Farrakhan wins a degree of respect

Million Man March: Messiah or racist hatemonger - only time will tell - but the Nation of Islam leader has made his mark
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The Independent Online
Love him or loathe him, exult in his black separatism or condemn him as a racial hatemonger - on one consequence of the "Million Man March" of black men, everyone can agree: that the rally has massively enhanced the stature of its main organiser, the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan.

Only gradually will the impact of Monday's event become fully apparent. Time will tell whether the good intentions of the "Day of Atonement" will produce deeds to match in black communities. No less nebulous are the implications for race relations and the national political scene.

Will the march loosen the Democrats' hold on the black vote, a vital constituency if President Bill Clinton is to win re-election next year? Will it ease racial tensions - or merely make them worse? Will it generate more registered black voters, as Mr Farrakhan demanded? Most tantalising of all, will it help or hinder General Colin Powell if he runs for President.

All are questions as yet impossible to answer. But Mr Farrakhan, as the abuse heaped upon him anew by many leading politicians only serves to prove, is now a figure to be reckoned with by all. He may be, in the words of Speaker Newt Gingrich yesterday, "an unrepentant bigot," who laced his two-and-a-half hour speech with attacks on the white icons from George Washington down.

The fact, however, remains that the leader of the Nation of Islam, previously considered on the margins of mainstream black politics and best known for his rabid anti-Semitism, assembled the largest gathering of black Americans in history. Whether 400,000 as the National Park Service estimates, or the 1 million plus claimed by the organisers, the number on the Washington Mall far exceeds the 250,000 drawn by Dr Martin Luther King in August 1963.

Since then, a depressing cycle of black politics has run its course. Traditional black organisations such as the NAACP have lost influence as the old civil rights movement has come apart. After two runs for the Presidency, Dr King's heir, the Rev Jesse Jackson, is a fading force, among blacks and in national politics. Into the vacuum has stepped Mr Farrakhan.

Even blacks who had been suspicious of his separatist message acknowledged his success, from Mr Jackson who waited two months to give the march his approval, to Myrlie Evers Williams, leader of the NAACP, which had officially boycotted the event. "There was a spiritual awakening," Ms Williams said, "He's moving forward and he's using all of us to do it. I say, let's give him a chance."

Whites, though, were universally unimpressed. While Jewish leaders rejected Mr Farrakhan's call for peace talks between blacks and Jews as a stunt, a gaggle of Republican candidates rained abuse on Mr Farrakhan and criticised Mr Clinton for not condemning him by name in his powerful appeal for racial healing in Texas on Monday.

Bob Dole called Mr Farrakhan "a racist, unhinged by hate" and attacked Mr Clinton for "the implication that ours is a racist nation". But not one prominent Republican has come forward with a serious speech on race, the most burning issue in national politics and one fanned further by the OJ Simpson verdict and the approach of the Million Man March.

Speaking on CNN's Larry King show, Mr Farrakhan bragged that not even General Powell, who leads Mr Clinton in the polls by 10 points, could have drawn as many people. On a Powell presidency, the Nation of Islam leader was withering: "I'm past applauding a black man for running to be the manager of a white reality."

Brian Appleyard, page 19

Farrakhan, Section Two