Aretha Franklin used to sing "A Change is Gonna Come," but one change I never thought I'd see was the disbanding of the group originally called the Black Muslims.

It's hard to believe that they're gone -- those familiar, well-groomed young men who used to walk around bombed-out-looking neighborhoods, wearing business suits, starched white collars and bow ties. Extending copies of "Muhammad Speaks," they would ask, with a smile, "Paper, sister?"

But only last month, Warith Deen Muhammad, the leader of the American Muslim Mission, told his followers to put down their name "and never put up any term that lumps you all together in one community but become members of a Muslim community that's international."

For some this might seem like heresy, but for the 50-year-old organization, it is the culmination of gradual changes that Muhammad has been instituting for the last 10 years since the death of Elijah Muhammad, who had been the organization's spiritual leader for 40 years.

Although the group originated in Detroit back in the 1930s and eventually moved to Chicago where its empire flourished in the three succeeding decades, it was not until the 1960s that we began to see and hear much of Elijah Muhammad or the Nation of Islam. That was when his movement boasted one of the most dynamic speakers of the 20th century, Malcolm X.

When the vast majority of blacks were fighting for integration, the Black Muslims were espousing separatism. While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was calling whites "brothers," the Muslims called them all "devils."

A black majority looked upon the Muslims with both pride and fear. The sense of pride was largely centered on the sect's economic holdings, which were considered to be vast -- perhaps the largest black economic enterprise in the country, with assets estimated up to $70 million at one time and including restaurants, supermarkets, clothing stores and farms.

The organization attracted and recruited from the ranks of convicts and working-class blacks eager for self-esteem and discipline. I will always remember how polite the young men were when they knocked on my door, selling fish, carrot cakes and bean pies. And if the Muslims were seen as super-righteous and stiff by some, to others they were the pillars of the community. I remember that when I had to go into a rough neighborhood, I always felt a little safer to see some Muslims standing on the corner.

The American press treated the religious sect with an attitude of hostility, and even some black journalists assigned to cover them occasionally admitted being afraid.

Inseparable from the history of the Black Muslims is the memory of the charismatic Malcolm X who broke from the sect, vehemently criticizing its tenets and the morals of its leaders. And it wasn't long afterward that he was assassinated in 1965 -- allegedly by factions within his old religious sect.

Many of the reforms that Warith Deen Muhammad began instituting 10 years ago were changes that he and Malcolm X had discussed and agreed upon on many occasions.

But it was only upon Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975 that the veil of secrecy that had long shrouded the sect's activities began to be lifted. The founder's son immediately instituted a number of astonishing changes, dismantling what he called his father's "myths and fairy tales."

Membership in the once all-black religion was opened to people of all races, including whites. Substantial portions of their commercial holdings were dismantled because many of them had operated in the red. He pushed his followers to adhere closely to the universal tenets of Islam. He also demoted his father from prophet to "social reformer," changed the official name of the group to the American Muslim Mission, and his own name from Wallace to Warith.

While this transformation was accepted by most members, some completely rejected the changes. Louis Farrakhan, the outspoken Muslim leader who has become controversial of late, broke with the sect and formed his own organization.

Meanwhile, Warith Deen Muhammad continued his gradual liberalization process that led to the recent dissolution of the sect altogether.

So what does it all mean? It could mean exactly what Muhammad has said, that he earnestly believes union with the worldwide Islamic community is in harmony with fundamental Muslim ideas. It may also be the reflection of one man's personality, leadership style and belief that the Black Muslims were an idea whose time had passed.

Whatever it means, one thing is certain: it will be a long time before the likes of the empire his father built is seen again.