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On September 20, 1942, under the cover of still slumbering skies, a swarm of Chicago police officers and FBI agents surrounded the South Side home of a fugitive proclaimed by his adherents as the "Prophet." In a moment, they hoped, their extensive counterintelligence operations against the fugitive's group and other black "pro-Japanese" organizations would pay the ultimate dividend: the arrest and apprehension of black nationalist leaders on sedition charges.
They were especially eager, though, to capture the Prophet, an elusive religious zealot who changed names faster than a chameleon changes color. The head of a sect blacklisted by the U.S. attorney general, the Prophet jumped bail in July while awaiting trial in Washington, D.C., and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was damned angry about it.
The Prophet, known to law enforcement officials in seven states as Ghulam Bogans, Muck Muck, Mohammed Rassoull, or by one of a dozen other aliases, headed a sect called the Allah Temple of Islam. Most of his followers called him the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and referred to themselves as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam.
At seven o'clock, three FBI agents, armed with warrants and weapons, approached the front entrance to 6026 Vernon Avenue; other agents and police officers covered the side and rear. An agent banged on the door. Awakened by the loud knocking, Nathaniel Muhammad, the fugitive's sixteen-year-old son, went to the door and peered through the pane.
"May we come in?" an agent asked the silhouetted figure on the other side of the door. "We'd like to talk to your father."
"Just a minute," Nathaniel replied as he hurriedly backed away.
The agents waited for several minutes and then one of them knocked again, this time nearly hard enough to break the glass. Again, he saw a male figure peering at him through the curtain. The shadow and the silence angered him.
"This is the FBI, boy! Open this damn door or we'll break it down!"
Nathaniel quickly complied.
"Are you Ghulam Bogans's son?" the agent in charge asked gruffly.
The reason Elijah Muhammad used so many aliases was because other Muslim ministers who challenged his heirship of the Nation of Islam had pursued him sporadically since 1934 with the intent of killing him. Another reason was that police officers in several cities had been injured during fracases with Muslims and some were engaged in a vendetta against him. Ghulam Bogans was the alias he had used most recently, and that was the name on his arrest record when he was taken into custody in Washington on May 8, 1942, on charges of draft evasion.
"No one lives here by that name," Nathaniel answered.
"Well," the agent asked angrily, "is Elijah Muhammad here?"
"No, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is not here right now."
The white agents and several police officers pushed past the youth and began searching the house. As they reached the top of the stairway on the second floor, several women and children peered out of bedroom doorways. One woman walked toward the agents.
"I'm Clara Muhammad," she said. "What right do you have to barge into my home at this hour of the morning?"
"We're looking for Elijah, ma'am, alias Ghulam Bogans," an agent answered contemptuously. "We're the FBI."
"Well, you can just look somewhere else because he's not here."
"Do you know where your husband is at this hour of the morning, ma'am?" the agent asked sardonically.
"No," she answered, "I have no idea where he is right now."
The agents ignored her, and proceeding as though the house belonged to them now, approached a woman standing at a bedroom door. It was Elijah Muhammad's twenty-year-old daughter, Ethel.
"Is Ghulam Bogans or Elijah Muhammad here, ma'am?"
"My mother said he's not here, so he must not be here," she answered irately.
Lottie Muhammad, who was standing in the hallway, was the next occupant questioned. She, too, denied that her father was in the house. The younger children were quickly asked about their father's whereabouts. First thirteen-year-old Herbert was questioned, then twelve-year-old Elijah Jr., then Wallace, who was nine. They even asked the toddler, Akbar, if he knew where his father was. The answers were all nearly the same. Their father wasn't home, they said. He had left almost a week ago, and, no, they had no idea when he might return.
The agents and officers left the house after completing a cursory search but only pretended to leave the vicinity, hoping that Elijah would try to escape in the car that they recognized as his parked just in front of the Vernon Avenue address. When no one left the premises after a forty-minute stakeout, the agent in charge of the operation ordered the group to conduct another search of the house. This time, they were far more thorough. They carefully searched the first floor, and in an alcove beneath the stairwell to the second floor, they discovered sixteen cardboard boxes packed with newspaper clippings, copies of Elijah Muhammad's sermons, personal correspondence, and organizational material. After a quick scan, the agents realized they had struck an intelligence mother lode.
The boxes were a gold mine of information about the Nation of Islam. The papers documented the history of the sect its origins, membership, financial records, and operational techniques dating from 1933, which was the year that Elijah Muhammad took over the sect from the mysterious founder, W. D. Fard Muhammad, also known as Master Fard. Fard, who also used more than a dozen aliases, was worshipped by Nation of Islam members as the Lord-King, or in their vernacular, as "God in human form." For them, Fard and Allah were one and the same.
While several officers confiscated the boxes, others continued to ferret for the fugitive. Suddenly, an agent searching the upstairs hallway noticed something suspicious: an elderly woman was guarding the entrance to her bedroom. She held the doorknob tightly, and appeared anxious. The old woman was Elijah's seventy-one-year-old mother, Marie. The agent brushed her aside and tried to open the door. Though feeble and partially blind, she struck out, hitting him repeatedly in the face and about the shoulders. Another agent subdued her.
The FBI agent in charge of the operation went into the bedroom. The first thing he noticed was that the floor had an odd look. Part of the floor near a large carpet was free of dust, as though someone had only recently moved a rug. The agent turned on his flashlight, looked under the bed, and saw a rolled-up oriental rug. He tried to pull the rug toward him but it was much too heavy. He knew immediately that the case was all wrapped up, so to speak.
"Come outta there, boy!" the agent demanded. "This is the FBI! You're under arrest."
As the rug rolled slowly out toward the outer edge of the bed, several of the officers drew a bead on it with the weapons they had in their hands. "Please, don't shoot him!" Clara cried. The children rushed toward the the bedroom door, fearing calamity, but the officers blocked the way.
"Stand back so no one gets hurt," one of the officers warned with his weapon drawn. As the rug unrolled, the agents saw a short, frail olive-skinned man. It was, indeed, the long-sought fugitive. He crawled from underneath the bed, stared nervously at his captors, and dusted himself off. Afraid that he might be shot "accidentally," he kept his eyes on the agents' hands and guns. After frisking him, the agents told him to get dressed. A half hour later, as the sun rose on Chicago's South Side, Muhammad emerged from his bedroom wearing a dark blue pinstriped suit and tie.
At seven fifty-five, he was handcuffed and advised that he was under arrest as a fugitive from justice. His family wept as he was led away. After handing temporary custody of the fugitive over to the Chicago police, FBI agents in unmarked cars trailed the cruiser taking Muhammad to the Cook County Jail.
Although Muhammad's family feared his fate, their image of him was not tarnished by his capture. To them, he remained the Prophet Muhammad, the seal of Allah's messengers. But to the Chicago Police Department photographer who took his mug shots that morning, he was just another Negro with a number under his neck.
After being booked and fingerprinted, Muhammad was taken into a darkened interrogation room where police and FBI men bombarded him with questions about his cult and its political activities, particularly in regard to pro-Japanese espionage.
The semiliterate suspect endured an interrogation that lasted all morning and well into the afternoon. By the time it was over, he had been stripped of his mask of divinity, and had given the agents a wealth of information about himself, his family, and the Nation of Islam, information that undoubtedly brought him face to face with reality for the first time in ages. There were no tales of miracles in the oral autobiography, nothing that made the suspect's life any different from the lives of a million other men. His testimony was condensed into a four-page confession, which he was asked to sign.
"My word is my bond," Muhammad muttered. "It is as good as my signature."
"Is your name Elijah Poole?" he was asked.
"My name is Elijah Muhammad. In my early life I was known as Elijah Poole. But Poole is not my real name or my father's real name," the suspect said slowly. "It's the name of the slavemaster of my grandfather."