MAXWELL:  Separated by time and ideology

10/18/1995 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In the wake of the Million Man March, comparisons between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Louis Farrakhan are inevitable and probably necessary for us to understand fully the state of race relations in our nation.

Both of their voices thundered from giant speakers across the Capitol Mall. Both of them spoke to hundreds of thousands in their audiences and to millions more on nationwide television. Both, as black men and preachers, invoked their gods, urging the faithful to adopt and work for a specific vision of America.

And that, perhaps, is where the basic similarities end and the real differences between these two charismatic leaders begin.

King, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who spoke in 1963 to a mass that included blacks and whites, boldly sought peace. He wanted to heal the nation’s wounds, to bring the races together. He wanted to give African-Americans, long denied full citizenship, legal rights and access to the American Dream that had been kept out of their reach by Jim Crow laws and racist sentiments everywhere.

Farrakhan, minister of the Nation of Islam, spoke on Monday, and he, too, seeks peace _ a peace among black men. King’s vision of America was conciliatory and inspired by forging alliances between blacks and whites and Jews and others. Farrakhan, while acknowledging the injuriousness of racism and white supremacy, asks his followers to turn away from dependence on others and to build alliances among themselves.

This is a laudable goal, one that, if achieved, will benefit all Americans.

To Farrakhan, again unlike the external forces that King confronted, the greatest threats to black existence and well-being are black-on-black enmity, self-hatred, self-destructive behavior and the routine abandonment of families and communities. He focused on these themes in his nearly three-hour speech to 12 blocks of wall-to-wall humanity that stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.

While Jews stood with King (and helped to organize the 1963 gathering), Jews figured prominently as black people’s enemies in Farrakhan’s speech and in comments days before the march. In a Reuters interview on Saturday,for example, he referred to Jews as “bloodsuckers” who drain the life out of black communities.

This and other attacks made Farrakhan’s offer to “dialogue” with Jews ring hollow. After all, Jews are not lobbing unprovoked insults at black Muslims or any other blacks. Jews counter, and rightly so, only after they have been attacked. And although Farrakhan’s words were conciliatory, his tone and facial expressions were mocking.

For those looking for symbolism, nothing illustrated the vast difference between King and Farrakhan more than the location from which each man delivered his speech.

King, the peacemaker, spoke in the healing shadows of the Lincoln Memorial. Farrakhan, the unapologetic firebrand, spoke from the opposite end of the Mall, on the steps of the Capitol _ where, inside, Republicans and Democrats are tearing the nation apart with their repulsive hypocrisy and bitter partisanship.

Perhaps this symbolism represents, moreover, the opposite directions that King’s and Farrakhan’s visions of race have taken the nation. Perhaps this oppositional dynamic is an urgent call for all of us to honestly reassess our estimations of our fellow citizens who happen to be of a different color. Perhaps it is the final call for all of us _ black and white _ to look inside ourselves, to reach out to our fellow Americans with more compassion and understanding.

And although many black men left Washington determined to make good on Farrakhan’s challenge of self-help and atonement, no black man _ if he is realistic _ can afford to forget the principles Dr. King outlined in his “I Have a Dream” speech 32 years ago.