The appearance of Minister Louis Farrakhan at Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. Church last weekend marked another step in a concerted campaign to bring the fiery leader of the Nation of Islam into the civil rights mainstream. By all accounts, the Bethel congregation did its part by welcoming him graciously.
Efforts to mend fences with Mr. Farrakhan seem to have gotten under way in earnest in September at the Congressional Black Caucus Weekend in Washington. Key black leaders, including the NAACP's Executive Director, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Kweisi Mfume and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, agreed to put aside their personal and political differences with the Nation of Islam leader in the interest of promoting black unity.
"We need to work together more than we've ever worked together," Mr. Chavis said at the time. "There is no one single answer to our predicament."
Mr. Mfume likewise brushed off critics who questioned whether Mr. Farrakhan's reputation for anti-Semitism wasn't a liability rather than an asset.
"I'm too old to worry about criticism. I represent the people of Baltimore, not the people on the [Capitol] Hill. They will make their own decisions. We have to work with . . . anybody and everybody who's willing to work for change," Mr. Mfume said.
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, Bethel's pastor, has been an important collaborator in these efforts. Mr. Reid, in fact, had already extended a welcoming hand to Mr. Farrakhan's rival for the allegiance of African-American Muslims in July, when he invited Imam W. Deen Mohammed, son of former Nation of Islam leader Elijah Mohammed, to Baltimore to address the Bethel congregation.
Mr. Mohammed broke with Mr. Farrakhan in 1975. While Mr. Mohammed sought to bring his followers more into line with the teachings of orthodox Islam, Mr. Farrakhan pursued the separatist theology that first brought the group to prominence in the 1960s. Mr. Mohammed has said he rejects Mr. Farrakhan's notion of black racial superiority and the idea that "white people are a separate creation, and that they are devils."
Mr. Farrakhan's appearance at Bethel was a source of controversy among some of the church's 9,000 members. Many apparently feared the negative publicity such an appearance might bring.
Others, however, welcomed the opportunity to hear Mr. Farrakhan speak, even though they may not have agreed with him in the past. In any case, about 2,000 people had to be turned away because of lack of space in the church sanctuary.
As it turned out, Mr. Farrakhan did not embarrass his hosts by making the kind of inflammatory statements that have garnered him such notoriety elsewhere. Instead, he delivered a fairly orthodox message that emphasized the common ground among Muslims, Christians and Jews -- so much so that one Bethel member remarked afterward, "He preaches the word of God just like my pastor does."
Still, apprehensions over his appearance here point up some of the unresolved questions surrounding efforts to bring Mr. Farrakhan into the mainstream civil rights fold.
Mr. Chavis, Mr. Mfume and Mr. Jackson apparently believe that it is important to reach out to Mr. Farrakhan because he enjoys strong grass-roots support, especially among disadvantaged inner-city blacks, and because his organization is one of the few that demonstrably has been successful in reclaiming young black men from the twin perils of drug abuse and firearms-related violence.
Moreover, Mr. Farrakhan preaches a brand of black pride,
self-help and business development that many main stream leaders have come to share. As the focus of civil rights shifts from legal battles in the courts and Congress to issues of economic parity, Mr. Farrakhan's emphasis on business development in African-American neighborhoods has grown more widely appealing.
Mr. Farrakhan also has focused on the need for moral regeneration among blacks, citing rising teen pregnancy, crime and the disintegration of families as symptoms of a spiritual crisis among African-Americans.
Finally, many of his ideas that once were dismissed as frivolous -- such as the need for blacks to look for role models in their African past -- are now widely accepted both among educators and mainstream civil rights advocates.
Thus when Mr. Farrakhan exhorts his audiences to abstain from drugs and alcohol and shun pre-marital sex and adultery, many non-Muslim blacks find themselves agreeing.
At the same time, his outspoken criticism of the racial inequities and injustices that still characterize American society has earned him the admiration of a new generation of black young people who see their prospects dimmed by discrimination despite the landmark gains of the civil rights movement a quarter of a century ago.