You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Farrakhan Factor

The difficulties of dealing with a demagogue.

Louis Farrakhan has figured out the secret of demagoguery. First the posters announcing his appearance go up—"Power at Last Forever," they say—and alarm bells go off in the city's Jewish community. Then pressure is exerted on black officials, not always subtly, to denounce the Black Muslim minister. Next a press conference is called at which Jews and some but not all black leaders criticize Farrakhan. This gets TV and newspaper coverage, but so do comments by other blacks who either defend Farrakhan or complain about being leaned on to attack him. The press, which loves a good rift, now has a running story to cover. Finally, Farrakhan makes his appearance, and he rarely lets anyone down. If his message were confined to black self-help, he'd be ignored by the media. So he performs as expected, peppering his speech with racist and anti-Semitic slurs.

Anyone who doubts Farrakhan's skill in parlaying bigotry into fame and fortune should consider his rise. Eighteen months ago Farrakhan was the boss of a fringe Muslim sect with no more than 10,000 adherents nationwide. He was not an influential force among blacks nationally, and was scarcely known at all outside the black community. In 1984 he hooked up with Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign, threatened a Washington Post reporter who disclosed that Jackson had used the term "Hymie," trumpeted his own anti-Semitic views, and became infamous. Now he's a bigger draw than Jackson, who couldn't even defeat Jerry Falwell in a TV debate on South Africa. And money is pouring in. Farrakhan got five million dollars from Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi alone to finance a grandiose scheme to manufacture soap, napkins, and toothpaste in black neighborhoods.

Those who have tried to isolate Farrakhan as a racist have only made matters worse. "There's a feeling in the black community, 'If whites are that upset, it must be good for black people,' " says George A. Dalley, the chief aide to New York representative Charles Rangel. "The denunciations of Farrakhan have failed. His popularity is greater than ever."

It's mainstream black politicians, not Farrakhan, who have suffered as a consequence of the fuss. Take Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination for California governor next year. Bradley's black constituency is relatively small, but he promised black leaders that he wouldn't criticize Farrakhan until after the September 15 speech in Los Angeles. Republican governor George Deukmejian, who is certain to run for reelection next year, wasn't so standoffish. He called Farrakhan a "messenger of hate and bigotry." The Los Angeles City Council accused Farrakhan of sowing "the seeds of hatred" and fostering "racism and anti-Semitism." Once Farrakhan had spoken, Bradley weighed in. But it was too late. The politically powerful Jewish community in Los Angeles, a traditional source of support and money for Bradley, had cooled on him perceptibly. And his prospects for ousting Deukmejian have dimmed,

Animosity between Jewish liberals and black leaders also erupted in Washington, D.C, where Farrakhan spoke last July, and in New York, where he addressed a full house at Madison Square Garden on October 7. Washington mayor Marion Barry, who is black, waited seven weeks after Farrakhan's appearance to voice his criticism, and even then it was only after Jewish leaders implored him to speak out. "The anti-Semitic impeachments that he made didn't help our city at all," Barry wanly declared. Farrakhan, in his address before 10,000 at Washington's Convention Center, had accused Jews of "wickedness" and insisted that "black people will not be controlled by Jews."

In New York the bitter racial feelings were displayed in an exchange between Representative Rangel and writer Nat Hentoff. Rangel is no Farrakhan groupie, but he refused to repudiate the Muslim. Hentoff wrote in his Washington Post column that Rangel "has now been intimidated by Louis Farrakhan." Rangel responded furiously, claiming that he had often condemned Farrakhan's antiSemitism. But what angered him most, Rangel says, was Hentoff's "assumption that I and other elected leaders who happen to be black have a special obligation to issue denunciations of Louis Farrakhan upon demand. . . . I refused to renounce Minister Farrakhan prior to his scheduled appearance at the Garden because I believe that playing the media game of creating controversy over his appearances through ritual renunciations in advance of them only serves Mr. Farrakhan's purpose of expanding his notoriety and audience."

Rangel has a point here, but he is being a bit . disingenuous too. It's understandable that black politicians might get their backs up when suddenly forced to pass a Farrakhan litmus test. "Why should blacks as a group be required to castigate someone," demands Eddie Williams of the Joint Center for Political Studies, "when no other group is asked to?" Requiring Jesse Jackson to repudiate Farrakhan, who was part of his campaign entourage for a while, is one thing; expecting black leaders to renounce a black bigot who happens to be appearing in their city is quite another. Still, it's not as if their only motive is averting a double standard and depriving Farrakhan of the publicity that he thrives on. Blacks have their own political hides to protect, and a lot of them feel that unequivocal attacks on Farrakhan aren't the best way to do it.

Why? The oldest rule in politics is that your first obligation is to preserve your base—in the case to black politicians, that is the black community. Taking on Farrakhan "could boomerang," says Ron Walters, a Howard University professor and adviser to Jesse Jackson. It can make a black politician look like a tool of whites, not a helpful image. Naturally, Farrakhan plays on this. He answered Bradley's belated attack by saving the mayor had "bowed to the pressure of the Jewish community," Barry's criticism too drew a sharp retort. "Our brother with the black constitution voted into power by black people . . . condemns my words in Washington, D.C," Farrakhan complained. "He repudiates me because of Jewish pressure and then wants to talk to me on the phone afterward. Such hypocrisy!"

For all the anti-Semitism that Farrakhan voices, he is not seen by most blacks in the way that whites view, say, a grand kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan—in other words, as a dangerous, racist kook. His anti-Semitism "is a nonissue for most blacks," says Williams. They tune it out. Besides, the Black Muslims are old hat to them, and have achieved a reasonably positive image by curing drug addicts and drunks and straightening out prostitutes. Finally, Farrakhan "is tilling a void," says Williams, by telling blacks they can lift themselves to prosperity on their own. This message has all the more resonance since blacks feel the nation's current political mood is hostile to them. And the black nationalism espoused by Farrakhan has always appealed to blacks, says Walters, "especially during times of difficulty."

The public response to Farrakhan by black leaders comes in three forms. Some argue that Farrakhan isn't a bigot and a hater at all. "The charges of antiSemitism, racism, and bigotry are unfounded and baseless," claimed the Reverend Theodore M. Williams before Farrakhan spoke in Baltimore in September. The Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker of Harlem scoffed at the furor over Farrakhan's New York speech by asking, "Where is the evidence or judgment of Farrakhan's hatred or bigotry. . , ? To say he is an apostle of hatred and bigotry is grossly unfair."

This is preposterous, of course. In March 1984 Farrakhan said in a radio broadcast that "the Jews don't like Farrakhan, so they call me Hitler. Well, that's a good name. Hitler was a very great man/' In June 1984 at the National Press Club, he repeated his belief that Judaism is a "dirt)' religion." In Washington last July, he said, "jews know their wickedness, not just Zionism, which is an outgrowth of Jewish transgression." In Los Angeles in September, he offered this advice to Jews: "Don't push your six million [Holocaust victims] when we lost 100 million [in slavery]."Such inarguable anti-Semitism has prompted some blacks to renounce Farrakhan unequivocally. In Los Angeles, city councilman David Cunningham signed an anti-Farrakhan newspaper ad. In Baltimore, Catholic bishop John Ricard announced that Catholic leaders would "do all in our power to discourage" blacks from attending Farrakhan's speech. In New York, city clerk David Dinkins said he finds Farrakhan's "blatantly anti-Semitic remarks offensive, and I condemn them."

Caught in the middle are the blacks, like Rangel and his aide George Dalley, who don't like Farrakhan but are wary of denouncing him. "We're not intimidated by Louis Farrakhan in the black community," contends Dalley. "We are fearful of appearing as puppets." Maybe, but does this explain Coretta Scott King's gracious assessment of Farrakhan when she spoke at the National Press Club in mid-September? Asked if he helped or hurt the civil rights movement, this was her answer, in full:

"Well, I would say that Louis Farrakhan has hurt us in many ways, but I can say that as far as, the philosophy of self-help and all of that, and self-improvement, 1 think that part of it is something we can all agree on. And I think under the late Elijah Muhammed—and he is a follower of Elijah Muhammed—there was an emphasis, a considerable emphasis on that: clean, moral life, all the things that we talk about today, saying this is part of the problem, you know, blacks bring it on themselves, we've got problems that we've got to fix. But I think that that part of it is certainly good—black people teaching their own people how to live better, clean lives, that kind of thing, and also to be self-sufficient. But I think when it comes to intergroup relations and the kind of statements and philosophy that has been perpetrated, it has been extremely harmful, and I regret very much that this is the case because he is a tremendous orator and a very persuasive person. And you can't take that away from him. Martin Luther King Jr. was very persuasive, but I think he used his oratory and his gift, a great gift, to influence people positively, and all people. His philosophy encompassed all humanity, not a narrow segment of humanity."

When Mrs. King waffles in the face of clear-cut bigotry, blacks have a problem. What should be done about it? One way to fend off the Farrakhan scourge is to reduce his visibility. This requires an assist from the press, which has had a curious role in Farrakhan's rise. The media has played Farrakhan down and then hyped him. When the story broke last year about Farrakhan's threat against Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman, reporters softened the Muslim's remarks. Newsweek and The Chicago Tribune failed to mention that it was a death threat, and The Los Angeles Times edited the phrase "death threat" out of its story. Last July The Washington Post reporter who covered Farrakhan's speech made no mention of his anti-Semitic assertions; these came out later when Post columnist Courtland Milloy cited them.

Now the Farrakhan hype is in full swing. Three days before he spoke in New York, The New York Times ran a front-page story under the headline: "Range of New York Leaders Condemn Farrakhan's View." This was highly misleading, since a number of black leaders quoted in the story were ambivalent about Farrakhan. The New York Daily Nezos ran a two-page spread on Farrakhan, plus other ' stories. Farrakhan's New York speech made the national news, too, notably a lengthy piece on ABC's "World News Tonight." It's not that Farrakhan doesn't warrant coverage; when he fills Madison Square Garden beyond capacity, that is a big story. What's missing is perspective and clearheaded analysis. Farrakhan has spoken in New York dozens of times. Why was this appearance significant? Is Farrakhan merely a media creation, or is he building grassroots momentum behind his movement? Rather than attempting to answer these questions, the press has dwelled breathlessly on a single issue: Do you hate Farrakhan or love him?

Better to handle a visit from Farrakhan the way Baltimore did in September. The Baltimore Sun gave the story full play, but kept it off the front page. The actual speech by Farrakhan was covered by the paper's religion writer. The City Council passed no anti-Farrakhan resolution, and Mayor Donald Schaeter was silent on the subject. Nor did the city's Black-Jewish Coalition go into hysterics. It called a press conference before Farrakhan arrived, but it did not condemn Farrakhan or pressure blacks to denounce him. Rather, it urged Farrakhan "not to bring a message containing anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry to our community as reported in other cities. We affirm that there is no place for intergroup hatred here in Baltimore." Farrakhan didn't comply—he attacked black politicians who "placate the Jews"—but then he didn't make much of a splash in Baltimore either. He was booked in a small auditorium, and his speech drew only 1,400 people. Best of all, he left behind only the faintest residue of racial ill will.

This article originally ran in the October 28, 1985, issue of the magazine.