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Muhammad Speaks, a trailblazer in the newspaper industry

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Correspondent- | Last updated: Oct 30, 2009 - 12:13:23 PM

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[Editor's note: This arcticle was oringinally posted March 10, 2000 as part of a special Final Call Newspaper, 70 year commemorative of The Nation of Islam in North America.]

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The Most Hon. Elijah Muhammad purchased a four-color Gloss "Suburbanite" printing press, capable of turning out 50,000 copies per hour.
WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) - Even though it is mistakenly said that Minister Malcolm X founded the Nation of Islam's newspaper Muhammad Speaks, the firebrand Muslim minister did help to make it the largest circulating Black newspaper of the day.

In 1960, before Muhammad Speaks began circulating a year later, Minister Malcolm, head of Muhammad Temple No. 7, did edit and publish a local newspaper in New York City called Mr. Muhammad Speaks.

By that time, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation since the early 1930s, had used several periodical vehicles to spread his program of “re-education” of Black men and women in America “into the knowledge of self.”

The very first newspaper published by Mr. Muhammad was called The Final Call to Islam, and it was distributed in 1934. Various other pamphlets were also published by Mr. Muhammad over the years, including at least two volumes of The Supreme Wisdom.

In 1960 former Chicago Defender, Chicago Crusader, New York Amsterdam News, and Johnson Publishing Co. editor Dan Burley produced Salaam, a publication that resembled the popular Johnson magazine Jet, for Mr. Muhammad.

While Mr. Muhammad experimented with a variety of formats in which to spread his message, the model for the national distribution of Muhammad Speaks newspaper grew out of distribution of several Black weekly newspapers which carried his religious column.

The men of the Nation of Islam sold the Crusader and the Pittsburgh Courier, the Amsterdam News, and the Westchester (N.Y.) Observer because they contained Mr. Muhammad's message, often surrounded on the same page by advertisements for Muslim-owned businesses that supported Mr. Muhammad's work. In the Courier and the Crusader the column was called “Mr. Muhammad Speaks.” In the Amsterdam News it was entitled “The Islam World,” and the Observer printed the teachings of Mr. Muhammad in a series called: “White Man's Heaven is Black Man's Hell.”

It was this distribution network which enabled the Courier to rival the Defender and grow to have the largest Black newspaper circulation of its time—350,000 copies per week in 1957—according to Dr. Clint Wilson II, professor of Journalism and Chair of the Department Journalism at Howard University, and author of “A History of the Black Press,” the most recent and most definitive study of Black newspapers.

“The Courier was nationally distributed,” Dr. Wilson told The Final Call, thanks to the Nation of Islam. “One of the few ways that could be done effectively would be with a group like the Nation involved. The Defender,” he pointed out, “was distributed nationally with the help of Pullman Car Porters who were responsible for a lot of that distribution.”

The role of Black porters in the distribution of the Defender is well documented in scholarly research on the Black Press, Dr. Wilson pointed out, but the role of the Nation of Islam in making the Courier as well as the Crusader nationally known newspapers, is still largely an untold story.

Mr. Muhammad's contribution did not go unnoticed at the Courier, however. In 1957 Courier circulation manager A.D. Gaither presented Mr. Muhammad a “Courier Achievement Award” in recognition for his contributions to that publication.

Even then Mr. Muhammad had advice to share with Black newspaper publishers. “I believe they would make a wise step toward better respect if they would leave love potions and such filthy mess out of their publications,” he wrote in The Supreme Wisdom Volume Two. “This love trash in our newspapers and magazines is ruining our younger generation to the extent that it is now a near-tragedy. The only way we can prevent our children from forming the habit of ‘going' for indecent pictures and stories is to completely rid our papers of such.”

With a national distribution network already in place, and a moral-editorial tone already in mind, it was just a matter of time before Mr. Muhammad would assemble the elements to produce his own newspaper, which he did with the help of Mr. Burley, his son Jabbir (Herbert) a professional photographer, artist Eugene Majied, and with advice from Pakistani editor and author Abdul Basit Naeem.

The first edition of Muhammad Speaks newspaper, published in 1961, carried the front-page headline: “Some of This Earth To Call Our Own Or Else.” According to Dr. Wilson, Mr. Burley was “well thought of, a solid editor, a solid journalist,” who stood among the most influential Black editors of his time, including Claude Barnett, Roi Ottley, and Ben Burns.

At that time, Min. Abdul Allah Muhammad, now the chair of the Final Call Editorial Board, also played a significant role in putting together the first issues of the Muhammad Speaks, and in fact was the director of the editorial department.

“We used Dan Burley's name because he was well known,” Min. Abdul Allah said. “We were coming out monthly at first and I'd come in every month and put the paper together and fly back home to Los Angeles. Dan was a good writer and a good researcher, but the bulk of the work was done by myself.”

Min. Abdul Allah recounted that the Hon. Elijah Muhammad had expressed his desire to start a paper, and that Malcolm X went back to New York and started publishing Mr. Muhammad Speaks.

“Then the Hon. Elijah Muhammad put me, his son Herbert, Malcolm and National Secretary John Ali in a room together and told us to come out with a paper,” Min. Abdul Allah said. “And that's how Muhammad Speaks started.”

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The circulation of the newspaper grew from 800,000 to 850,000 per edition, all the way to 950,000 one week in 1974.
The next editor was Richard Durham, another widely respected writer and literary figure, whose principal credits before his work at Muhammad Speaks were in radio. While Mr. Durham was editor, Mr. Muhammad purchased the four-story Muhammad Speaks Newspaper Plant and Cold Storage building. The facility housed a meat processing plant as well as a four-color Goss “Suburbanite” printing press, capable of turning out 50,000 copies per hour. In 1969 a fledgling Black printing crew helped the newspaper make the transition into printing industry, as well as journalistic, leadership, going on line and producing the 400,000 per week press run, entirely in-house.

Mr. Durham, who presided over a great expansion in the newspaper's circulation and international respect during the 1960s, was succeeded by John Woodford, another former Ebony editor and writer in 1970. Mr. Woodford expanded the newspaper's coverage beyond simply a hard news journal with arguably the best coverage of Africa and the non-aligned movement in any U.S. newspaper, with features on the arts and music which were richly illustrated with photographs by Chester Sheard, Hassan Sharrieff, and Bobby Sengstacke.

Widely respected novelist and Northwestern University literature professor Leon Forrest succeeded Mr. Woodford for a year in 1972, before this writer—then known as Charles 67X—became the first registered Muslim to edit the paper.

A former Newsweek magazine intern and lithographer at the East San Jose Sun newspapers, as editor, yours truly expanded the coverage in the newspaper's pages to routinely include activities of Nation of Islam leaders as news events, along side those of other important Black community figures.

There were many historic achievements by Mr. Muhammad and his Ministers during this period. There was rapid economic expansion, including the purchase of Guaranty Bank and Trust Co. in Chicago; an expansion of the Nation's real estate and farm holdings; the import of millions of pounds of nutritious fish for distribution to Black consumers; the official recognition of Mr. Muhammad by civic and government dignitaries (including proclamations from Illinois Gov. Dan Walker, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley) in dozens of states throughout America and by Prime Minister Michael Manley of Jamaica; and the purchase of a Lockheed Jet Star, 10-passenger executive jet aircraft.

We also saw the circulation of the newspaper—thanks to the explosive growth of the Nation and the drive and determination of the men who distributed it—grow from 800,000 to 850,000 per edition, all the way to 950,000 one week in 1974 during this period.

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