NAACP's mistake

March 11, 1994

The following editorial appeared in the New York Times.

THIS page has urged the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to follow the example of the Congressional Black Caucus in distancing itself from Louis Farrakhan, the race-baiting leader of the Nation of Islam. The decision of the NAACP's executive director, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., to invite Mr. Farrakhan to a leadership conference this spring means instead that the nation's most venerable civil rights organization is playing into Mr. Farrakhan's hands.

To be sure, there is a historical logic in Mr. Chavis' preference for preserving big-tent unity among the nation's black leaders. Such solidarity has served the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Urban League and other traditional organizations very well.

But the Nation of Islam has always been an outsider, willing to use the mainstream groups for its own convenience, yet equally eager to denounce their leaders as tools of the white establishment.

As Mr. Chavis pursues his dream of comity with Mr. Farrakhan, he should review civil rights history.

While the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. polished his "I Have a Dream" speech, Malcolm X -- in the days before he adopted more conventional views -- worked the hotel lobbies of Washington belittling the leaders of what he called the "Farce on Washington."

The lesson, clearly, is that the mainstream civil rights groups value solidarity more than the Nation of Islam does. In the current situation, Mr. Farrakhan is every bit as cynical as his predecessors. He wants to use the NAACP's stage to garner publicity for himself and his group and would be pleased if he could wreck the historic alliance between the NAACP and its white members, including many Jews.

It is worth noting that Mr. Farrakhan has stuck to his anti-Semitic diatribes in recent appearances rather than softened them. Indeed, he cannot soften his line because he faces severe problems with holding the loyalty of his own membership.

At 59 years of age, he faces a challenge from the flamboyantly racist Khallid Abdul Muhammad.

That is why Mr. Farrakhan has to affirm the "truths" of Mr. Muhammad's racist diatribes even as he "rebukes" him for some imagined theological slights. Mr. Muhammad himself omitted his usual anti-Semitic remarks at an allegedly conciliatory appearance in New Jersey last week. But the succession struggle is such that neither man is likely to eschew his words of hate for long.

The NAACP has nothing to gain and much to lose by letting itself be used as a forum for racism, unless the executive director and its board chairman, William Gibson, want to take the organization in an entirely new direction. For as of today, Mr. Farrakhan's values are in stark contrast to those preached by the NAACP.

For the moment, Mr. Farrakhan has frozen the more powerful organization in place. Its leaders seem oblivious to how they are being squeezed. For example, Mr. Gibson affirmed the Farrakhan invitation on one day only to have the allegedly rebuked Mr. Muhammad say on the next day that he wished God to kill the Jewish "bloodsuckers."

Mr. Farrakhan's reaction? At a Nation of Islam celebration, he praised Mr. Muhammad as a "warrior," and in a reference to the latter's "bloodsuckers" remark, said, "I didn't say it, Khallid did," adding, "Did he lie?"

"No!" followers roared.

The NAACP's acquiescence stands in sharp contrast to the response of Rep. Major Owens of Brooklyn, N.Y., who described the Nation of Islam as "a hate-mongering fringe group" that is spreading "dangerous poison."

Mr. Owens' values, like his refusal to endorse either white or black racism, have a deep root system in the experience of this century. The record of biracial progress, achieved in large measure because of the tireless work of the NAACP, teaches that there are watershed moments in the war against prejudice. Mr. Chavis and Mr. Gibson have brought their proud and venerable institution to such a moment, and they are making a mistake in not stiff-arming Mr. Farrakhan, Mr. Muhammad and the bigotry they preach.

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