They were known as Black Muslims and their enemies were the "white devils." Today, they are part owners with Chinese-Americans in a food processing and packaging company in Chicago that has whites as top executives.
Since the death of its founder and leader four years ago, the World Community of al-Islam, as it is now known, has expelled its conservative, antiwhite philosophy. It now hopes that with the help of the federal government, intergration will propel them into the mainstream of corporate America.
Yesterday, a $5.5 million loan guarantee from the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration - the largest ever - was awarded to the new company, the American Pouch Food Co., Inc., which has as its heads Wallace D. Muhammad, son of the founder and former sect leader Elijah Muhammad, and Allen A. Cheng, a Chinese-American businessman.
As if to prove their new point, American Pouch even processes pork products, foods forbidden under Islam law.
"The law says don't eat it, not don't make it," said the firm's controller, Haazim Ali. "We have to respect the culture of our partner."
"It is an innovative change from past philosophy," Ali said in a telephone interview from the company's offices outside Chicago. "In keeping with the changes (former leader) Wallace D. Muhammad has been talking about in the last four years, we're getting involved with the general community This is what we're all about now."
Yesterday the Commerce Department awarded the company a $5.5 million loan guarantee - the largest ever by Commerce - to produce pouches of the non-refrigerated meals, which will replace military C and K-rations and eventually compete with frozen food for shelf space. The firm also hopes to use them to feed peoples of Third World countries, Ali said.
About 80 percent of the jobs created by the company - 475 in the first year and 610 at full production - are to be filled by the umemployed and underemployed on Chicago's West and South Sides, the Commerce Department said.
The World Community invested $2 million in the venture which is its first, but not last, major expansion into big business, Ali emphasized.
"Today's business is monopolized by large business," Ali said. "Small businesses have a hard time making it. We want to get involved in something large and also put our people in the position to learn technology."
The World Community's numerous small groceries and bakeries dotting Chicago's black communities have been closed for economic reasons, Ali said. "We had to get rid of small businesses that were unprofitable and create jobs," Ali said.
While maintaining and stressing its religious base the World Community also is facing the basic economic realisties of life, Ali said.
The company's vice presidents in charge of communications and finance, for instance, are white and have each brought with them more than 20 years of experience in the Swift & Co. food business, Ali said. Allen A. Cheng, president, was the motivating force behind the company.
Cheng approached the World Community because he wanted to develop operations in Chicago without labor problems, Ali said. The World Community's half interest in the business is owned by the Progressive Land Developers, a subsidiary of the World Community, Ali said.
Last September, Wallace Muhammad stepped down as chief minister of the sect and placed day-to-day administrative duties in the hands of a six-member council of ministers.
American Pouch will package and precook food in a three-layer pouch to be sold to the Defense Department under a $21.3 million contract awarded earlier this year. That was the largest federal contract ever signed by a minority firm. The pouches next year will replace the C-ration, meals in cans used by the military since World War II. The firm is scheduled to prepare 8 million of the pouches.
The foods include chicken a la king, meat balls, ham slices, a vegetable and some desserts and fruit. The pouches can be heated in hot water or using body heat, Cheng said.
The two loans, guaranteed by the Commerce Development yesterday, will be used to buy machinery and equipment, to renovate buildings in two inner-city neighborhoods for its plant and to launch the pouch meals in the commercial market.