The Need to Speak Out, the Need for Unity

January 28, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--A recent speech by a senior aide to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan has been condemned as ''racist, anti-Semitic, divisive, untrue and chilling,'' and Mr. Farrakhan himself has been called upon to ''make a definitive judgment of the speaker, in that he spoke in his name.''

Nothing terribly extraordinary about that, except that this time the denunciation comes not from a Jewish leader but from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom Jewish leaders have criticized in the past for failing to denounce black anti-Semitism quickly enough.

Mr. Jackson explained that he had refrained from speaking on the controversial November speech by Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, at Kean College in Union, New Jersey, as long as it was ''a local issue.''

But after the Anti-Defamation League printed some of its most incendiary portions in a full-page ad in the nationally distributed New York Times, Mr. Jackson felt it suddenly made sense for him to speak out.

Others have, too. The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; William H. Gray III, head of the United Negro College Fund; Mary Frances Berry, chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; and Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., head of the Congressional Black Caucus, also condemned the statements.

Small wonder. Mr. Muhammad's insults were breathtakingly vile, ignorant and sweeping, judging by tapes of the event. He alleged the Federal Reserve is ''owned by the Jews.'' He blamed Jews for undermining ''the very fabric of society'' in Germany and helping Hitler rise. He alleged, ''Many of our politicians are in the palm of the white man's hand, but in particularly, in the palm of the Jewish white man's hand.''

He also attacked other black Americans and Roman Catholics and the ''old, no-good Pope, you know that cracker. . . . Somebody need to raise that dress up and see what's really under there.''

So much for Mr. Farrakhan's recent moves to appear to be more moderate.

At a Monday night speech in New York, Mr. Farrakhan said that Mr. Muhammad's words had been misinterpreted. It is hard to imagine how.

Mr. Jackson said he was most disturbed by the way Mr. Muhammad's remarks received applause from black students in his audience and silence from black members of the state-supported college's faculty.

''Schools have a right to have free speech,'' Mr. Jackson said, ''but when speech is not true or right, and damaging, then there also is an obligation by students and professors to bring balance.''

''Since Muhammad was speaking in Minister Farrakhan's name, that puts some obligation on Minister Farrakhan to clarify his position,'' Mr. Jackson said. ''Such demagoguery is not in the tradition of our struggle for civil rights and social justice. It is not in the tradition, really, of Malcolm [X], as he evolved, or of Martin [Luther King Jr.] or [Nelson] Mandela. We cannot let something like that go unchallenged for we have a need to build coalitions for our common good.

''Our biggest weapon in the movement has not been money or guns,'' Mr. Jackson said. ''It has been the moral rightness of our cause. You cannot fight racism with racism or with anti-Semitism. We must argue philosophically and consistently against that which hurts other people.''

With his new get-tough stance against black hate speech coupled with his new get-tough stance against black-on-black crime, Mr. Jackson appears to be on a cleanup campaign against the black community's dirty laundry. More power to him.

But is he concerned that now he, too, will be dismissed, particularly by the young, restless and angry, as some sort of a sellout?

''One cannot assume that young people are foolish,'' Mr. Jackson responded. ''Besides, there is nothing worse than older, mature persons trying to play to the immature. Nelson Mandela has no obligation to follow the youths of South Africa. We must lead. We have a moral obligation to share good information with the young.'' Amen.

Still, if the healing process in black-Jewish relations is to work, Mr. Jackson's action is only a beginning. It calls for reciprocal action from others, including Jewish leaders.

That traditional Jews need to hear strong denunciations of anti-Semitic remarks is quite understandable in light of history. Had responsible voices denounced Hitler early enough, the Holocaust might not have happened.

But it does not help relations between blacks and Jews when the utterance of every publicity-seeking crackpot triggers a demand from some Jewish leaders that Mr. Jackson and other national black leaders drop whatever they may be doing at the time to rush to judgment about some place they may never have visited to denounce some speech they didn't hear by a speaker they never have heard of.

As strongly as Jews appreciate denunciations, blacks appreciate unity. As strongly as Jews abhor being told they ''control'' the media, banks and government, so do blacks abhor being held responsible for every bad word or action by every other black American. Such obligation-by-association is no less aggravating than guilt-by-association.

Here's a suggestion: Perhaps the next time some local ugliness like the Khalid Muhammad incident occurs, the Anti-Defamation League might consider spending its national newspaper ad money on something local, like a town hall meeting to talk the matter out. Perhaps then the poison might be contained and neutralized with truth, instead of spread around.

Just a suggestion.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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