ROSEMONT, Ill. — Malik Shabazz came to the Nation of Islam the way many before him have: through jail.
The 47-year-old, now a Houston businessman, did 15 years for embezzling from a former workplace to help feed a cocaine habit. But while incarcerated he was inspired to reform by a movement that embraces black nationalism.
“A lot of young African Americans are told that they won’t amount to nothing,” he said. “Everything I do I give credit to the Nation; they planted that seed in me.”
The Chicago-based group has had strong ties with prisons and inmates since its founding in the 1930s. It seeks to transform jailed blacks with a strict moral code and the teachings of its leaders, including Louis Farrakhan.
Now the Nation is slowly expanding how it pursues that mission by incorporating more non-Muslim voices and ramping up efforts to reach troubled youth.
Both moves were central at the group’s annual Saviours’ Day convention in suburban Rosemont with a first-ever youth summit, a new teen mentoring program and speeches by high-profile former convicts.
Thousands from around the country attended the three-day event, which ended Sunday with Farrakhan’s keynote address. The convention celebrates the birth of the movement’s founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad.
Among the non-Muslims invited by Farrakhan were one-time drug kingpin Rick Ross and former heroin dealer Frank Lucas, who was depicted by Denzel Washington in the 2007 movie “American Gangster.”
Before a packed audience, the men detailed their lives behind bars and how they turned things around.
“Go to school, get an education, take children to school if you have to do,” Lucas said. “They can’t go the Frank Lucas way no more.”
Ross later added his own thoughts.
“Turn that prison cell into a university,” he said. “I don’t feel like I wasted 20 years in prison. I was developing into the man I am today.”
Both praised Farrakhan, who hasn’t responded to numerous requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Ishmael Muhammad, the Nation’s national assisting minister who is widely considered Farrakhan’s likely successor, told AP the men’s lives illustrate lessons for all, particularly those who have lived a life of crime.
He said the movement would continue to seek out such voices.
“These are men who believe that you can be redeemed,” Muhammad said. “They are men who know not only the streets but have also learned how easy one can be used as an instrument for the destruction of your own community.”
Muhammad said the movement has also intensified its efforts to reach young people, particularly after the high-profile beating death of a high school student in Chicago last year.
Later this year, the Nation of Islam will partner with several groups to start a mentoring program for teenagers leaving juvenile detention centers. The Association of Black Psychologists said it will help.
Experts say the Nation of Islam’s widened approach signifies a continued shift in how it operates.
While the group continues to focus primarily on black empowerment and self-reliance, it now also reaches out to other groups, including Latinos and immigrants.
“This is a Farrakhan strategy to present himself as a bridge builder and as a leader for non-Muslims,” said Jimmy Jones, a religion professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y.
The highly secretive group doesn’t release membership numbers or how many mosques it has. Even experts who study the organization don’t know whether the group is growing.
The organization’s head of prison ministry, Abdullah Muhammad, declined to talk to AP on Saturday. But in a session he said the Nation’s efforts in prisons are alive and well.
No one knows that better than Malik Shabazz.
In prison, he said other Muslims inspired him to study Farrakhan’s teachings, restrict his diet to one meal a day and earn a college degree in business. He also legally changed his name to Malik Shabazz, in honor of Malcolm X, who went by the same name.
Shabazz now guides other inmates through letters and phone calls.
“You have to realize that you have a devil within yourself that you have to deal with,” he said. “This process starts within.”