MAXWELL:  Farrakhan as seen from the inside

10/22/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


More than a year ago, when Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan announced plans for the Million Man March, few people outside of black Muslim circles paid much attention. Today, of course, most Americans and many people worldwide know about last Monday’s one-day extravaganza.

Never again will the nation, especially white and Jewish America, not pay attention when Farrakhan speaks. In modestly increasing numbers, blacks have been paying attention to selected parts of the minister’s message for more than two decades.

As the day of the rally neared, interest in it peaked everywhere. Jews and other whites grew wary that Farrakhan indeed would attract a million black men to Washington but would renege on his promise to make the event one of introspection for them and preach a racist sermon that would enhance his influence nationally.

Farrakhan’s track record has given his detractors good reason to worry. But much of what frightens them about Farrakhan is in large measure the result, first, of their own misunderstanding of how blacks relate to their leaders and, second, their lack of first-hand knowledge of the profound desperation, hopelessness and fear paralyzing many black communities.

Everything about the Million Man March, including its creator, Farrakhan, its chief organizer, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the NAACP, its ostensible emphasis on atonement, reconciliation and self-analysis, its religious underpinning and, of course, its political protest, produced contradictions that add more discord to the nation’s complex debate on race.

At the same time, however _ and Jews and other whites have a hard time accepting this point _ Farrakhan’s “Day of Atonement” will pay huge dividends to blacks and to the rest of the country.

One of the biggest mistakes that Jews and other whites make is refusing to understand how African-Americans relate to their leaders. Jews and other whites are living in the past. They are wishing for what will never happen again. They view Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the ideal black leader and make his leadership, its style, tone and moral authority, the benchmark for black leadership per se.

Remember, King emerged at a time when history and the national will to slay Jim Crow intersected, when enough white people _ especially Jews _ believed that blacks had a God-given right to freedom. The movement that King led was dramatic. Innocent people, including children, were killed by white mobs. Television footage showed Southern white cops beating women; police dogs chewing human flesh; hooded cowards burning churches and schools and overturning buses; a governor blocking a schoolhouse door; scores of other officials vowing to “keep the nigras” in their place.

And King led big demonstrations, especially the 1963 march in the Mall, that captured world attention. His was a cause that had a priori validation. Either whites were ethical enough to support the cause or they were retrograde and did not.

In fact, decent whites and loyal Jews may have done more than blacks to create the King mystique. Because he was a Christian minister, King was familiar, predictable and nonthreatening to the vast majority of Americans. And his practice of Gandhi’s passive resistance legitimized his cause and ultimately won him the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Now, 27 years after his death, whites pine for another King (which is why so many adore Gen. Colin Powell). But many black people never will follow another King. Most of the young males, for example, who are scaring white people to death, who are unemployed and are in prison, were not born when King died in 1968. They have no physical or cultural memory of this charismatic leader, of his dream or of the hope he inspired in people of all races.

This new generation of black males thronged the National Mall to hear Farrakhan. A Washington Post poll indicates that this group, age 18-30, made up 33 percent of the marchers. They are the ones America worries about the most, the swaggering toughs who make up the rosters of street gangs and the cold flesh for morgues.

What lured them to Washington? What is Farrakhan’s appeal? Did the march accomplish anything? And do Jews and other whites have anything to fear?

Like King, Farrakhan has emerged at a time of crisis. Today, for instance, large numbers of blacks believe that they are aliens in their own nation. Poverty and unemployment are overwhelming even many who work hard every day. Blacks believe, moreover, that the Republican-controlled 104th Congress actively works against their best interests, with many party leaders cleverly using code words to create a hostile racial climate solely for political gain.

Black males, especially the younger ones, are attracted to Farrakhan’s oratory and nimble repartee, his independence, his aura of invincibility and inscrutability and his in-your-face handling of whites and Jews. These males see him as the black man’s black man. He stands up for their rights and talks trash when he has to.

Furthermore, Farrakhan wears his contempt for his enemies and perceived enemies on his bow tie, tapping into young males’ anger and their anti-establishment mood and rebelliousness.

During the rally’s keynote speech, most of the young marchers stood rapt, many admiring the impeccably dressed Farrakhan and the unflappable members of the Fruit of Islam who protected Farrakhan and who kept order throughout the entire 21-block Mall area.

Despite the man’s deplorable Jew-baiting (which I do not condone), I am convinced that Farrakhan, along with the Million Man March, will be good for black men and good for America at large. I listened to hundreds of men, young and old, attending the rally. Most spoke sincerely of committing themselves to changing their ways, to protecting, rather than abusing, their women, to rebuilding their communities.

Never before have I witnessed so many black men freely speaking so positively of self-reliance. I truly was impressed with how few times I heard anyone blame white people. Even as Farrakhan and other speakers attacked whites, the majority of the men in the crowd were talking to one another, exchanging telephone numbers, addresses, business cards and ideas. They seemed finally to have realized that the debate no longer is between them and white people. The debate is among blacks themselves _ only.

I truly was impressed, for example, with a group from Boston called Fathers Inc., who wore T-shirts bearing the words, “By any means necessary, be a father to your child.” They stalked the Mall, trying to persuade anyone who would listen. And many did listen, promising to transform their lives.

“I don’t care what anybody says, we damned well had better get on the stick and take care of our kids,” one member told me. “Our kids are the future. They’re all we have left. If the Million Man March can teach just 10,000 men this lesson, then it was a good thing. We brought our sons with us. By any means necessary, we will make our boys become good fathers to their children.”

Nearby, a man held a sign that read, “We are Our Brothers’ Keepers.” I spoke to him, Curtis West, a house painter from Chicago. “My son was killed in a street gang fight,” West said. “I don’t want this kind of thing to happen to another parent. Instead of killing my boy, those other boys should’ve been looking out for him. That’s why I’m here. I want to talk about the killing. There’s a lot of brothers here who lost their sons. We’ve got to stop the killing.”

In every part of the Mall, I became aware that the rally was bigger than the man who had organized it. Yes, Farrakhan called for the march, and some men came here to support him. But many did not. Jews and other whites who believe that Farrakhan and his brand of bigotry will sweep through black America insult the intelligence of black men everywhere. Most black men are not gullible dupes who will blindly follow Farrakhan, a man who often cannot control his mouth and who may be more than a bit psychotic.

The Post’s poll indicates, in fact, that only 5 percent of the marchers came specifically to support Farrakhan; 29 percent to show support for the black family; 25 percent to show support for black men taking more responsibility for their families and communities; 25 percent to demonstrate black unity; 7 percent to demonstrate African-American economic strength.

But the figures also should not lull the detractors of Farrakhan into believing that his leadership is not appreciated or that the march did not bolster his standing among blacks. Who in their right minds would not be impressed with someone who can assemble between 655,000 to 1.1-million black men for a common cause? Who would not be impressed with a man who is responsible for registering, in a 24-hour period, more than 150,000 black men to vote?

Who, moreover, would not be impressed with the pledge of personal responsibility and integrity that Farrakhan persuaded hundreds of thousands of black men to take? If half who took the pledge follow through, the nation will become a better place.

And what if half of the men participating in the march heed Farrakhan’s call for economic self-sufficiency? Contrary to what many whites fear, this was not a call for a separate black nation. Any sane white who has driven through a typical black community lately should have been struck by the blight, the shut-up buildings and the lack of viable commerce.

If Farrakhan’s call for a national black investment effort takes root broadly, black communities could revitalize themselves without totally depending on federal largess and on high-interest bank loans. Who would oppose such a program? Asians, Cubans and others have been doing investing among themselves for decades. Witness their success. Are they separate nations?

If 100,000 black men, say, left Washington determined to find work and take care of their families, the welfare rolls would shrink significantly. Who would oppose this savings? Would any Jews and other whites be afraid of such a development?

If 10,000 teens at the rally decided to not to join street gangs and stay out of trouble, crime statistics would plummet. Would this trend be good for America?

If 50,000 men left the Mall committed to reading to their children each night and to regularly visiting their children’s schools, the state of education nationally would improve dramatically. Is this practice something to fear?

The ugly truth, which the Million Man March unearthed, is that, while white citizens and politicians increasingly turned away from blacks and while traditional civil rights groups relived past glories without doing anything new, Farrakhan has been preparing to fill the leadership void, crafting his stewardship of a new era of black self-help.

No black person, though, should be so naive or so disingenuous as to tell whites and Jews that they should not fear Minister Farrakhan and his apparent hatred of them. I, for one, would never attempt such foolishness. But for our own survival, we, black people, must take the best of Farrakhan’s proposals and implement them. He is right when he says that only we can save ourselves.

As the historic rally ended, Farrakhan issued a challenge that few blacks _ because they fear negative criticism and run from self-analysis _ have had the courage to issue. “We must belong to some organization that is working for, and in the interests of, the uplift and the liberation of our people,” he said. “We must become a totally organized people. Moral and spiritual renewal is a necessity.”

Farrakhan has opened a window of opportunity for black American men. Now, we must act. We must stop the self-immolation and rid ourselves of our paralyzing victim mentality. We must tell the truth about ourselves over and over. We must recreate ourselves. Otherwise, we will go beyond being an endangered species.

We will become extinct as a viable race of men.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.