Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad promoted self-sufficiency and nation-building from 1934 until his death in 1975. His economic plan for the Nation and the Black community included creating businesses that would employ both Muslim and non-Muslim Black people. These businesses would bring in revenue and build the economic power base of Black America with the Black dollar circulating in the community through Black-owned businesses.
“No nation will ever respect us as long as we beg for that which we can do for ourselves. There has never been a leader of our people who went all-out to set up an economic plan for our people. I use the saying of Jesus, ‘All before me were thieves and robbers,” Elijah Muhammad wrote in his 1965 book, “Message To The Blackman In America.”
So the Nation started businesses, many of them. By the 1970s, the Nation of Islam had owned its own bakeries, barbershops, coffee shops, grocery stores, laundromats, nightclubs, a printing plant, and retail stores. It also owned numerous real estate holdings and a fleet of tractor-trailers as well as farmland in Michigan, Alabama, and Georgia.
NOI opened 15 different businesses in Chicago alone, including Your Supermarket, Shabazz Grocery, Chicago Lamb Packers, Shabazz Bakery, Good Foods, Shabazz Restaurant, Salaam Restaurant, and Shabazz Barber Shop, and a clothing factory.
Then the Nation ventured into importing fish and international trade.
Through international trade with the government of Peru, the NOI bought millions of dollars worth of fish, creating jobs and opportunities for the Black community. By 1974, NOI enterprises agreed to buy 1 million pounds of whiting fish from a Peruvian fishing distributor.
NOI members sold the fish door-to-door in Black neighborhoods to Muslims and non-Muslims. This not only provided jobs for Black people but helped spread the word about the NOI’s growing fish program and provided affordable food for the community. It was also a way to encourage a healthier diet in the Black community.
At the start of the international buying program, in June 1974 New York City representatives of the NOI, which was headquartered in Chicago, picked up a quarter‐million pounds of imported whiting from a Brooklyn pier. They distributed the fish to NOI-owned Steak‐and‐Take fast food shops. Steak‐and‐Take shops were located mainly in Harlem and other Black communities. They sold sell steak sandwiches and hamburgers to take out but with the fish program, the NOI converted the shops into “fish houses.”
The fish houses sold such items as fish sausage, fishburgers, fish boat sandwiches, and fish salad. With beef having become too expensive, fish became the main food item. The Nation sold its fish much cheaper than elsewhere. While whiting was selling at fresh fish markets for nearly $1 a pound, the NOI offered a frozen fish product for 25 cents to 50 cents per pound.
The Oct. 21, 1974 opening of the first Harlem Fish House was an immediate success, The New York Times reported. “Hundreds of people in Harlem lined up yesterday for the opening of Elijah Muhammad’s Fish House No. 1 — the latest of a series of business ventures and the first in a projected chain of 40 fish restaurants owned by the Nation of Islam,” the newspaper reported.
The Fish House was on Eighth Avenue between 126th and 127th Streets, which was “regarded by many people, including the police, as one of the worst areas in Harlem, with a bountiful supply of drug users, illegal alcohol sales, robberies connected with prostitution and loitering crowds of unemployed,” the NY Times reported.
Minister Louis Farrakhan attended the opening of the Harlem Fish House to represent Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan reportedly told the crowd at the opening that the restaurant was a “survival station,” and stressed that it would be “used to serve our people a whole meal under a dollar.”
During the ribbon‐cutting ceremony, Farrakhan introduced Brother Raymond 17X as the manager of the shop. He explained that many people would remember Raymond as a former addict who used to stand on the same corner as the shop before he converted to Islam.
On June 13, 1974, The New York Times reported that the first delivery of imported fish had arrived the previous day at a New York pier as part of the Elijah Muhammad program started in 1973 to import fresh‐frozen whiting. It was “a good food that people can afford,” the Nation said.
“Support of Mr. Muhammad’s fish program will put the Nation of Islam in a position to serve the Black community with other products from abroad,” said a minister of Muhammad’s Temple No. 7 in Harlem.
The imported whiting from Peru by the Nation of Islam arrived in New York on a steamship. Previously, whiting had typically been brought into the U.S. from Peru by way of Mobile, Ala., Savannah, Ga., and Los Angeles.
“We know of no other Black groups or churches set up for trade-in imported products for Black people of America,” a NOI minister told The New York Times, “and as far as Muhammad using steamships is concerned—that’s historic. Marcus Garvey talked about it, but it didn’t work.”
The minister was referencing the late Black Nationalist leader who advocated a “back‐to‐Africa” movement for American Blacks using the Black Star steamship line that he organized.
In the book “American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X” by Steven Barboza, Nation of Islam insider H. Nasif Mahmoud revealed how the international fish deal was made.
Mahmoud was raised in the Nation and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. He became an international lawyer. Fresh out of college in his mid-20s, Mahmoud was sent to Peru where he met with the Peruvian Fish Ministry to negotiate a deal that would bring the NOI into the world of international trade.
The NOI had previously purchased whiting through Japan. When Elijah Muhammad found out that the fish from Japan originated in Peru, he decided to cut out the middleman and strike a much larger deal directly with Peru. We “decided to go direct,” Mahmoud told Barboza.
Elijah Muhammad instructed Mahmoud on how to negotiate with the Peruvians, according to “American Jihad”.
He told Mahmoud, “Let them charge a fair price for themselves. Be as charming and gracious as you can. But get the deal.”
The price was a “little high” but was doable, Mahmoud said. The next year when Mahmoud went back to negotiate, the Peruvians dropped the price themselves.
Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under President Richard Nixon, flew to Peru and warned the Peruvian government “not to deal with us because the Nation of Islam was subversive,” Mahmoud told Barboza.
According to Mahmoud, the Peruvians asked Kissinger, “What are you doing for us? You can kiss our ass — you and Nixon.”
The Nation of Islam had total control of its international fish business. It controlled the distribution, shipping — with chartered ships — and NOI unloaded the fish at the docks as well. In the process, it gave jobs to many Black men who had trouble finding work.
At one time, said Mahmoud, the NOI had 20 to 30 ships going back and forth between the U.S. and Peru. The fish was dropped off at 18 to 20 ports across the U.S. All of the NOI temples nationwide purchased fish from the NOI Chicago headquarters.
According to Mahmoud, the NOI also bought sardines from Morocco and fish from other places, expanding the Nation’s international trade deals.
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In January 1973, the NOI gained a controlling interest in the Guaranty Bank and Trust Company on the South Side of Chicago. NOI members and businesses nationwide were encouraged to deposit their money with the bank.
But according to Mahmoud, the purchase of the bank wasn’t just to provide banking services to the NOI members and surrounding community. The bank was purchased to make international trading run more smoothly and efficiently. Since other banks in the area charged outrageous fees for international financing, the NOI could handle all of this itself through its own bank.
By 1975, the NOI operated hundreds of businesses across the U.S., employing more than 11,000 people. The estimated annual revenue from these businesses was approximately $30 million annually. At the time of Elijah Muhammad’s death, the net worth of the NOI totaled $80 million, Black Past reported.
Photo: Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad addresses black Muslims in Chicago in 1967 with Muhammad Ali, left. (AP Photo)