‘A Musical Journey Through the Byways of Life’: An Interview with Alfie Pollitt

Part 3: Temple #12, The Top of the Clock (1969-1974)

So for our first question, when and why did you join the Nation of Islam?

‘Cause I was tired of doing myself in with all those temptations out there on the streets, you know? You know, yeah, and I felt that I was just, I read an article in Muhammad Speaks one time that said drug addiction is Pay-As-You-Go genocide. Drugs meaning, (including) cigarettes, alcohol, anything you know, you know, and then paying to do it myself and being my own hitman and all myself, you know. So that eventually stuck in, in my brains, and you know, things worked out and when I was able to come out, you know, come out of that, going into the Nation. It was a life changing and turned out to be a life saving move as well.

And who was it that introduced you to the Nation of Islam? 



Initially some friends of mine in high school, some Jewish guys back in the ‘60s at Harriton High School ‘cause, you know, we, we did a lot of stuff, we were like into the beatnik stuff and, you know, we read Mad Magazine, went to the coffee houses and stuff, so they were talking about, these two guys were talking about “We must protect our women ‘cause the white man’s the devil,” um “We want land of our own” and stuff like that. And then I heard them talking about Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and through them I investigated, and I found out who Elijah Muhammad was. So it was through — some friends of mine — Jewish guys, you know.

Was it a, so was there a deeper pull for you toward the Nation of Islam? In the sense that, you know, you felt it was something that you had been searching for to guide your life forward and — or was it something that happened coincidentally? Could you describe more about how you began to join and how you, you know, decided to begin to engage?

Okay. Well, it was a lot of different things, you know, including the Rittenhouse Square movement and people striving for freedom and the Black Power movement. I investigated a number of different groups, you know. SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and I worked with Cecil Moore, and I investigated a number of different organizations, and then I read Malcolm’s autobiography. Wow! I knew, and I could relate to what he went through because I was experiencing similar stuff on my life journey after he came out of jail and after he became more striving for freedom and anti the slavery of the drugs in the streets and all that. 

So that inspired me, you know? I had questions about “How can I do this?” because I read Malcolm’s autobiography, and him being assassinated and what have you, and I didn’t really approve of that stuff. However, I wanted what was in the Nation with the strictness and the discipline because I was used to free life, real life, free lifestyle, do what I want to do, when I wanted to do it, didn’t have to have any responsibilities, what have you. And I am grateful that I was blessed to be able to make that positive move.

But I knew if I got into the Nation, I would have to be militaristic. I’d have to be suited down, I’d have a lot of responsibilities. So after investigating these different organizations, it was the only choice I could see to go into the Nation because the Nation owned farm land and multiple businesses, it offered the promise of a great future.

So, I mean what the Nation offered was farmland, which was like tangible stuff I could see, you know? Farmland that had different products. It had all these temples, it had a history of people coming off of substances. People turning their lives around for positiveness. So I eventually went in and like, you know, I just like I guess, bit the bullet because I didn’t express in the Nation how I felt about Malcolm because that was a, that was a no-no. And it could have been very dangerous for me at the time. Just like what happened with Malcolm, you know. Some things he knew about, he expressed them, and it was the wrong thing to do. Look what happened to him, you know? So, and it’s reality, it’s real because there’s like a lot of people who have all kinds of different mentalities that’s in the Nation or was, you know. 

So, I went in and I stopped playing music. I just sold papers, Muhammad Speaks newspapers. Before I got my X, before I went into the Nation and became officially on roll, I was doing 300 papers a week, you know, and I had, and then I, you know, we were asked to get, you know, get door-to-door customers. I had customers in the suburbs, places like Pottstown, Pennsylvania; Phoenixville; Norristown; Amber; Bryn Mawr; Ardmore; Wayne; Morton, Pennsylvania. A lot of places, you know, but mostly in the suburbs because the city, a lot of the brothers had the city sewed up like that, 11th and Market, that was prime paper-selling territory. I couldn’t go down there and sell papers. Nobody would buy from me. They’d say, “Well, I get my papers from brother so-and-so.” You know, “I’m his customer.” People were dedicated customers, so I kept it simple, went to the people where I came from, the suburbs, and met people in suburbs I’d never been to before, and it’s like a pioneer, it was great. But prior to going into the Nation, I did investigate the Moorish Science Temple of America, as well as the Muntu Culture Center, which was in West Philly, that’s where the National Black Power conference had its opening program with Dr. Kerenga and different folk from US Organization and what have you. And we adjourned to the Church of the Advocate.

So you said that before you had joined the Nation, you were also researching other ideologies or other organizations like the Moorish Science Temple and Noble Drew Ali. So ultimately, what, what made you gravitate more towards the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad?

Well, because, as I was saying, because there was the farmland, all these tangible things, they were building, the Nation was building the Nation and it had actual tangible stuff to show it, that was working, you know. Other organizations were talking about doing this and then it was lot of dissatisfaction and a lot of in-fighting going around.

So you were in Mosque 12 Temple — was it called temple or Mosque 12 at the time?

Well, Temple and Mosque. Temple number 12B on South Street, between 15th and 16th on South Street, across from where the Royal Theatre was. This was 1969, and, so, ‘cause some of the brothers would come through Rittenhouse Square selling papers, and it sparked my interest, and I would, you know, they invited me to come to this temple so I went, you know. And eventually enrolled, and became an active participant and registered believer. And so I stopped playing music because one of the things that we were taught was that music and sports, you know, like athletes and stuff like that was called sport and play. 

Sport and play was like a carry-over from this plantation life, where in like a slave master would pit his best fighter guy against another slave master, and then they’d fight to the death, they’d bet money over them and, or dance and, buck dance and all kinds of stuff for entertainment and just like, you know, so it was like, like folly, really. 

So I took that, I just went all the way into the Nation with my blinders on and stopped playing music, you know, just selling papers because we were taught that it was anti-progressive, you know, thinking it was like yeah, folly. And a lot of brothers in there who had formerly been musicians, and they stopped and became ministers, became this and that in the Nation to try to build the Nation. 

And then one other thing that lured a lot of us into the Nation, in Philly and in the South Street area was Sister Minnie’s Kitchen. Sister Minnie’s Kitchen was a Muslim restaurant family-owned by Sister Minnie and her husband, Brother George and they had a lot of daughters and sons and what have you. Their family worked in the restaurant. You go there, you get a big platter of food for a very inexpensive price. So I wound up — that’s where I ate every day for a long time before going into the Nation, and they would always invite you to come to the, to the temple and, and then different officials would eat there, so I met some of the officials, and I went to hear them speak and what have you, and, so eventually, I was right there participating in the mix, doing my part.

Who is minister Jeremiah Shabbaz to you?

Mr. Jeremiah Shabbaz was the Minister of Temple number 12. He had, I think back in the ‘50s he came into the Nation and in North Philadelphia, he’s from North Philadelphia, and so he, he and Malcolm used to — Malcolm used to stay with him in his apartment in North Philly, and he was sent down south and Minister Jeremiah became minister in Atlanta. He was stationed in Atlanta and Malcolm used to stay with him down there too, you know? Elijah Muhammad sent Minister Jeremiah to the South to open up new temples. He opened up a whole lot of temples, like Atlanta, I guess, Mississippi, all over the South, a lot of temples, you know, like as a real pioneer. And during that time it was a very rough assignment to be taken on with the Klan all over the place and people lynching and the Freedom Rides going on and all kinds of things, you know, bus boycotts. So, he was a soldier for Elijah Muhammad and he went down, and he stood up. In fact, at one point he was invited to a Klan, Ku Klux Klan meeting in Atlanta. And he did attend. And he was there, and they had him come into the meeting. And there’s a book called “Top of the Clock: Minister Jeremiah Shabbaz” which is, on the market, that has details about that and about the situation with Martin — Malcolm was staying with him and a whole lot of different history of the Nation from firsthand accounts. Being a direct follower of Elijah Muhammad who could at times, when he, Elijah Muhammad was stable, he would get direct information from Elijah, he was one of the top ministers. In fact before, right after, before Elijah Muhammad passed, Minister Jeremiah was the Minister of Philadelphia and New York ’cause Minister Farrakhan was a minister in New York, and then I think he might have went to Chicago at that time. But Jeremiah was given a post that, in the Middle Atlantic, eastern seaboard, you know, regional head minister, you know, and the Captain, Da’ood Nasir and secretary of the mosque held down that post, you know, and were well-respected in the Nation throughout. And then plus, I was blessed to be one of the brothers who was selling a lot of papers and there’s a picture of us — top 300 paper sellers, Temple Number 12, Philadelphia. And so at that time, Temple number 12 was doing 100,000 papers a week, we were the top in the entire Nation, we were up with Chicago or with New York, the big — LA, all those places. We held it down and were well-respected, you know?

What made the Mosque number 12, the Philadelphia location special among the other temples?

Well, number 12, the number 12 is also called the top of the clock. It was a 12 in, you know, clock mechanism, you know. Up there, there were a lot of real go-getters, a lot of people who loved Elijah Muhammad and his work, and that went above and beyond call of duty to, to excel. You know, now some people allegedly were involved with a lot of negative things as well, you know, but when I went to the Nation, I didn’t go in there with negatives, I didn’t even know directly about any of that stuff, although I was around a number of people who allegedly were part of these different things, you know, that had been publicized, you know, but, and some of those same people were very great influences on me and never tried to entice me or recruit me into any nefarious activities, which was a blessing, you know, I consider myself blessed. And it helped me become a better person and grow from childhood into manhood, even more so as a positive move. And I’m grateful.

Previously you described in the ‘60s, in the late ‘60s, a very rich and musical life, you know, going between Bryn Mawr and Philadelphia and meeting with all these different friends constantly, and artists. When you joined the Nation, did the people you were surrounded by change very much?

Yeah, because going into the Nation, like Elijah Muhammad’s program was: separate from the European, from the white man, separate from the whole Western thing and to build our own Nation separate. So, a lot of my friends, so-called friends cut me loose, I couldn’t be around them. I couldn’t be in a bar all day long. Like I had been doing stuff like that, you know? 

So it was a totally different life, lifestyle metamorphosis. Totally, you know, so, and some people were hating on that I went into the Nation. Some people were saying, “But you was a Christian, you was born a Christian.” This and that, “Boy, you should be ashamed of what you doing to your poor mother and father, doing, making this kind of decision, you don’t know what you’re doing, sinner. And you got to watch out for the Muslims, they eat babies” or whatever, all kinds of wild, different, you know, crazy boogie man things about the Nation. And misperceptions et cetera, et cetera, or “When they get you, that’s it, you, they’ll brainwash you,” and et cetera, et cetera. You know. 

And I’m grateful for that experience and for the discipline because I didn’t go into the US military. To me, it was a real military because we drilled, just like in the military, we had our post, we had given orders and carried them out, and had to carry them out. That’s what we did, just like the military and we were, we were soldiering for the whole, monitoring the whole universe, wherever you are on the planet. And as Elijah Muhammad has taught us, he was taught by Master Fard Muhammad back in the 30s and Master Fard Muhammad came here to America through Detroit, looking for a person of color that he could pass on information to help let the people of color over here know that we’re not the bottom of the food chain and we are the top people and that we, we can reclaim that and we can unite and all the negative stuff that we acquired from the slavery experience you know all that, we can — I know you’re gonna be transcribing this, you got a lot to transcribe — to free ourselves and become, accept your own and be yourself. That’s, that was one of the things we were taught. Accept our own, our people and be ourselves, be our natural selves. Don’t be a slave and a, you know, self-hatred toward our own people and anti our people, all that kind of stuff. Okay.

And during this time and even prior to you becoming a registered member I mean, this is a very intense political time, or pivotal political time in America. And Muhammad Ali had refused the draft. So can you tell us about how being in the Nation of Islam also affected your political decisions? Like on a domestic level, like within Philly, but also internationally, like on the Vietnam War?

Yeah, well, we, those of us who were a part of the Rittenhouse Square experience and the Nation, we were opposed to the war in Vietnam, you know, and so you know, that was our stance. And then in Muhammad Speaks newspaper which was founded by Malcolm X, that spoke to all that kind of stuff. You know, every week, reports of what’s taking place in Vietnam, and other places around the world, Algeria and on and on and on. The negative things that the power structure or the Western powers were doing, which was called in Muhammad Speaks the world serpent. And the world serpent had his, his coils around, a stranglehold around people of color all over the planet. You know?

And you called yourself Asiatic black men.

Yes, Elijah Muhammad said that. Master Fard Muhammad, Master Fard Muhammad said that the earth is called Asia. You know. And that we are Asiatics you know, people of color, so-called American Negro, and that the earth was part of, half of something that was called moon, like the moon in the sky. And, I want to elaborate on that because I don’t have all the details or specifics about that. But um, you know, Asiatic black man, you know, we were not European black people. And the Moorish Science Temple uses this term too — Asiatics, and European as well.

One more thing that I wanted to ask you during, about this time period, is how it changed the way you ate, or whether it defined the way you ate in a new way, because I know that food is something that’s very important to the way that you maintain discipline and also your health.

Yes, well, we were introduced to a book called How to Eat to Live, written by Elijah Muhammad. And he came out with a part two, book one and book two. And in there, he was talking about the history of the white race and the black race and the so-called American Negro, and the slavery experience and how we were, ex-slaves were given, and the slaves were given, enslaved Africans in America were given the worst foods to survive off, you know, the scraps from the table, the rest of the people, the plantation owners, things like that were not, considered not the better foods, things like pork, things like shellfish, sweet potatoes, soy products, a lot of these different things that, he said they were the worst, lima beans, you know, black-eyed peas. 

This is all foods that the so-called American Negro, was, this was all they could get, that’s that they thrived off of for decades and years you know, which came from the slave experience, you know. And Elijah called it slave food, so we were told it’s better to eat the navy bean to sustain your life, you know, even someone created the bean pie from the navy bean, you know, and we had in the Nation bakeries, you know, so I was into that. At the time when I came in, as I mentioned before, Sister Minnie’s Kitchen, we used to go there and we’d get like lamb, we’d get chicken, we’d get beef, turkey, but no pork. And fish, we’d get fish. 

The Nation in the early and mid-70s was carrying a fish called Whiting H&G Fish, it came from Peru. H&G means headed and gutted, you know, it was like — and a lot of us brothers and sisters were selling the fish to people of color. And even some supermarkets would buy, you know, wholesale buy from some of the brothers and sisters in the Nation and have stocked that fish, because people, a lot of people really enjoyed that fish. Whiting H&G. So, so I went through the phase of like, you know, I was into all the Muslim foods, you know and then, in How to Eat to Live, Elijah Muhammad said it’s better to be a vegetarian, you know? 

And so eventually, reading books and being around people, like reading Dick Gregory’s book A Diet for A Small Planet, For Those Who Eat, something like that, which he broke down in different categories of like, lifestyle, food-wise, like vegetarianism, lacto-ovo people that eat eggs and dairy and vegetables and then vegan, no dairy, no eggs and like extreme veganism — people who don’t deal with anything like from an animal, like don’t wear any leather shoes or belts. You know, none of that, you know what I mean? That’s extreme. Then you have breatharians or breatharians, people who can survive off of maybe — water from, snow water from the mountains or just in breath, breathing, you know? Also, I read a book by Viktoras Kulvinskas entitled, “Survival into the 21st Century”. 

And then also in Elijah Muhammad, every year we would, well each month we were supposed to fast for discipline. Three days, three days a week — a month, and especially during what was called at that time, the Nation of Islam’s Ramadan, which was the entire month of December, and it was selected because December 25th, according to what we were taught, was Nimrod’s birthday, instead of like the proper Jesus birthday, and Nimrod was a very wicked man. 

So the European being wicked by nature, like praised a wicked person, so like had people worshipping subliminally this Nimrod figure and so we would fast to protest that during the month of December, not eating during the daytime, not eating in the evenings and like Ramadan fasts. And so I got used to fasting, I got introduced to juicing, you know, vegetable juices and I met a lot of, eventually I met a lot of folks who are known as holistic health practitioners, some people call it healers.

I met Dick Gregory, I spent time around Dick, I met Dr. John Moore, the herbalist from the Tree of Life in Harlem. I met Dr. Sebi, spent a lot of time with him. I spent time with Dr. Cayenne, Queen Afua, Dr. Bodise, Affrya, Momma K., Aris Latham and High Priest Kwatamani just to name a few. There’s so many, so many folks, you know: Kimizah, El Hagan, Dr. Imas, there’s a lot of people, and so eventually I became, through reading, and reading the book called Survival into the 21st century by Viktoras Kulvinskas, that I got introduced to sprouting and, and wheatgrass juice and cucumber as well.

And then eventually I started gravitating toward getting away from meat and meat products altogether. So I got into fruits and vegetables and then got introduced to what was called correct food combining. Like you wouldn’t cross-combine foods, like say, if you have fruits, you got sweet fruits, sub-acid fruits and acid fruits. You wouldn’t combine an acid fruit with a sweet fruit because it would cause something in you that would clash with your digestion and everything. So for certain fruits and vegetables, you wouldn’t mix them or certain fruits, are water fruits, some fruits — like the avocado is classified as a fat fruit, natural fatty fruit, you know, and it’s a fruit, you know, and like, tomatoes are considered fruits by some and what have you. 

So I was introduced to all that kind of stuff and I’m grateful for that. So I’ve been, you know, 47 years, been a vegan. I was on the road as a vegan and it was, it was rough at times. Especially down South because they, you know, the unavailability of health food stores and, and so much pork that people would put into food just naturally, and meat, you know, so. Does that answer your question?

Right. Well, we’re ending in a few minutes, but I wanted to ask how all of these relationships affected your relationship to art and music and these connections. And I think it’ll be good next week as well to talk about, you know, your nickname as “The Connector” because I really see it showing in the way that you’re talking about how you were connecting all these people and these artists to one another.

Yeah, well, I mean, I wound up connecting people. My friend who has passed on, he was Will Smith’s father, the actor’s father and he used to make, you know, make a statement and I embraced that statement, so like some of these things that happened and everything, he would say, you know, “You know, quiet as it’s kept, I really don’t know what I’m doing.” You know? We called him “Daddy-O”.

So I’ll say some of that that happened, it was all the creator, the divine creator that brought all these things into fruition and manifestation, and I’m grateful. 

And this is like, today is a so-called holiday, right, Memorial Day. And we in the Nation, we used to go out in unity on so-called holidays, especially Labor Day, and we would labor. We’d go out there and fish people into the Nation. We would, you know, sell papers in unity, we’d go places like Langhorne, Pennsylvania and Trevose, Pennsylvania — places where hardly anybody would go. 

Oh, one other thing about my experience in the Nation: I was, you know, doing 300 papers a week. And we’re on this picture, I’ll share the picture with you of all the brothers who were doing the papers. And also I was given a plaque, which I still have the two plaques, one for fishing, bringing people into the Nation and one for sales of Muhammed Speaks and they were all signed by Minister Jeremiah, Captain Irving and Secretary Clifford. Then I got a picture of myself selling Muhammed Speaks out, you know, up in Conshohocken, I have a picture of that. A couple I’ll share with us, okay? If that’s all right.

Right. It would be good to see those documents.

Okay. And I’m grateful, and I’m so grateful because my mother, she passed on in the, in the early — about ‘73 and she was so grateful. Like she was a Christian woman who attended church and she did research on the Underground Railroad and stuff, but she was so grateful to Mr. Elijah Muhammed as I see it right now for rescuing her son from the perils and all the stuff I was in. She had my sister — and my mother, before she passed, she had something called myeloma. She had bone marrow cancer and she was paralyzed from the waist down. She had my sister bring her to one of the meetings we had in Philadelphia in a wheelchair in the Blue Horizon auditorium. And my mother had her head wrapped and she had a long skirt on. And there to thank Elijah Muhammed’s program and stuff for rescuing her son, you know, and I was blessed to write a song for her and she expressed that she liked the song — a song called “Momma Mae.” And so, I’m grateful for those experiences.

Interview conducted and compiled by Michelle Yuan Lyu and Brandon Hai Do.