Nation of Islam leader in battle to overturn British exclusion order

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The Independent Online

Lawyers for the controversial black American political leader Louis Farrakhan have begun a High Court challenge aimed at overturning a government ban that prevents him entering Britain.

The head of the Nation of Islam has been excluded since 1986 because successive home secretaries have ruled that his inflammatory speeches could stir racial unrest. But Nicholas Blake QC, appearing for Mr Farrakhan, described the ban as "an unlawful and disproportionate interference with his right to communicate freely with his followers and supporters in this country".

Mr Farrakhan, 67, is challenging a ruling by the former home secretary Jack Straw that his past expression of "anti-Semitic and racially divisive views" meant he posed "an unwelcome and significant threat to community relations".

Mr Blake told the court he had been authorised by the Chicago-based black spiritual leader to express regret for things he had said in the past. "He recognises the hurt some of his language has caused and in any future trips to the UK he would not wish to address relations between blacks and Jews," he said.

Mr Farrakhan had "moved on" and the message he now wished to discuss with his followers and potential members in the black community in Britain concerned "self reliance, dignity and discipline", Mr Blake said. The QC said Mr Farrakhan had organised the 1995 "Million Man March" in Washington when close to one million people, largely black Americans but also members of other communities, turned out in support of such values.

Nation of Islam members and supporters sat in the public benches of the court yesterday while Mr Blake described Mr Farrakhan as "an extremely prominent spiritual, religious and social leader and significant spokesperson in the black community in the USA".

Mr Blake admitted that Mr Farrakhan had made "sensitive remarks" about blacks and Jews in the US, and over American support for the state of Israel, some of which appeared to European ears to be "eccentric" and "certainly in poor taste and offensive". But he said those remarks had to be set in the context of the American tradition of "vigorous free speech" and the specific issues of the relationship between black Americans and Jewish Americans, which were frequently and historically unhappy. Mr Farrakhan was not banned from any other country, including Israel, which he had visited without problems, Mr Blake told the court.

Born Louis Eugene Walcott in 1933, Mr Farrakhan was brought up in the deprived Boston neighbourhood of Roxbury by his mother Mae Manning, an immigrant from the Caribbean island of St Kitts, then a British colony. He became an altar boy in the Episcopalian church and was a talented young violinist.

He began working as a calypso singer called "Calypso Gene" and during a tour met Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, a Chicago-based militant sect that called for the "separation of the so-called negroes from their slave-masters' children".

As a convert, Mr Farrakhan became an acolyte of the Nation's most prominent spokesman, Malcolm X, and wrote the song that became the organisation's anthem, entitled "The White Man's Heaven is the Black Man's Hell".

When Malcolm X split with Elijah Muhammad in 1964 over ideological differences, Mr Farrakhan replaced Malcolm X as national spokesman and declared that he was "marked for death". Shortly afterwards, Malcolm X was shot dead. The hearing continues today.