Sorting Out Farrakhan's Legacy

It seems much too early to talk about the final legacy of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. After all, he's still very much alive, and says that he will give the annual Savior's Day speech to his organization's faithful in Detroit at the end of February.

But after months of battling a painful reoccurrence of problems related to prostate cancer, and having made recent headline news after undergoing hours of surgery, Farrakhan's days as the titular, and very controversial leader of the organization are gone.

It's certainly been a bumpy roller coast ride for him. At once, he was universally vilified as an anti-Semite and racist by Jewish groups, conservatives, and many mainstream black leaders. And at the same time, he was praised and practically deified by many blacks for speaking out boldly against racism, championing the interests of the black poor, and stirring thousands to trek to Washington for a march.

The fierce debate about Farrakhan's real value and place as a leader also rekindled the chronic debate about who speaks for a black America more than ever deeply divided by class, politics, gender, and racial isolationism. The issue is not new. Forty years ago Malcolm X squared off against mainstream civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King and Whitney Young. Malcolm pounded them as "Uncle Toms" and "house Negroes" who sold out the black masses by pushing integration and non-violence.

Malcolm's audiences, mostly the black urban poor and workers, loved it. They felt economically marginalized and alienated from the civil rights movement. They suspected that when the civil rights leaders finally broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies and universities, middle class blacks, not them, would be the ones who entered.

They weren't wrong. The murders of King and Malcolm were the turning point for the black movement. Without a leader to command the respect of the black poor and middle class and a cohesive program to unite them, the black movement plunged into a disastrous void. The self-destruction of organizations like SNCC and the Panthers dispirited many of their supporters and left the black movement even more organizationally fragmented and politically adrift.

The civil rights movement also was a victim of its own success. When it battered down the last barrier of legal segregation, the obstructionist politicians, nightriders, police dogs and redneck sheriffs vanished from public view. They were the hard symbols of white oppression that blacks rallied against.

As America marched deeper into the computer and technological age, thousands more low skill workers became obsolete. The black poor lacking competitive technical skills and professional training became expendable labor fodder and were shoved even further to the outer frontier of society. Many turned to gangs, guns and drugs to survive.

The black poor increasingly measured their plight not by the economic yardstick of white society, but by the conspicuous gains and consumption of the black middle-class. The latent class divisions burst into gaping fissures between two black Americas, one poor, desperate and angry, the other prosperous, comfortable and complacent.

When the crowds grew big at the Nation's rallies, mainstream black leaders panicked. They had the political and economic clout. Farrakhan had the numbers. Not only did he seem to be winning the hearts and minds of the black poor, his message also appealed to some middle class blacks. They faced a shaky corporate future and feared that they might soon be dumped in unemployment lines.

But Farrakhan also inadvertently or deliberately hardened the racial fault lines. While he was the only black leader that blended the charisma and militant rhetoric to ignite the passions of many blacks, the downside was that wrapping the mantle of leadership tightly around one man reinforced the terrible notion that blacks speak and think with one voice on racial problems.

When Farrakhan made a real or contrived misstep, much of the media and the public assumed that most blacks agreed with him. They, and Farrakhan, were ridiculed, lambasted, and denounced as being rash, fool hardy, irresponsible and prone to eternally play the race card on every social ill that befalls blacks.

That includes being tagged with the label of anti-Semitic. That knock against him, and by extension blacks, came with a vengeance the moment Farrakhan announced the Million Man March in 1996 and a follow-up march a decade later.

Both times, the Anti-Defamation League again loudly screamed that Farrakhan was anti-white, and anti-Semitic and by inference, anyone that backed him and the march was too. Conservative radio talking heads had a field day when Farrakhan claimed that the New Orleans levees were deliberately blown during Katrina to wipe out blacks. They belittled him and blacks as paranoid, irrational, and prone to see conspiracies under every bedpost.

But that only endeared Farrakhan to thousands more poor, and alienated, blacks trapped in failing schools, in deteriorating neighborhoods, and in the jails and prisons. Mainstream civil rights organizations and black Democrats still have no compelling answer to their plight. Farrakhan didn't either, but many thought he did and that seems more than enough to make him an enduring hero too many blacks.


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