After a week when even Palestinians and Israelis were doing the unthinkable and talking peace, it was hard to fault NAACP Director Benjamin Chavis and Jesse Jackson for trying to mend fences with the Nation of Islam's controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan. Brought together by Rep. Kweisi Mfume at the Congressional Black Caucus' annual legislative weekend, the attempt at reconciliation between mainstream civil rights leaders and the foremost spokesman for black separatism made for the kind of memorable spectacle that left some 2,000 audience members applauding in the aisles at a town-hall style meeting last week.
Still, there's probably less to all this than meets the eye. Messrs. Jackson and Chavis may well wish to end the public squabbling between themselves and Mr. Farrakhan. But Mr. Farrakhan thrives on it. That is the whole point of his vituperative rhetoric and media posturing. Without mainstream black leaders to denounce as racial quislings, hypocrites and Uncle Toms, Mr. Farrakhan and his movement would be no more than a quirky aberration from orthodox Islam. So this ostensible "truce" is apt to be short-lived.
That is a pity, because the need for what Mr. Jackson called "operational unity" among black groups has never been more urgent. Mr. Farrakhan appeals to an alienated, disenfranchised segment of younger blacks, the very people whom leaders like Mr. Chavis, for example, say must be brought into the fold if real progress is to made against the social and economic hurdles of the post-civil rights era. But they are unlikely to come so long as Mr. Farrakhan preaches a brand of separatism that divides his followers from other blacks as well as from the larger society.
Mr. Chavis, like Mr. Jackson before him, also opens himself to the taint-by-association of Mr. Farrakhan's virulently anti-Semitic remarks, which he has never publicly disavowed nor apologized for. That's a bootless burden for the NAACP leader to take on at a time when he is trying to build an endowment and form working alliances with the corporate community.
Mr. Mfume's role in this attempt at bridge-building is intriguing. As head of the Black Caucus, he enjoys tremendous prestige among both mainstream civil rights groups and Mr. Farrakhan's followers, putting him in a position vis a vis blacks akin to that of President Jimmy Carter when he brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat together 1978. Mr. Mfume deserves credit for his deft diplomacy. Still, this is likely to be as cold a peace as that between Israel and Egypt after the euphoria of Camp David faded.