The Struggle for Black Leadership

March 20, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

When Wellesley College professor Tony Martin delivered a lecture at Walbrook High School last week on Jewish involvement in the slave trade, the furor raised by his talk had far more to do with the question of who will assume leadership of the post-civil rights movement than with the search for historical truth.

In wake of the uproar surrounding a virulently anti-Semitic speech given last year by former Nation of Islam spokesman Khallid Muhammad, and subsequent calls by Jewish organizations for mainstream black leaders to repudiate ties with Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Martin lecture tapped into primal passions among both blacks and Jews.

Members of the Jewish community held a vigil at the Holocaust Memorial downtown at the same time Dr. Martin was scheduled to speak. At Walbrook, Mr. Martin's largely African-American audience cheered as he denounced what he called a "Jewish onslaught" aimed atthwarting black progress.

At first blush, Mr. Martin seems an unlikely candidate for the role of racist demagogue.

For the past 20 years he has been quietly teaching black history and politics in the Africana department at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where I met him briefly during a stint on the faculty there in the late 1970s.

Mr. Martin became the focus of controversy last year after he included the Nation of Islam's "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews" on his reading list in a survey course of American history. The book assigns a central role to Jewish traders and merchants in the development of the slave trade, although many reputable scholars have disputed that contention.

The Jewish student organization at Wellesley criticized the book as anti-Semitic. Mr. Martin defended it as a valuable addition to the literature on slavery. The ensuing controversy embroiled most of the Wellesley faculty and student body as well as the local affiliate of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which called on the college to fire Mr. Martin despite his tenured status.

The story was picked up by the national news organizations, who compared Mr. Martin to Leonard Jeffries, the black CUNY professor who was removed as chairman of the black studies department (but kept his teaching position) for allegedly making anti-Semitic, anti-white remarks.

Mr. Martin responded with with withering denunciations of his critics, which he collected and published in a volume titled "The Jewish Onslaught."

He is on leave from the college and regularly tours the country expounding his belief that he is the victim of an organized conspiracy to destroy his reputation and livelihood.

Mr. Martin's travails might be dismissed as just another academic tempest in a teapot were it not for the fact that it is occurring at a moment when a fierce struggle is being waged for ideological leadership of the post-civil rights movement.

That the dispute turns on charges of anti-Semitism is instructive, because it is a reminder that -- as in the past -- the real stakes in this controversy are political rather than merely academic. The struggle pits two historically opposing strains in the black community against each other.

One side is what might be called the integrationist-assimilationist tendency, represented by such "mainstream" civil rights organizations as the NAACP, the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The other side is the nationalist-separatist tendency. Its most visible representative today is the Nation of Islam, but its forebears include the Universal Negro Improvement Association of the 1920s -- Mr. Martin is a biographer of UNIA founder Marcus Garvey -- and the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington.

This struggle is being played out against the backdrop of the 1990s, which have seen a steady resurgence of the nationalist impulse as the triumphs of the 1960s recede into memory and the focus of blacks shifts from securing abstract legal rights to achieving economic parity with whites.

In this context, anti-Semitism becomes a "wedge" issue by which the nationalist faction seeks to pry support from its integrationist rivals by attacking and discrediting their most important white allies.

The strategy has been remarkably successful so far -- at least in part because both mainstream blacks and Jews unwittingly have played into the nationalist gambit.

By demanding that leaders like the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., NAACP director, publicly repudiate every outrageous remark by black anti-Semites, Jewish groups confer celebrity and a perverse legitimacy on previously obscure demagogues like Khallid Muhammad -- or indeed Minister Farrakhan himself, who was largely unknown outside his own group prior to 1984.

At the same time, such demands open mainstream black leaders to a charge that they are mere puppets of their white "allies," slaves to a shameful double standard willing to denounce other blacks whenever their backers say "boo."

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