Why they invited Farrakhan

June 10, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane

LOUIS Farrakhan rolls into town this weekend to attend the three-day summit on black leadership sponsored by the NAACP, and there are many who question why he was invited.

The reasons are several. Not the least is that Mr. Farrakhan's popularity should not be underestimated. For years he has filled the charisma void created in the American black nationalist community by the death of Malcolm X in 1965. His formidable oratorical skills helped propel him into that position.

I attended the Nation of Islam's Savior's Day convention in 1975 -- more out of respect for Elijah Muhammad, who had died the previous day, than with any intention of joining the organization.

Jesse Jackson spoke and paid his respects to Muhammad. The audience listened politely and applauded moderately.

Mr. Jackson is no slouch as a speaker, but Louis Farrakhan had the crowd on its feet in less than 30 seconds.

I saw an example of Mr. Farrakhan's charisma once again when I went to hear him speak at Coppin State College about 1980. I had expected a large crowd, since Louis Farrakhan could always pack 'em in. But I was stunned as I looked at a line that stretched from the auditorium down the driveway and out onto North Avenue. There's a strong undercurrent of black nationalist fervor in the nation's African-American communities, and this queue confirmed it.

So Mr. Farrakhan's presence at the leadership summit is a grudging admission by the integrationist wing of black leadership that black nationalist leaders have a genuine constituency. No doubt the NAACP -- of all organizations -- knows this. Indeed, the largest mass movement of black people in American history was a black nationalist one: Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association movement in the 1920s. NAACP leaders know that Garvey built his organization from money donated by the black masses -- while the NAACP had to beg for money from white liberals to stay afloat.

The most compelling reason for Louis Farrakhan's popularity -- and his subsequent appearance at the leadership summit -- is the backlash factor. For all the legitimate concern raised by Jewish and other white Americans about the rise of Louis Farrakhan and the anger caused by some of his statements, it is time that some of the blame be put where it belongs -- on white middle America.

For years white America resisted the legitimate demands of black people. With the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, the not-so-subtle message sent to black America was this: We're tired of you and your problems. Solve them yourselves and get out of our faces. And so blacks did, ironically encouraging self-help organizations like the Nation of Islam. The crowd that came to hear Louis Farrakhan in 1980 at Coppin State College was part of this black backlash.

True, the Nation of Islam has a sordid history that includes thuggery, internal corruption, vitriol against whites and anti-Semitism. But its popularity in recent years is partly attributable to the attitudes of white Americans.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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