Déjà Vu

Louis Farrakhan was in pain. He had lost six units of blood, and his doctor feared the worst. But the Nation of Islam leader somehow survived his ordeal with prostate cancer, and by December 1999 he was telling reporters that he was a new man."We must try to end the cycle of hatred," he said then.

He repeats that conciliatory tone, sort of -- at least when the cameras are on -- when he visits Dallas to garner local support for his Million Family March, set for October 16.

"The beauty of God is in every member of the human family," says Farrakhan, sitting last week in a small room packed with media at the Crescent Court Hotel. All are welcome for the march, he says. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians. Even whites.

Despite his cancer scare, the 67-year-old Farrakhan looks fit today; his face is unlined, his frame well padded. And he's wearing his trademark square-framed glasses.

But is this a new Farrakhan talking? Or the same man who called Judaism a "gutter religion"? The one who called whites "beasts"?

"I am not anti-Semitic," he says now, addressing those familiar charges against him. "I have the greatest respect for the Jewish people."

"I...I...I wish," says Farrakhan, imploringly, innocently, "I could make my point so strong that you would know that 'Brother Farrakhan' is not anti-Semitic."

A woman stands up.

"May I say something?" asks this older black woman, Artie Giles.

"Yes, of course!" says "Brother Farrakhan" enthusiastically.

"Until today, I didn't like you," says Giles, a Baptist pastor who has her own 50-member Dallas church.

Farrakhan smiles broadly, comfortably. Others laugh.

"Now I can see why nobody wants me to come into your presence, because we think alike," she says.

Another woman -- a 31-year-old Turk named Merve Safa Kavakci -- stands up and tells him of the plight of religious Muslims in her homeland.

"I sympathize with you," she tells him. "We are the black people of Turkey."

He offers this teary-eyed woman encouragement: "We are assured of victory."

Farrakhan has kept his name in the news not only with his upcoming Million Family March, but with his trip to the Middle East in 1997. He met with Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who pledged his support to the Nation of Islam. And the prostate cancer that has plagued Farrakhan (though he says he's 85 percent cured) has elicited strong sympathies from blacks nationwide.Now hours following this August 4 news conference, he's at Carver Heights Baptist Church in East Oak Cliff, where he has an audience numbering 1,000. For all the travails facing blacks in America, Farrakhan has said in the past that the "enemy" doesn't lie within but with the "agents." Whites and Jews, specifically.

In the past, his supporters have said that his controversial views are peripheral to his real message: America's lack of commitment to racial equity.

Farrakhan's Nation of Islam makes up only 20,000 of America's 2.6 million black Muslims. But this leader -- and his far-fetched explanations for many of the black community's social ills, among them that Jews are economically oppressing blacks -- holds a special appeal for many African-Americans, even those who aren't Muslim. Though he says he promotes self-sufficiency, there has always been an underlying message: Look to whites and Jews if you want to understand the root of your problems.

Perhaps tonight, the "new" Farrakhan will change his tone.

In the past, Farrakhan's Nation of Islam has openly peddled the Protocols of Zion, an infamous early-20th-century anti-Semitic forgery, and he has regularly spewed a similar worldview that Jews are responsible for both capitalism and communism, for U.S. entry into World War II, for the national debt. Focusing much of his hatred on the Jews' alleged control of blacks has done little to damage his appeal. In fact, no blatant anti-Semite has gotten as much mainstream support within his own community as Farrakhan. Last year, Jet magazine listed him among its greatest "Chicagoans of the Century." Ebony included him in its "20th century's immortal giants." And some three decades after his father denounced the views of another Nation of Islam follower -- Malcolm X -- as racist, Martin Luther King III met with Farrakhan several weeks ago in Atlanta to voice his support for the Million Family March.

At this church tonight, Farrakhan -- flanked by two guards, one of whom is his son -- lets the word out: "I'm taking on the baddest government on Earth."

The crowd jumps to its feet, clapping and roaring praise.

"Allah Akbar!" shout some, their fists clenched.

"I'm not anti-white," he continues. "I'm not anti-Semitic. I'm not anti-American."

"No," they shout in agreement.

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Lisa Singh
Contact: Lisa Singh