The Moorish Science Temple
Though the Moorish Science Temple was not founded in the midwest, this black nationalist religious group and community organization could attribute nearly all of its success to booming membership in the region’s Great Migration-era urban areas. Founded in 1913 by the Prophet Noble Drew Ali (previously known as Timothy Ali), this movement (a predecessor of the Nation of Islam) offered oppressed African-American migrants who “never saw anything before they came to Detroit except Florida and Alabama” a chance to become “Moors” with a proud Oriental racial history and an active community dedicated to protecting their interests (Nance, “Black Moorish Science Temple,” 624).
Noble Drew Ali’s Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple offers a deliberate challenge to those who placed “civilized” whites at the top of an evolutionary racial hierarchy above “savage...barbaric” African-Americans (Bederman, 25). Instead of directly confronting this notion of racial hierarchy or blacks’ place at the uncivilized bottom of it, Drew Ali proposed an alternative African-American history that denied the existence of a black race at all. Drew Ali argued that “there is no negro, black, or colored race attached to the human family,” and that the people identified as black were actually the “Asiatics of America” (Drew Ali, XLVII, 9-10).
Founding a quasi-Islamic movement and naming its followers “Moors” allowed him to attach African-Americans to a rich history with the “key to civilization” in their hands (Drew Ali, XLV, 2). The adoption of the Masonic-style orientalist symbols (such as the turban) seen on Grand Shiek Adept E. Mealy el served as visible markers of this rich, civilized history. Though this alternate history did not deny the civilization-based racial hierarchy many used to justify racism against African-Americans, it nevertheless made a historical claim to equal footing on this hierarchy.
The communal support aspect of the Moorish Science Temple only increased its attractiveness to oppressed African-Americans in the urban midwest. Beyond simply offering historical arguments against this oppression, the Moorish Science Temple’s organization provided its members with tangible communal protection and rare political power. The Temple operated out of barber shops, black-run groceries stores, and whatever other communal and kin networks existed among northern black migrants. These collective groups offered both strength in numbers for a relatively isolated minority community and a forum to discuss problems, threats, and possible solutions. The power of these organizing networks in clear in the February 1st, 1929 headline of the Moorish Guide (a paper whose existence further demonstrates the strength of this communal organization) urging temple members to re-elect Louis B. Anderson as Alderman of Chicago’s second ward. Drew Ali urges “All Moors to Support Their Friend” in a clear demonstration of the power in the group’s political unity. For a population of African-Americans often denied a voice and marginalized throughout an oppressive industrial midwest, this type of group voice was extremely appealing.