He is the single most controversial black political figure in the nation. He is adored, deplored, revered, and feared. And last week, Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan looked down on the 2,500 African-Americans gathered in a South Oak Cliff church with a warm and loving smile.
"Powerful black man," breathed a woman in a back row. "Preach."
He had brought a message to Dallas, the same one he has brought to black communities all over America: it is time for the black man and woman to lift themselves up from poverty and degradation, because the United States government won't do so.
"Our community is dying under the weight of our sins as well as the sins of government against us," he told the audience. "America as a nation is dying under the weight of her own sins."
The audience applauded his every word.
Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, America's largest group of black Muslims, came to Dallas to promote the Million Man March, scheduled to take place October 16 in the nation's capital.
Critics have dismissed the march as a silly, meaningless affair, a commercial venture (the organizers are asking for a $10 registration fee) masquerading as a civil-rights event.
Cleveland's The Plain Dealer sarcastically called the event the "Don't Mess with Me Walk for Self Esteem."
Farrakhan takes a radically different view. He portrays it as a pilgrimage not unlike the one undertaken by Moses in biblical times, when a single prophet led his people, the Jews, away from a marauding and murderous enemy into the safety of their own land. In 1995, to his followers, Farrakhan is Moses, the blacks are the Jews, and the enemy is a racist and oppressive white America.
In two weeks, thousands of black men will travel from all over the country and convene on the steps of the Capitol, where they will rally under Farrakhan and other black leaders, listen to speeches, and participate in what organizers call a spiritual and political bonding. At the same time, Farrakhan is calling for a national day of atonement, for American blacks to shun the workplace and pray for forgiveness of their sins.
"No matter what the government and institutions and racist people have done against us, we have to now take responsibility for ourselves," he said last Wednesday at Carver Heights Baptist Church. "We cannot justifiably condemn the evil of white folk, and then look the other way at the evil of our own people. So we are calling for a day of atonement, a day where we can say we are sorry for what we have done to ourselves and what we have allowed ourselves to become under the influence of our enemy."
Nothing on this scale has been organized for black people since Martin Luther King Jr. led 250,000 people to Washington in 1963.
During October's event, Farrakhan will reveal his economic plan for black America, and register participants to vote. Disgraced former NAACP chairman Benjamin Chavis is co-organizing the event with Farrakhan. And while the march has more than its share of detractors, it has struck a chord in black communities across the nation and in Dallas, stoking the imaginations of a people long without effective leadership.
"I am going there as an adventure," says David Bean, who attended last week's rally at Carver Heights. "If we come back with a real purpose, it will be worth the while." Bean, like many black Dallasites, has been watching and reading about the event and talking about it. "It offers hope," he says.
Farrakhan's supporters say the minister is actually going to do what black leaders have been saying for decades they would do.
"The brother, in all honesty, is the only one with the solutions for the black man and the black woman that's realistic," says Franklin Parrish, 38. "I believe in him."
"He certainly has the potential" to become the leader of black America, says former Dallas city councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw, who attended the rally. "It has been clearly demonstrated that people like his economic views, his spiritual views, and his inspirational views, which are really causing more people to be enchanted by him. This march will be used as a measuring stick to determine that."
The Prophet apparently has arrived--but not without considerable baggage.
Many Jews despise Farrakhan, asserting that he is rabidly anti-Semitic. Whites fear him, saying he is racist. Many blacks, especially Baptist ministers, denounce him as those things and anti-Christian as well, and until recently, black leaders refused to be seen on the same platform with him. On the other hand, the minister has repeatedly denied being anti-Semitic or racist, and maintains his words have been taken out of context.
"To say that Louis Farrakhan is anti-Semitic is an improper and unjust characterization of me," he told the editorial board of The Washington Post in 1990. "To say that I have been critical of Jews and critical of the state of Israel is true. But I have been critical of blacks...and my own people do not call me anti-black."
Criticism, Farrakhan told the Post's editorial board, is not racism. "But you know, as a white person, or as a Jewish person, you are not used to hearing any black person criticizing Jewish behavior, not publicly....It's like a knee-jerk reaction."
Still, Farrakhan's followers, specifically here in Dallas, have in sermons showed hatred of Jews and whites. Jeffery Muhammad, leader of the local Nation of Islam mosque, referred to whites as "the devil" and the Jew as "the chief devil" in an interview with the Dallas Observer for an August 10 cover story, "Black man's burden."
But at Carver Heights, Farrakhan kept his criticism of both whites and Jews to a relatively benign minimum. (Farrakhan had originally been slated to speak at Lincoln High School in South Dallas, but was forced to move to Carver Heights Baptist Church when State District Judge John Marshall ruled--just hours before the minister was scheduled to speak--that the Dallas Independent School District had failed to follow its own policies in renting auditorium space to Farrakhan. A few hours later, the ruling was reversed by an appeals court, but it was too late to switch the event back to Lincoln.)
White people have shown themselves as "the example of what a man should be: liars, thieves, kidnappers, and murderers," he said amid applause. "Bloodshed is no example for us. I know there are white people who have never done these things, and if you've never done these things, then don't worry about it. I'm not talking about you."
The crowd roared when he looked into the television cameras and, with a cold, hard expression on his face, added: "But you know that your people have done these things.
"Some of you who claim to be good are too cowardly to stand up for principles of right and decency," he went on. "When your own comfortable living is threatened by the racism of your own brothers, you keep your mouth shut. What God wants today are men and women who will rise above their color, their circumstances, their nationality...to stand up for the principles of truth."
Blacks in America are suffering a slow, silent death, he says, and "no one is crying out. I don't hear it from the President, I don't hear it from Congress. There is no decrying the senseless slaughter in our community, because the more we kill each other, the better we serve the idea of white supremacy."
It is a charge that Farrakhan has been making for years--that white leaders show no real concern about the plight of blacks. "There is nothing permanent about our people being in that condition," he told the Post. "But what it says is the will of the policymakers is permanent--that they will do nothing for the masses of our people."
But the crux of his address was black responsibility, and he urged the crowd to overcome their hardships themselves. Black people, he says, have created some of their own trials.
"You worship white people," he said, berating them. "You are more fearful of white people than you are of the God that you know. Your fear of the enemy has caused you to be shaped and molded like the enemy. And you have become an enemy to yourself."
In the days of Moses, Farrakhan pointed out, sinners were stoned for their crimes. That remark seems to be a vague reference to the Westcliff mall beatings, in which Muslims beat several young boys who had stolen a cash register. "As I throw the stone," he says, "I am killing the thought [of sinning] in myself. You're losing your grip on your children, you're losing your grip on your nation, because you've lost your grip on yourselves. You place your own silly desires above your God."
The biblical Moses was a constant theme throughout the speech. Chavis, when he introduced Farrakhan, also made vague references to the prophet. "God has blessed us by giving Minister Farrakhan the vision, the call for the Million Man March," he said.
And if the March is successful, Farrakhan says, if black men and black women unite and work toward a common goal, abetted by current population trends, "we could run government and control every government agency." To the delight of the crowd, he added, "Naturally, some whites will be involved.
But that is where he comes in, he hinted. It is time for black people to stop asking whites to accept them. In biblical times, he pointed out, Moses made no concessions, no deals with Ramses.
"See, Moses did not play with you," Farrakhan explained. "Moses struck terror in the heart because fear is more constant than love.
"Love comes after fear.
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