Last weekend, the nation's capital hosted the Millions More March, a gathering commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Nation of Islam's
Million Man March. The Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the main convener of the march, led tens of thousands in a daylong marathon of blame, calls for "self-help" and extremism.
Aware of the media attention that was focused on him, Farrakhan delivered his lengthy keynote address full of his unusual notions and his analysis of the state of race relations in America. He avoided the hate-filled rhetoric of which he is so capable, choosing instead to present the "new" Farrakhan to the wider-than-usual audience and the assembled media.
But the mask is transparent. Farrakhan's incendiary message of division is all too obvious, in fact glaringly apparent to those who bother to look. The media, once again, failed to discern the message of division that is at the heart of the Nation of Islam's credo and the grab bag of extremists who paraded to the podium throughout the day.
Joining Farrakhan on the stage were some of the march's endorsers who have apparently chosen to ignore the unsavory parts of his program. The pre-march endorsers included Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and the Rev. Al Sharpton. These leaders seem to think that the good reverend is a genuine builder of bridges intent on bettering America
Farrakhan and his minions around the country work hard to create an image of him as an elder statesman in the civil rights and religious world, one who really seeks racial and religious harmony. The "new" Farrakhan has been able to travel the country, meeting with myriad elected officials, opining on national and international affairs and be treated as a seemingly rational molder of opinion. The altered image seems almost to have stuck.
But Farrakhan is not a healer, and all the marches he convenes or sanitized speeches he delivers while C-SPAN is on won't change the divisive message that is at the heart of his and the Nation of Islam's rhetoric. He may mute and soften his message on occasion, but in the press of events and crisis, the real message of Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam emerges.
Most recently, his leitmotif of dividing America and sowing suspicion among races came to the surface through his thin veneer of moderation. In the wake of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, there was one voice which had a different take than virtually all others -- one that didn't talk of post-hurricane incompetence, tardy assistance or poor co-ordination, but rather spoke of a willful government effort "to destroy the city where black people lived." That voice was Farrakhan's.
In speeches that have received virtually no serious media attention, Farrakhan has unashamedly suggested that one of the levees "may have been blown up to destroy the black part of town and keep the white part dry."
This is a horrible thing to think that somebody would do, but all one needs to understand is our history and black-white relations in this country, and what some are capable of doing out of envy and desire for political and economic advancement. "[The United States] has some very wicked people in high places if you look at our history," Farrakhan insisted.
Farrakhan didn't misspeak in a moment of high energy. He hasn't retracted or modified his incendiary allegations, in fact, he has expanded on them. He has alleged on several occasions over the past few weeks that a levee was blown up to drown the pre-dominantly black sections of New Orleans -- murder on a massive scale
In 2005, when it is hard for comments of anyone to go unnoticed or un-Googled, it is difficult to fathom why responsible leaders would tolerate, let alone endorse, the advocate of such inflammatory and divisive views. How can Jackson, et al., lend their names to a demagogue who so cravenly and dangerously exploits one of the worst tragedies in recent American history? There is no message of self-empowerment or reorganizing black America that can sanitize this incendiary message that has no basis in fact.
Farrakhan's consorting with the likes of the hateful Malik Zulu Shabazz (co-convener of the March) and the homophobic Rev. Willie Wilson (executive director of the Millions More Movement who has decried growing female independence, because it results in "our women becoming lesbian") clearly hasn't tainted him sufficiently for the civil rights leaders to keep their distance until now. Shouldn't these comments alleging mass racial murder finally have opened their eyes?
Twenty years ago, as the head of a local civil rights organization, I wrote an op-ed about a visit to Los Angeles by Farrakhan. I warned of the danger of thinking that one could parse Farrakhan's message of "self-empowerment" from his then even more blatant bigotry and inflammatory rhetoric: "For decades, human rights, educational and liberal organizations have labored to indelibly imprint on the psyche of every young American that hate -- no matter how neatly packaged, no matter the appeal of its purveyor -- is outside the acceptable political lexicon of our society."
Today the message is just as apt. The ethos that rejects hate and its messenger is even more vital in this increasingly diverse society. Demagoguery and the intent to divide and inflame is simply unacceptable.
The Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons can't legitimize a divider like Farrakhan because it's convenient and suits their purposes, and then hope to be taken seriously as genuine pursuers of equal opportunity and civil rights. A bigot and racist has to be denounced and isolated, not winked at and lionized.
David Lehrer is president of Community Advocates (www.cai-la.org), a Los Angeles-based human relations agency.