A Man with Many Enemies

January 14, 1995|By GLENN McNATT

The indictment this week of Qubilah Bahiyah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, on charges that she conspired to kill Louis Farrakhan brought to mind my first encounter with the fiery leader of the Nation of Islam.

It was nearly 30 years ago, when Mr. Farrakhan visited the New England college campus where I was enrolled to address our fledgling black students' organization.

In those days he was called Louis X, and he was well known around the Boston area as a former calypso singer who had written a catchy little tune called ''White Man's Heaven Is a Black Man's Hell.'' The song was played constantly in local barbershops that catered to blacks.

The day Mr. Farrakhan spoke he arrived on campus alone, having taken the train from Boston's North Station. He addressed our little group of about 30 students for an hour or so, then walked back across campus and down the hill to the train stop for the trip home.

I recall being shocked at the time by many of Mr. Farrakhan's views, which seemed to me a dangerous inversion of the kind of racist nonsense white hate groups had been espousing for years.

And I was truly puzzled by his harsh response to a fellow student's question about Malcolm X, whom I regarded as a hero. Essentially, Mr. Farrakhan said that Malcolm got what he deserved on that fateful day in the Audubon Ball Room.

In hindsight, of course, I shouldn't have been surprised by Mr. Farrakhan's demagogy. Malcolm, too, had embraced the separa

tist theology of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad until nearly the end of his life, when he underwent a religious conversion and moved toward something closer to the humanist philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., the era's other great leader.

Looking back, what surprises me is the fact that Mr. Farrakhan appeared on our campus by himself, without the scores of

bodyguards who routinely accompany him nowadays. Over the years, he has developed an obsessive fear of being assassinated; he obviously is a man who believes he has many enemies.

The last time I talked with Mr. Farrakhan face to face was in the late 1980s, when he was in Baltimore to address his followers. I traveled with a group of reporters to the hotel where he was staying, and before we were allowed to interview him all of us were searched and frisked at least half a dozen times.

I have interviewed senators, cabinet secretaries and Fortune 500 CEOs. I have been in rooms where the president of the United States and foreign heads of government were present. But on none of those occasions was I forced to submit to the kind of ritual paranoia exhibited by Mr. Farrakhan's security people.

For years I naively thought the elaborate security apparatus around Mr. Farrakhan was intended mainly to intimidate the curious and impress the faithful with the power and importance of their leader.

The Baltimore interview, at which Mr. Farrakhan finally appeared wearing a purple sweat suit and house slippers, reminded me of nothing so much as the scene in ''The Wizard of Oz,'' where the omnipotent despot is suddenly unmasked as an absurdly ordinary man.

But Mr. Farrakhan is not an ordinary man, and the threats against his life, we now know, are real. The irony is that the young woman charged with trying to kill him is the daughter of the man Mr. Farrakhan himself once denounced as a traitor ''worthy of death.''

In the years since Malcolm's murder, Mr. Farrakhan has wrapped himself in the slain leader's mantle. He praises Malcolm's uncompromising stance against injustice and paints himself as the spiritual heir to the black nationalist legacy.

Many young people today, unaware of the enmity Mr. Farrakhan expressed toward his former mentor in the days before Malcolm's death, believe he is Malcolm's rightful successor. Whether that perception will change if Ms. Shabazz is brought to trial, and the details of the two men's relationship during the final year of Malcolm's life become more widely known, only time will tell.

One image sticks with me: It is of Louis Farrakhan nearly 30 years ago, a slim, fastidiously dressed young man carefully picking his way across campus along snow-covered walkways on his way back to the train station. He is completely alone, but he seems not to mind, and there is a strange serenity to the whole scene as he gradually disappears from view down the hill.

That is something I do not expect ever to see again.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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