Nation of Islam strains black unity

January 27, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The failure of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to denounce inflammatory remarks made by an aide is complicating recent attempts by some African-American leaders to forge a pact of unity with the Nation of Islam.

The virulently anti-Semitic speech made last November by Farrakhan aide Khalid Abdul Muhammad, in which he is quoted as calling Jews "the blood suckers of the black nation," has been attacked by a growing number of black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who called on Mr. Farrakhan to repudiate the comments, NAACP chief Benjamin Chavis and congressional Black Caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume.

But Mr. Mfume and others have stopped short of breaking ties with Mr. Farrakhan, who poured fuel onto the fire in a speech in Harlem Monday night, accusing Jews of "trying to use my brother Khalid's words against me to divide the house."

"The members of the Jewish community are the most organized, rich and powerful, not only in America, but in the world," he said. "They don't want Farrakhan to do what he's doing. They're plotting as we speak."

The hate-filled speech by Mr. Muhammad at Kean College in Union, N.J., and Mr. Farrakhan's refusal to repudiate it, puts Mr. Mfume in an especially uncomfortable position. Just four months ago, the Baltimore Democrat tried to bring the Nation of Islam into a "sacred covenant" with the Black Caucus in an attempt to promote unity within the black community.

"This creates a climate of unparalleled concern among a lot of different organizations and individuals," said Mr. Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat. "It cries out for clarity."

Echoing Mr. Jackson's condemnation of Mr. Muhammad's speech, Mr. Mfume criticized the remarks as "vicious, racist, anti-Semitic and sexist," and said they were "adorned with the cloth of intolerance" that allowed slavery and the Holocaust.

Mr. Mfume, who faxed a letter to Mr. Farrakhan last Friday expressing "great anguish" over the remarks delivered by Mr. Muhammad, said he has been waiting the controversial leader's reply before any reconsideration of the Black Caucus' relationship with the Nation of Islam.

Yesterday, he said he would wait no longer than the end of today -- one week since he sent his letter -- before making a further assessment of the relationship.

"I, in my own optimistic way, still believe that this whole matter is salvageable," the caucus chairman said. "But that can only be done by Mr. Farrakhan."

In his brief letter, Mr. Mfume asked for clarification of the official position of the Nation of Islam and of the positions articulated by Mr. Muhammad. The aide's remarks "are disturbing to say the least, and a cause of concern for all of us," wrote Mr. Mfume, who was widely criticized last September for his overture to the militant black Muslim leader.

Mr. Farrakhan has long been associated with anti-Semitic rhetoric, going back to 1984 when he called Judaism "a gutter religion." But he has softened his anti-Jewish remarks in recent years and even played Mendelssohn at a violin recital last year in what was seen as a peace offering to Jews.

The latest controversy began after the Anti-Defamation League ran a full page ad in the New York Times earlier this month with what it said were excerpts of the Nov. 29 speech at Kean College.

In it, Mr. Muhammad told the college audience that black South Africans should "kill everything white" in their country, that the pope is a "no good . . . cracker," that Jews own the Federal Reserve and control the White House and have names like Rubinstein, Goldstein and Silverstein because they have been "stealing rubies and gold and silver all over the earth."

Civil rights activist Roger Wilkins, who condemned the "vile and awful" speech in early January, said the Black Caucus should be willing sever its relationship with the Nation of Islam if Mr. Farrakhan doesn't change his posture -- even in light of some of the group's positive anti-violence work in Baltimore and Washington neighborhoods.

"We can't say to people, 'We will be in alliance with you no matter what you do,' " says Mr. Wilkins, a George Mason University professor. "If someone insists on bringing garbage into the room and makes it appear that you are the generator of that garbage. . . . If that's the price of unity with you then the price is too high."

William H. Gray III, head of the United Negro College Fund, agreed that Mr. Farrakhan's silence on the issue "would create a significant problem for coalition-building," noting that only Mr. Mfume had attempted to form a covenant with Mr. Farrakhan's group.

"We have been the victims of such racial hatred, it would be morally indefensible and tactically foolish for blacks to adopt racist and anti-Semitic views," said the former congressman and Black Caucus member.

Mr. Chavis did not return repeated phone calls.

Abraham H. Foxman, director of the ADL, said yesterday that he was heartened that much of the nation's black leadership had condemned the comments.

"It strengthens the relationship between the black community and Jewish community by bringing us closer together on issues of bigotry and racism," he said. "There is a sensitivity to our anguish and to our pain."

He acknowledged that, so far, black leaders have only "rejected the message and not the messenger."

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