Jeremiah Shabazz, 70, Former Nation Of Islam Minister, Ali Aide

Posted: January 09, 1998

Jeremiah Shabazz, 70, former minister of Mosque No. 12 of the Philadelphia Nation of Islam and confidant and adviser to Muhammad Ali, died of congestive heart failure Wednesday.

It was Mr. Shabazz, a family member said, who in 1960 persuaded boxer Cassius Clay to become a follower of Elijah Muhammad and to become Muhammad Ali.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Shabazz joined Ali's entourage, and news accounts at the time refer to him as the boxer's ``top aide,'' ``administrative assistant'' and ``legal counsel,'' although he had no law degree.

``He was very close with Ali,'' local Nation of Islam leader Rodney Muhammad said in a telephone interview. ``He played a great role in how Ali came to be managed in his fight career.''

Mr. Shabazz, of Mount Airy, was close enough to Ali that he was sought to provide information for a 1991 PBS documentary on flamboyant and controversial boxing promoter Don King.

According to news accounts, Mr. Shabazz provided details in the documentary of King's paying Ali $50,000 to abandon the threat of a lawsuit against the promoter.

Ali had threatened to sue King after the promoter allegedly shorted him $1 million for the ``Thrilla in Manila'' championship fight against Joe Frazier.

``I was in Don's office,'' Mr. Shabazz says in the documentary. ``Don gave me $50,000 with specific instructions: `Don't give this money to Ali unless he signs a paper dropping the suit.' ''

Ali signed, according to news accounts.

The anecdote was recounted in an HBO Pictures movie about King, Don King: Only in America, which was shown in November.

Before joining Ali's entourage, Mr. Shabazz was a controversial figure as leader of the Nation of Islam's Philadelphia Mosque No. 12, then strongly connected with the crime syndicate known as the Black Mafia.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1927 and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School. He served in the Army at the end of World War II and, after his discharge, worked for the Postal Service and as a civilian employee of the Army Signal Corps.

Mr. Shabazz, who according to his family became a Muslim when he was 16, left his job in 1954 and began working with Malcolm X to establish the faith in Philadelphia. In 1959, he was sent to Atlanta to spread Elijah Muhammad's message throughout the South.

He helped establish houses of worship in major cities in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

Mr. Shabazz returned to Philadelphia in 1972 as minister of Mosque No. 12. Eloquent, congenial and a strong organizer, he quickly built the membership of the small mosque to more than 5,000.

``Under Jeremiah Shabazz, Philadelphia became one of the leading cities in the Nation of Islam,'' minister Rodney Muhammad said. ``A great deal of history goes with Jeremiah Shabazz as it relates to the Nation of Islam. . . . He was a tremendous groundbreaker and an excellent administrator.''

But the mosque was also reputed to be a center of criminal activity, with many of its leaders connected to murder, extortion, drug dealing, bank fraud and other crimes.

Five members were convicted in 1974 of having murdered seven people (including four children who were drowned in a bathtub) who were members of the rival Hanafi Muslim sect in Washington, D.C.

Investigators believed that the killings were commanded by leaders of the Black Muslims as a reprisal for the Hanafis' having criticized Elijah Muhammad. But they never determined who gave the order for the deaths because the one man who knew and was willing to talk was killed in prison.

Throughout, Mr. Shabazz insisted that he had never been engaged in any criminal activity, and no charges were ever brought against him. He accused the media of using the crimes of a few to smear the reputation of the Muslim movement.

The accusations against the mosque came not only from law enforcement sources. The late Muhammad Kenyatta, a black Baptist minister, spoke out, too, saying that ``many of the city's Black Mafia leaders hold prominent positions in the mosque here and Minister Shabazz has said nothing about it.''

In 1975, Mr. Shabazz was named head of the Nation of Islam's New York house of worship, and was widely considered one of the sect's top six leaders.

Eight months later, he was suspended and reduced in rank by officials of the Nation of Islam. Unconfirmed reports said that officials, including Wallace Muhammad, who took over leadership of the Nation of Islam after his father, Elijah Muhammad, died in February 1975, were unhappy over reports of criminal activity in the Philadelphia mosque.

Shortly after his demotion, Mr. Shabazz resigned. But he continued to spread the message of Elijah Muhammad the rest of his life, his family said.

``He disagreed with Wallace . . . ,'' a family member said. Unlike Wallace Muhammad, who took the Nation of Islam in an orthodox Islamic direction, Mr. Shabazz ``thought the work with black people in this country needed to be done in a different way,'' the family member said.

Mr. Shabazz died at Girard Medical Center in North Philadelphia. The Inquirer incorrectly reported yesterday that he had died at Germantown Hospital and Medical Center.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Shabazz; four daughters; and four grandchildren.

A Muslim service will be held from 1 to 2 p.m. tomorrow at Choice Funeral Chapel, 2530 N. Broad St. Burial will be in Chelten Hills Cemetery, 1701 E. Washington Lane. After the service, the family will gather at Moody's on the Pike, at 6834 Limekiln Pike.

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