The son of Caribbean immigrants, he was born Louis Eugene Walcott in 1933. After hearing Fard's successor, Elijah Mohammad, who led the Nation of Islam from 1934 to 1975, Farrakhan converted to this variant of Islam at the age of 22.
At the time, he was a calypso musician -- called the Charmer. Soon after his conversion, he gave up music to focus on drawing attention to the discord that he says exists between black and white America.
Farrakhan became leader of the Nation of Islam in 1977, and since then he's inflamed many -- accusing whites of being devils created by an evil scientist, describing Judaism as a dirty religion and referring to the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler as "wickedly great."
Particularly with his comments about Hitler, he insists the outrage results from a simple semantic misunderstanding.
"I was not wrong: 'Great' is not synonymous with 'good' except in colloquial language. Babylon was great but wasn't good," he said. "I say the man was wicked, but he was so great that you're still talking about him 50 years later. If he didn't make an impact on Jewish people and an impact on the world, why are you still referring to him, why are you still making movies about him."
"Nightline" asked Farrakhan if he still holds to those beliefs. Though he stands by the statements themselves, he maintains that he has been gravely misunderstood.
"If we look at the behavior of white people in their relationship to the darker people of the world, we couldn't say they acted as angels. They acted quite the contrary," he said. "But we're in a time of enlightenment now."
And that, he said, is why he needs to clarify some of his positions.
"Farrakhan is not anti-white, Farrakhan is not anti-Semitic, Farrakhan is not anti-American, Farrakhan is not, not anti-gay," Farrakhan insisted. "Farrakhan is pro black, and believe me, I would be fool not to be pro the country in which I'm born and nurtured and have grown."
While Farrakhan acknowledged that he has seen a lot of change in his tenure as the leader of the Nation of Islam, he remains wary of what may seem like obvious signs of progress. Beneath that surface success, he said, there lies a less-rosy reality.
"We have more black millionaires then we've ever had," he said. "We have more political clout, in terms of blacks in state legislatures, city councils, black mayors, black sheriffs. And on the surface that looks wonderful, because we have to say that to a degree we've made progress.
"But you don't judge progress by the few, you judge progress by the masses," he added. "And the masses of our people are not going forward, they're slipping further and further behind."
Part of the solution to these endemic problems, Farrakhan argued, is for blacks to remain distinct and detached from other races. He even said he would forbid interracial marriage, if he could.
"Our women don't have adequate men," he said. "So I want the black men to marry the black woman. I want the white woman to marry the white man."
Miscegenation, he said, is "unnatural." And moreover, it is too soon, since some very ugly racial attitudes were predominant.
"There was a time in America just a few short years ago when we could be lynched for just looking under a white woman's dress that was on a clothes line," he said, laughing, "much less trying to get sexually intimate with a white woman. So that history is right with us."
"Certainly, I'm very aware of my mortality, and I'm very aware that I have fewer years in front of me than behind me," he said.
Though he wishes some people had not misunderstood some of his statements over the years, he remains recalcitrant -- no apologies, no regrets, no recantations.
"I said to some of the groups that have quote-unquote been offended by my words, 'Come, let's sit down and reason together,'" he said. "Show me where what I said was wrong. I can correct the manner of my delivery, that I can regret. But the words, if they're true, I would be a hypocrite to back down on the truth that I spoke."