For Mfume, a quick divorce from the Nation of Islam would not be easy

February 02, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Last Sunday, after a week of bruisings by some of his Congressional Black Caucus colleagues and some Jewish lawmakers, Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland walked into a sea of adulation and prayers at the Bethel A.M.E. Church.

It is a church in West Baltimore where Nation of Islam leader Louis T. Farrakhan has spoken several times, and one that employs Nation members to guard its children as they walk to school each day.

And its ties to the controversial black Muslim group point out the political crosscurrents that Mr. Mfume -- representative of a largely black district, chairman of the Black Caucus and a politician with lofty ambitions -- finds himself caught in as he decides how to respond to a hate speech delivered by a Farrakhan aide and reinforced by Mr. Farrakhan himself last week.

In Washington, the congressman, who announced a "sacred covenant" between the caucus and the Nation of Islam last fall, has been urged by some lawmakers to sever his ties with the black Muslim group. But for Mr. Mfume, who represents many who admire the Nation of Islam, a quick divorce is not such an easy proposition.

"The situation is more delicate than that," says Ronald Walters, a Howard University political scientist. "I don't know how we got into 'repudiation politics,' but it is a simplistic politic. Because of the structure of the black community, it's not that easy to just repudiate someone who is living next door to you and is active in the affairs of your community."

Indeed, the Nation of Islam has been extremely active, and a positive force, on the streets of Mr. Mfume's 7th district, an economically depressed district that includes most of Baltimore's black neighborhoods and is ravaged by crime and drugs and unemployment.

"People in our community look upon the Nation of Islam more favorably than people realize," says Rodney Orange, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "While we at the NAACP repudiate the comments of [Farrakhan aide] Khalid Abdul Muhammad, we don't want to write off the Nation of Islam and the good works that they do in the community because of these comments. What would that accomplish in our community?"

Clean-cut, unarmed and wearing their trademark bow ties, members of the NOI (Nation of Islam) Security Agency Inc. have worked as guards at the Flag House Courts and Lafayette Courts public housing projects in East Baltimore, for instance, wiping out much of the crime and violence there.

What's more, Nation members preach a message of self-respect and nationalism that resonates with underprivileged communities.

"Some of their message may not at all be what we promote, preach or believe in," says the Rev. Walter Thomas of the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. "That doesn't mean it doesn't sound a chord for disenfranchised people."

The Baltimore Democrat has vehemently condemned the speech made by Mr. Muhammad on Nov. 29, and wrote a letter to Mr. Farrakhan nearly two weeks ago asking if the remarks represented the Nation of Islam's position.

Mr. Mfume's letter has thus far gone unanswered, although a reply is expected to be made public in tomorrow's edition of the Final Call, the Nation of Islam's official newspaper.

And Mr. Mfume is holding a news conference today after his meeting with the Black Caucus to discuss the issue.

But as his constituents applaud his earlier attempt at unity with the Nation of Islam and defend his recent actions, he has been deserted in the last week by senior caucus members who have put distance between themselves and the "covenant" idea, saying it was never an official position of the caucus.

And several Jewish lawmakers have made public statements urging him to cut loose Mr. Farrakhan, who has a history of anti-Semitic rhetoric, and the Nation of Islam.

Even Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland's 3rd District, a close friend of Mr. Mfume who defends his colleague's handling of the controversy, seemed to call on the caucus chairman to abandon his hopes of a pact with the group.

"It is very difficult to believe that any constructive relationship can be maintained with individuals or organizations who repeatedly issue such heinous statements," Mr. Cardin said on the House floor yesterday.

The statements -- which came to light several weeks ago after the Anti-Defamation League ran a full-page ad in the New York Times with excerpts of the November speech delivered by Mr. Muhammad at Kean College in Union, N.J. -- have created a political quagmire for Mr. Mfume.

For his part, Mr. Mfume said yesterday that his actions regarding the Nation of Islam have been guided, "not so much by what I may want to do," but by what he has a responsibility to do as chairman of the Black Caucus.

Although he denies feeling pressured by Jewish House members or Black Caucus colleagues to take more forceful action, he acknowledged that the growing perception of such pressures is bringing about a "backlash" in these communities.

Such friction presents even more of a dilemma for Mr. Mfume, say those close to him.

"No representative wants to give anyone the impression that his actions are being dictated by members of other communities," says Mr. Orange of Baltimore's NAACP. "The congressman doesn't want to look as though he's being responsive to or dancing to the tune of someone else."

Adds Howard University political science professor Alvin Thornton: "He's not in an enviable position. There are a lot of cross-pressures here."

Not the least of which is Mr. Mfume's ambition to rise in the House leadership, a quest that could be damaged if he is perceived as being too narrowly focused on strictly African-American concerns, says Mr. Thornton.

Since his declaration of a "covenant" with the Nation of Islam was not a caucus-wide position, "that wasn't congressional leadership," says the political scientist, "it was symbolic ethnic leadership."

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