A black man's minister; PROFILE: Louis Farrakhan

His Million Man March has left an indelible mark on US politics, says Mike Phillips
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The Independent Online
If you happen to be black, there's a curious sense of seeing this week's coverage of America's Million Man March through a looking glass. White commentators vied with each other to describe the march organiser, Louis Farrakhan, and his Nation of Islam movement as "grim" and "forbidding". Farrakhan's adherents were characterised as young, angry, deprived or deluded. The picture was of a vicious cult leader who has built a following by cultivating communal hatreds.

From the other side of the mirror it looks very different. Anyone who uses the subways or bus stations in the black areas of a major US city will be familiar with the sound of Minister Farrakhan's voice blaring out from a portable machine next to a stand where a group of boys in bow ties and neat jackets sells the NOI journal, The Final Call. In public venues like this, where the average black commuter is used to being accosted by junkies or menaced by muggers, the sight of the NOI is a source of reassurance and pride.

Indeed, for most African Americans Farrakhan's NOI is the only stable national black organisation operating at the grassroots. It rehabilitates junkies and gangsters. It runs its own businesses, a huge private security network, restaurants, bakeries, markets, book stores and schools. White commentators note that NOI membership is small, maybe less than 100,000. But within the African American communities the membership's impact far outweighs its numbers, committed as it is to a fierce self-discipline that imposes a reliable standard of behaviour.

Louis Farrakhan has become the touchstone of these values. Born in 1934, he grew up in New York and was working the clubs in 1956 as a calypso singer when he met Malcolm X, then under the influence of the NOI leader, Elijah Muhammed. Farrakhan became part of Malcolm's bodyguard.

At the time the Nation was still a small sect, best known for Malcolm's oratory and later for recruiting the boxer Muhammed Ali. Farrakhan was a natural and emotional orator, and by the beginning of the Sixties he was minister of the New York Temple. Relations with Malcolm soured as the latter began to question Elijah Muhammed's integrity, a rift that turned into implacable enmity when Malcolm left and started his own movement.

A few weeks before Malcolm's murder in 1965, Farrakhan wrote in the NOI newspaper: "Malcolm is worthy of death". The words were typical of what many see as his intemperate style at the time. And for years he was dogged by the accusation that if he hadn't ordered the assassination of Malcolm, he had at least created the atmosphere in which it had to happen.

After Elijah Muhammed died, Farrakhan eventually took over the leadership. In a shift away from orthodox Islam, he has stepped up the blending of NOI doctrine with the Christianity of the fundamentalist black churches, reinterpreting the Old Testament as a metaphor about the journey of the African American nation.

He has also settled the controversy of Malcolm's death, making his peace with Malcolm's daughter, Oubilah, who had plotted Farrakhan's assassination. Earlier this year, he even held a public reconciliation with Oubilah's mother, Betty Shabazz, an event which removed the last question mark that the bulk of black opinion held against his name.

On the other hand, Farrakhan's tradition of anti-Jewish statements continues to cause deep offence. "Blood-suckers" is the latest - and fairly mild - quote. Such utterances echo the tensions and territorial struggles of poor US inner-city life: in the streets blacks accuse Jews of making profits out of housing, local shops and state subsidies without putting anything back.

Farrakhan himself denies any anti-Semitic feeling, recently dismissing one of his lieutenants for insulting language about Jewish physical characteristics. But none of this lets him off the hook and it will be a long time before Jewish minorities forgive or forget.

Despite this, it is too easy for white commentators to dismiss the appeal of Farrakhan and the Nation as an oasis of separatism within which poor and ignorant blacks can nurse their hatreds. Over the past two decades he has become the most popularspeaker on the black university campuses that house the most able and most mobile young African Americans.

Most of those on the Million Man March were not disaffected ghetto youths or bitter ex-cons. Fewer than 20 per cent of the marchers were aged 18-25, while the largest group was aged between 30 and 50. There were many professional men - doctors, lawyers, teachers. More than 20 per cent were earning over $40,000 (pounds 26,000) a year. For a wide cross-section of African Americans, who are continually reminded that the price of acceptance and equality is a model of identity defined and policed by whites, Farrakhan's outspoken speeches are cathartic.

This week Minister Farrakhan has taken on a new importance in the spectrum of black leadership. No one else could have had the confidence or charisma to make it happen, and he knows it. He knows, too, that although few black people want to live the disciplined life of the Muslims, his word now carries more weight with the mass of African Americans than that of any other public figure.

His instruction at the march to register for the vote and to join political organisations will no doubt be followed, and it is certain that any politician, black or white, who wants even a modest slice of the black vote will have to reach some accommodation with him. For high aspirants such as Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell, his endorsement would be invaluable. On the other hand his political attitudes, his reputed anti-Semitism and his leadership of an organisation that downplays the role of women will alienate the liberal support on which they would also depend. The olive branch to the Jewish leadership in his speech on Monday may have been a recognition of that political reality.

Oddly enough, Farrakhan's brand of bootstrap self-help, petty capitalism, anti-statism and religious fundamentalism may have more in common with the outer fringes of the Republican right than with the liberals. But he is by all accounts a kindly and religious man who abhors the excesses of armed militia groups and pro-life fanatics. And however similar the ideology may be, race would prove too much of a barrier to even the loosest political alliance with the white right. The only space this leaves the NOI is at the political centre, and there is every indication that Farrakhan is moving in that direction.

As the next US presidential election approaches, Farrakhan may not persuade the politicians to meet the NOI agenda, but he has once again concentrated the nation'sattention on the fate of African Americans. Not bad for a man who started out singing calypso.

The author is a novelist. His next book, 'An Image to Die For', will be published by HarperCollins on 23 November.