Farrakhan has changed his message over years

April 03, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

OFFICIALS AT Howard University Hospital are being irritatingly circumspect about the condition of probably the most famous patient their institution will ever have: Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.

"All I can tell you is that he's still in the hospital," a spokesman said yesterday, meaning Farrakhan's condition can range anywhere from good to critical and that he can be either near death or fit as a fiddle and ready to be discharged.

For the millions of black Americans who have followed Farrakhan's career for years -- from his days as the fiery orator who succeeded Malcolm X as minister of Harlem's Mosque No. 7 to his position as national spokesman for the NOI under Elijah Muhammad and beyond -- the answer from Howard University Hospital officials isn't good enough. Black Americans, whether they revere Farrakhan, scold him or loathe him, have a right to know what's up. We need him.

In fact, white Americans need him, too, perhaps even more so than black Americans.

Those of you who have long cherished Farrakhan's role as America's favorite whipping boy will no doubt protest. He's a bigot, we say. He's an anti-Semite, we fume. He's been charged with single-handedly ruining race relations in America. We've even made him the fall guy for slavery in the Sudan.

Here's news for the Farrakhan bashers: The man has changed. You can see it in him. You can see it in his followers. You can see it in the way they treat people who were formerly considered adversaries.

But unless you've followed Farrakhan for years, you might not see it. I have, from that day in 1971 when my girlfriend and I shook hands with him at Baltimore's Mosque No. 6 right until I got the news Tuesday that he had been hospitalized. That's 28 years. So when I say the man's changed, you can go to the bank on it.

In 1964, Farrakhan wrote in a Muhammad Speaks article that Malcolm X was "worthy of death." Twenty years later, he was accused of calling Judaism a "gutter religion." He denied the charge. The word he used was "dirty," he said, and he didn't say Judaism but was referring to Israeli leaders who used their religion to justify continued oppression of Arabs.

He also called Adolf Hitler "wickedly great" and was nailed with the anti-Semitic label again. That charge was the most false and most ludicrous. Author William Shirer said pretty much the same thing about Hitler in "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." No one charged Shirer with anti-Semitism. But America's standards and double standards dictated that a William Shirer could say things a Nation of Islam leader couldn't. Who did this Farrakhan character think he was -- a white guy?

But while Farrakhan denied the charges of anti-Semitism, he couldn't deny the words from his own mouth, printed in his own newspaper, that all but promoted murder. Elijah Muhammad died in 1975. Leadership of the NOI passed on to Muhammad's son, W. D. Mohammed, who later had some harsh words about his father's sex life. Farrakhan split with Mohammed in 1977, renewed the NOI, and said in a Final Call article that had anyone but Mohammed said those things, "he would have been dead the moment such disrespect was uttered." In 1984, he promised that Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman would be "punished with death" for revealing off-the-record comments by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But here's how Farrakhan changed. He made peace with Coleman. He patched things up with Malcolm X's widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz, and tried to help her daughter Qubilah, even after the latter hired a hit man to bump him off. And guess who showed up at the most recent NOI Savior's Day Convention in Chicago? W. D. Mohammed, who announced that he and Farrakhan were friends and had patched up their differences.

In pre-Million Man March opinion/commentary pieces, I had referred to Farrakhan as a thug and a Jew-baiting lunatic. His followers were upset, to put it mildly. When Farrakhan came to Baltimore to speak in 1997, folks said NOI members would crucify me if I attended.

It was quite the opposite. They did everything but kiss me. Their leader had said at the Million Man March in 1995 that atonement and forgiveness were the order of the day. And unlike much of the rhetoric billowing forth from the mouths of the famous, infamous and nonfamous these days, Farrakhan's words were sincere. And his followers are practicing what he's preaching. It's the single most remarkable volte-face by an American religious group in the history of this nation.

It is a lesson Americans of every race would do well to heed. The conduct of NOI members circa April 3, 1999, is something we would all do well to emulate.

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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