In the 1970s, Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, saw significant success with his nation-building and economic plan. The Black Muslims of the Nation had several thriving businesses nationwide, including bakeries, grocery stores, and restaurants, among other things. Muhammad also oversaw the development of an NOI bank and several farms. One of the Nation’s biggest business ventures was a fish import business.
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.
The Nation sold fish door-to-door to restaurants and other businesses.
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.
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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 via Mobile, Ala., Savannah, Ga., and Los Angeles.
But when the shipment came into the port in Los Angeles, there was a face-off between the Nation and the city’s longshoremen.
Longshoremen (or dock workers) are workers who load and unload freight from cargo ships to docks.
When the NOI’s fish shipment arrived, the longshoremen claimed that they had not been hired to unload the ship and that the ship could only be unloaded by them because they were union workers.
Well, the NOI insisted they were not going to do business like that, and in fact, they would unload their shipment themselves whether or not the union liked it.
Two NOI members recalled the incident in an interview that was posted on a YouTube channel by Ephraim Shabazz. In an episode entitled “Nation of Islam untold story vs Los Angels Union Dockworkers,” Haim Shah and one other NOI member, who is not identified, explained what happened on that day.
According to the two members, the NOI decided to unload the seven ships themselves, even though the union dock workers tried to stop them.
“w”We weren’t going to allow nothing or nobody to stop us,” said Shah. “So they said that they wouldn’t unload it, period. But we had 20 trucks. We had our own men; we had 240 men.” According to Shah, the local NOI leader told the longshoremen, “‘Look we’ll take care of it ourselves.’ And he called them all (the NOI men) to attention, and he told them what had to be done.”
The NOI members unloaded the seven ships while the longshoremen watched. The shipment was loaded onto the NOI trucks. The NOI never gave in to the demands of the union and never looked back.
Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad stands behind microphones at center of platform, surrounded on all sides by rows of guards, as he addresses closing session of Muslim convention at Chicago on Feb. 28, 1980. Fruit of Islam guards protect all approaches to platform. (AP Photo)