Progressive Land Developers Corp.
The Progressive Land Developers Corp. was a company founded by the Lost Found Nation of Islam in 1963 to promote self-sufficiency. The leader of the Chicago-based religious group, Elijah Muhammad, provided funds to the corporation, which held some properties in trust for him. He controlled 14.5 percent of the corporation's stock, but was not an executive in its administration. The corporation purchased apartment buildings and developable lots in Chicago, Illinois and farmland in Michigan, Illinois, Texas and Georgia before coming to Alabama in 1969.
The corporation planned to operate their farms in the south to raise produce and livestock which would be processed and packaged on site for distribution to stores and restaurants in which the corporation held interest in low-income areas of Chicago.
In June 1969 the corporation purchased a 376-acre farm in northern St Clair County for $115,000 from Ray Wyatt, a businessman and former state senator with a Ford dealership in Pell City. In October Wyatt and dentist Robert McClung bought another farm, a 541-acre spread in the southern part of the county which surrounded the Pine Forest Missionary Baptist Church and its cemetery. They purchased the land at auction for $101,000 and then turned and sold it to the corporation for a $20,000 profit. It was only after the second purchase that rumors began to spread that the land had been bought by "Negroes".
Ray's brother, Wallace Wyatt, who was serving as a deacon at Pine Forest Missionary Baptist, confronted him about the sale, and then learned that the buyers were affiliated with the Nation of Islam. Wallace said that he broke a "pledge of confidence" with his brother "in order to uphold the family honor and the honor of this state and nation," when he revealed the details of the transaction to members of his church. The backlash was immediate, as Ray Wyatt and his wife began receiving threatening phone calls. A dozen new automobiles at his dealership were damaged by acid and the business later burned to the ground.
Wyatt claimed that he did not know initially that the corporation had ties to "Black Muslims", but did know the owners were African American, and that he was assured that the farm and proposed $2.5 million food processing business would employ local workers. At one point, Wyatt indicated that he would be involved with the operation as a personnel manager. He said that once he got to know the group, he admired their high morals, as well as the commitment they shared with him that the races should remain segregated and independent.
Progressive Land Developers public relations director Walter Lee Turner organized a visit, by chartered airplane, to an existing "Muhammad Farms" operation in Terrell County, Georgia. He explained that the farm was operating successfully and contributing to the community's economy without any trouble from neighbors. Wyatt hoped those efforts would help win public support.
Those hopes were unfounded, though, as the possibility of a large "Black Muslim" presence in the area continued to stoke fears. Wallace Wyatt joined Baptist minister J. H. Bishop in founding a group known as "Restore Integrity to Development" (or "R.I.D.") which pledged to employ every legal means of stopping the establishment of the farms and food processing plants. Bishop told a gathering of 2,000 white residents at Ashville High School that he was, "willing to lay down my life for the cause if need be." Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard Robert Shelton, who had just been released from federal prison, came to the county to support the opposition. He claimed that the proposed business was "a threat to Christianity" and "part of a concentrated effort to take over the eight states of the Bible Belt." He claimed that the Klan was buying up property around the farm "to keep an eye on things," though reporters were not able to document any land sales tied to him or the group.
On December 4 Blount and St Clair County district attorney L. P. Waid had Ray Wyatt arrested and charged with representing an out-of-state corporation doing business in Alabama without a license. He also issued a warrant against Jimmy Holmes, a worker at the corporation's Georgia dairy farm that had come to plow land. Holmes was charged with trespassing (on the basis that the land sales were void), and also with "failing to register with police authorities as a Black Muslim". Wyatt posted bail for Holmes, who denied being a Muslim and said that his employers had never tried to indoctrinate him, but only paid him for his work. Attorneys for the corporation said the land sale was legal and that they planned to go through the process of obtaining the appropriate business licenses before operating as a business. Spokesman Walter Lee Turner responded to the efforts to oppose the project by promising that "If they attempt any violence against us, we will send 1,000 Black Muslims in there."
Nation of Islam member John D. Wallace, attorney Orzell Billingsley, farm workers Jimmy Holmes and Joe Sledge and manager John Henry Davis were named as plaintiffs in a suit filed by Charles Morgan, Jack Drake and others seeking to enjoin the various parties in St Clair County and the state of Alabama from violating the civil rights of the corporation and its agents. The suit was successful, and ultimately the state law requiring "communists, Nazis and Muslims" who remained in the state for more than a day to register with the Alabama Department of Public Safety and for Muslim organizations to provide lists of their membership was struck down by the federal courts in Wallace v. Brewer (1970).
While judicial hearings on the legality of the land sale and other matters were still pending, operations on the farm began under the management of long-time county resident and voting rights activist John H. Davis. A herd of 300 Hereford and Angus cattle was purchased for $30,000 and brought to the northern parcel. Six of those head were killed in one day in November by "snipers" hiding in the pines outside the fences. A total of 25 head fell to gunfire that month. The unsolved crimes prompted Elijah Muhammad to proclaim that that the white residents of St Clair County were "playing with fire." The following spring, another 52 cows died after drinking from a poisoned trough. St Clair County sheriff Joel Woods recovered organs from the poisoned cows to send to Auburn University to determine the substance used, though a local veterinarian suspected cyanide. Within days, Davis was ready to pack it in. "No use staying where people ain't civilized." he said, as he promised to sell the farm "to the Ku Klux Klan or anybody who wants it." He offered the combined properties and their improvements for $270,000.
The remaining cattle were moved to a recently-acquired farm in Greene County, whose majority-Black citizens had recently installed African Americans in most of the county offices. Progressive Land Developers, Inc. filed for incorporation in Alabama, and was registered as dealers in cattle and feed from February 3, 1972 until dissolving on December 10, 1976. The incorporators were Ronald Clements, W. Earl Jones and Richard Thomas, and the registered place of business was Greensboro in Hale County.
After Elijah Muhammad's death, Progressive's land holdings in Alabama were sold, with the money going back into its land trust. The trust was later dissolved to fund a judgment against the Nation of Islam in favor of Muhammad's estate, which was split equally between his six legitimate and 18 illegitimate children.
- "Black Muslim Project Charged, Denied." (November 16, 1969) The Anniston Star
- Waldron, Martin (November 24, 1969) "Black Muslims Buying Land to Farm in Alabama." The New York Times
- "Northern Alabamians Resent Muslim Move." (December 9, 1969) United Press International
- Thompson, Cordell S. (January 1, 1970) "Black Muslims Fight To Keep Alabama Farm." Jet Vol. 37, No. 13, pp. 17-22
- Oberts, Bill (January 27, 1970) "Alabama Man's Life in Turmoil Since Selling Land." Associated Press
- "Poison Is Suspected in Death of 30 Cows On a Muslim Farm" (March 15, 1970) Associated Press/The New York Times
- Wooten, James T. "Black Muslims Would Sell Farm to Klan" (March 17, 1970) The New York Times