a mainstream understanding of Islam. Several years earlier, an assistant to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad named James Shabazz had been sent down from Chicago to investigate tales of Theodore G. X.’s wrongdoings. An internal hearing was held at Temple #50, and Shabazz asked the community for truth about the allegations. Despite widespread knowledge about G. X.’s rule-breaking, the community held its collective tongue and G. X. escaped censure.
Three years later, though, he fell subject to the new leadership of Warith Deen Mohammed. Bilal El-Amin remembers “19 guys from Philly and a Captain from San Francisco” arrived in June in OKC to oversee G. X.’s removal. He was replaced by a Warith Deen Mohammed loyalist from Los Angeles, Ibrahim Abdullah. In August of 1975, Abdullah granted an interview with the Daily Oklahoman in which he discussed the new direction the masjid was taking. “Our movement is a spiritual movement,” he said, “not a physical movement.” He explained that there would be no more threats or intimidation as had occurred under the leadership of Theodore G.X. He told the newspaper:
People in Oklahoma—the mentality is not the same as in a big city—people are more humane and friendly here. We think the people are fair and will give us a fair hearing according to the facts and knowledge. Not sentimentality or emotion.
Abdullah instituted changes slowly. Racial separatism was out and traditional prayer rituals and learning Arabic was in. Warith Deen Mohammed lectured via telephone on every fourth Sunday, broadcasting on speakerphones in temples across the country. He began by interpreting Elijah Muhammad’s teaching in a new, more universal light. Ministers, soon to be called Imams, attended seminars held around the country to learn the particulars of traditional Islamic prayer and theology. While listening to the fourth Sunday lectures in Oklahoma City, some people were invigorated by the new teachings and some were disturbed. But rumors circulated that W. Deen Mohammed was an FBI agent tasked with the mission of watering down the Nation of Islam. According to El-Amin, the moderates mostly stayed to follow W. Deen Mohammed into Sunni Islam and the extremists dropped out, forming “unreconstructed” NOI groups throughout the city.
In 1977, a violent struggle erupted in the temple between followers of G. X.’s charismatic leadership and those loyal to W. Deen Mohammed. On two occasions dozens brawled along 23rd street over control of the temple.
Later that year, W. Deen Mohammed visited Temple #50, which was renamed Masjid Mu’min in honor of a local cabdriver and his wife who had been longtime supporters of the community.
Arthur Farahkhan remembers well the transition of the 1970s. Once a member of the Nation Of Islam’s paramilitary wing, he followed W. Deen Mohammed into mainstream Sunni Islam. He currently leads the Muslim-American Society of Tulsa.
“It was a process,” he says. “A long process, and it had to be.”
Farahkhan remembers W. Deen Muhammad speaking at the Brady Theater in Tulsa in 1978.
“The immigrant Muslim communities didn’t like it,” he says. “They wanted to stay above us, and W.D. was saying, ‘No, we are all on the same level.’ ”
Farahkhan remains faithful to the vision of W. Deen Mohammed. “He made sure we didn’t get caught up in the cultural thing. Without him, the Arabs would have filled up our cup with their culture. That didn’t happen. We are Americans. We don’t have a problem with Arabs, but that’s not who we are.”
By 1976 Masjid Mu’min had a membership numbering in the hundreds. From the late 1970s onward many immigrant Muslims began arriving in Oklahoma City. Soon there were masjids(mosques) all over the city and suburbs. Some of the Masjid Mu’min faithful drifted to the new temples, but many stayed.
On a warm Friday afternoon in Oklahoma City the faithful are arriving at Masjid Mu’min. Forty-seven years after it opened as NOI Temple #50, it is now the oldest mosque in Oklahoma. The worshippers, almost entirely African American, remove their shoes and make small talk in the lobby. An older man in a plaid suit serves as muezzin and makes the 1,400-year-old call to prayer. People sit on chairs under the faded and stained ceiling tiles or on the green-carpeted floor. A man in his early 20s with an OKC Thunder cap turned backwards tells his visiting friend, “A lot of the people here weren’t born into it. They came to Islam at different points in their lives.” Overhearing their conversation, I’m amazed at the existence of second-generation (or third) non-immigrant Okie Muslims.
Today, Imam Khasiff Saluhdhin is delivering the khutba, or sermon. A powerful, emotional speaker, he moves people of all ages to tears talking about the lessons of the Prophet Muhammad’s (P.B.U.H.) character. Saluhdhin was introduced to the Nation of Islam by his uncles in the 1980s and learned Arabic during a prison stint. Now speaking of the NOI he says, “The Nation was a psychological uplift—it changed people’s attitude and introduced new concepts. But it ran its course.”
Masjid Mu’min still maintains its presence on Oklahoma City’s 23rd street. The days of revolution may be over, but the masjid remains the hub of its community. A new building is under construction alongside the old one, and the ummah, or congregation, remains inspired by the vision of Warith Deen Mohammed, a man Al-Amin says “was inspired by the historical experiences of black America and sought to bring Islam into the streets.”
This article would have been impossible without the assistance and oral histories of Bilal El-Amin and Arthur Farahkahn.
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016