MAXWELL:  Diversity of black activism

11/17/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam

By Matthias Gardell

Duke University Press


The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

Reviewed by Bill Maxwell

Two new books _ In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America _ clearly demonstrate that black society is far being monolithic. The works represent the wide swings from nonviolence to radical confrontation to political office-seeking and underscore the conflicting attitudes that black activism has seen from one generation to the next.

Students and scholars interested in one of the most controversial forces in American race relations have a wealth of new material to explore In the Name of Elijah Muhammad. Written by Mattias Gardell, an associate professor in the department of theology at Uppsala University in Sweden, this thoroughly researched book maps the turbulent legacy of the Nation of Islam as it blossoms in Northern inner-city ghettos during the Great Depression under its founder, Master Farad Muhammad, through its low point after Elijah Muhammad died in 1975 to its rebirth under the fiery Louis Farrakhan.

Unlike others writing about the Nation of Islam, who mostly recite the organization’s chronology, Gardell places the Nation in the rich milieu of black history during slavery, during the early rise of black nationalism awakened by Marcus Garvey and examines the subtle but stubborn presence of traditional Islamic sects in America’s heartland.

And unlike African-American writers who double as advocates or apologists for the Nation, Gardell keeps a scholarly distance. Even when presenting previously secret Federal Bureau of Investigation files showing that the agency was intent on destroying the Nation, Gardell is objective. Nor does he spare Black Muslim extremists when offering new research on the assassination of Malcolm X.

The Nation’s current leader, Farrakhan, also receives even-handed treatment. Instead of listing Farrakhan’s apparent anti-Semitic attacks and repeating the positions of various Jewish groups, Gardell goes into the field and tape records Black Muslims on their soapboxes and interviews black leaders and ordinary blacks about their thoughts on Farrakhan, about the Nation’s relevance in their lives and about its claim that the organization represents the real views of most African-Americans.

One of the book’s best features is its examination of the Nation in relationship to mainstream Islam, to the inner-city culture of hip-hop and gangs, to Jewish organizations, to the black church and to white extremists. Moreover, Gardell’s treatment of the Million Man March is a welcomed reprieve from the usual hyperbole. In all, those who want to know more about the Nation of Islam and its leaders will find much vital information in Gardell’s excellent book.

In a market flooded with civil rights books, An Easy Burden, the memoirs of Andrew Young, gives the reader a rare, intimate glimpse inside the civil rights movement up to 1972, when Young was elected to represent the 5th Congressional District of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Young, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, former two-term mayor of Atlanta, former ambassador to the United Nations and co-chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games served as Martin Luther King’s chief of staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1961 to 1968, when King was killed. Young quickly became King’s confidant.

Largely autobiographical, the book recounts Young’s middle-class childhood in New Orleans. The strong values he learned from his parents, both highly educated, conservative professionals, prepared him for the harsh spotlight of public life. Those values, reflected in the title of the book, account for Young’s insight into the dynamics of race and race relations: “I say that race is an easy burden because my parents raised me that way. They said, “Race is a burden, but if you take it one day at a time, it can be an easy burden.’ ”

In an unadorned style, Young traces the complex alliance between King and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While both presidents felt morally bound to support King’s efforts, they also had the practical necessity of winning votes in the South. As only he could, Young discusses the FBI’s determination to silence King and J. Edgar Hoover’s anger when King spoke out against the war in Vietnam. As expected, some of the book’s most chilling moments depict the FBI’s crusade to ruin the reputation of King and other SCLC operatives.

With unusual candor, Young shows that King was not warm to those in his inner circle. No one, not even Young, could get very close to him. Although King and the late Ralph Abernathy, who become SCLC’s director after King’s death, were friends, Aberbathy grew to dislike King and became jealous of his boss’ many awards and public adoration. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King saw his friendship with the jealous Abernathy disappear.

“Ralph’s estrangement was much more worrisome to Martin than anything he thought J. Edgar Hoover might do,” Young writes.

An Easy Burden fills many gaps left by other works about the movement and King. The book’s major shortcomings, however, are its sloppy scholarship and its unsubstantiated suggestions that the FBI and other federal agencies may have been involved in King’s assassination.

In fueling more conspiracy theories without offering one shred of solid evidence, Young undercuts some of the credibility of an important, intimate examination of America’s most significant mass movement of modern times.

Bill Maxwell is a Times staff writer and columnist.