WASHINGTON -- Openly defying its chairman, Kweisi Mfume, the Congressional Black Caucus yesterday forcefully rejected the working partnership that he forged with the Nation of Islam last fall.
The Baltimore Democrat, under fire for the past week over bigoted remarks by a Nation of Islam official, announced the caucus' position at a news conference on Capitol Hill but refused to say if he personally agreed with the decision.
"Although I announced that we were, as a caucus, prepared to work closer with the Nation of Islam, even if it meant entering a working covenant similar to our relationship with the NAACP, it is clear now that the caucus feels that such a relationship is not and will not be considered formal until which time . . . it is either voted on or agreed to by acclamation," Mr. Mfume said after a caucus meeting. Caucus members were unified in their rejection of the "sacred covenant" he had proposed, saying they never recognized it as the caucus' position, Mr. Mfume admitted.
"It is clear that the Congressional Black Caucus' ability to work for change with the Nation of Islam . . . is severely jeopardized as long as there remains a question by some of our membership about the Nation of Islam's sensitivity to the right of all people and all religions to be free from attacks, vilification and defamation," the chairman said.
The controversy erupted after an aide to the Nation of Islam's leader, Louis T. Farrakhan, delivered a hate-filled speech at Kean College in New Jersey last November -- remarks that were printed in a full-page ad in the New York Times last month by the Anti-Defamation League.
Mr. Mfume said he received a reply yesterday to a letter he wrote to Mr. Farrakhan nearly two weeks ago asking whether the speech by the aide, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, represented the sentiments of the Nation of Islam.
Mr. Farrakhan, whose only public remarks so far have echoed, rather than condemned, the anti-Semitic comments, simply said in the letter that he would hold a news conference in Washington today to discuss the matter.
Mr. Muhammad, who called Jews "bloodsuckers of the black nation" in his speech, is scheduled to speak Saturday night at Baltimore City Community College. He attacked his critics in a speech Tuesday night at the University of Florida.
"What nerve you have to call me a hater," he said. "What nerve you have to call me an anti-Semite. What nerve you have to call me a bigot -- you no-good bastards."
Yesterday, the Senate voted 97-0 to condemn Mr. Muhammad's Nov. 29 remarks as "false, anti-Semitic, racist, divisive, repugnant and a disservice to all Americans."
Although Mr. Mfume said he did not see the position of the 39-member caucus as a repudiation of his leadership, he admitted that it was suggested to him "over and over again" that something as important as a relationship with the controversial Nation of Islam should have been put to a vote.
In fact, some of his fellow caucus members were highly critical of Mr. Mfume for acting on his own at the caucus' annual legislative conference last September when he announced that the caucus was prepared to forge a "sacred covenant" with the Nation of Islam to work on issues affecting the African-American community.
In a harsh 10-page statement issued yesterday, New York Rep. Major R. Owens said caucus members had a right to "question the judgment" of Mr. Mfume in even inviting Mr. Farrakhan to the fall meeting.
"In view of the fact that the CBC had always insisted on holding unpublicized meetings with Minister Farrakhan, everyone was aware of the high degree of sensitivity within the CBC with respect to public identification with Minister Farrakhan," the New York Democrat said. "His appearance at the most highly visible and widely publicized forum of the 1993 Legislative Weekend did raise serious questions in the minds of many CBC members."
Mr. Owens described his own reaction to the "covenant" as one of "bewilderment and indignation."
Mr. Mfume, who emphasized some of the positive works the Nation of Islam has done in Baltimore and other cities in fighting crime, said he had no regrets about attempting to bring the Nation into the mainstream black community. "Although some have chosen to criticize the effort to reach out to the Nation of Islam to find ways to save youth from crime, drugs and violence, I believed then and I believe now that it was necessary," he said yesterday.
Asked if he believed that Mr. Farrakhan, who called Judaism a "gutter religion" in 1984, was anti-Semitic, Mr. Mfume responded: "Minister Farrakhan has had some problem in communicating exactly where he is and even what he is to the larger press in this nation. When you walk the streets of most inner-city communities, that question does not arise because for them, Minister Farrakhan represents at least hope, or a challenge to the system or someone who talks a language that they associate with.
"I believe there have been things that have been said over the years by the Nation of Islam that, without clarity, have been, by many people including myself, questioned as to whether or not they were anti-Semitic in nature either by happenstance or deliberately."
In an apparent attempt to broaden the discussion, Mr. Mfume called for the condemnation of racist comments made in December by South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a sentiment Mr. Mfume repeated on ABC's "Nightline" last night.
Mr. Hollings had said African leaders loved conferences in Switzerland because "rather than eating each other, they'd just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva."
Mr. Mfume said: "I wanted to remind people that, although we are repulsed by the remarks of Mr. Muhammad, they are a small drop in a larger ocean of those kinds of remarks that go on everyday that we are not called on to repudiate or to speak out about."