Farewell, Minister Louis Farrakhan
Minister Louis Farrakhan addressed the public, ostensibly for the last time, on February 25 in Detroit. His address was carried on C-Span and viewed by millions, including the 60,000 in attendance. Thirty years ago this type of high-profile exposure would have been inconceivable, and it highlights the increasing media openness to diverse views within the black community.
Farrakhan is the last great leader of his generation, and it appears his time is rapidly drawing to a close. Despite the controversial nature of his public life, I was pleased to see Farrakhan walk off the national stage in style during Black History Month 2007 in good health. Farrakhan enunciated the “state of Black America” far more cogently than Tavis Smiley and his cohorts at Hampton University earlier in the month. Rather than merely complaining about contemporary hip-hop culture—although Farrakhan did deplore the violence and the objectification of women—the minister suggested concrete courses of action for future leaders to pursue.
The public has known since 1991, the year the minister was diagnosed with cancer, that his health was failing and his remaining time uncertain. In Detroit it was clear the sickness was taking its toll, as Farrakhan did not exhibit his legendary forceful lecture style. The speech provided the black community an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
I have always been impressed by the way younger members of the Nation of Islam have served and protected their communities, taking special care of their women. They have, in large part, avoided the drug pushing so endemic to inner cities, and shunned gang-banging violence. In contrast to the dismal black dropout rates plaguing black America, most Nation of Islam youth have stayed in school. Wherever the Nation of Islam was strongest, senior citizens were able to sit outside their homes, unafraid of local youths.
Because the Nation of Islam empowers black people and reaches out to the isolated black prison population, the organization will continue to attract members. The 60,000 people who came to hear the minister speak in Detroit bear witness to the enduring strength of black nationalism. Love him or hate him, Farrakhan may be the only black leader who can gather such a large crowd these days.
Although I disagree with Farrakhan on several issues, I applaud his commitment to black self-empowerment. A decade ago I spoke to Booker T. Washington’s great-granddaughter and asked her, “what leader today is most similar to your great-grandfather?” Her response was Farrakhan. Although Farrakhan harshly criticizes whites, especially Republicans, he recognizes, as did Booker T. Washington, that blacks must come together to solve black problems. He unfortunately believes impeaching President Bush is a moral imperative, a sentiment I do not share, but he has nevertheless exercised leadership in the area of education, starting a private school open to all students. Like Washington, Farrakhan urges blacks to create solutions to problems rather than merely enumerating the problems and hoping whites will solve them.
Farrakhan is also linked in many ways with Martin Luther King Jr. Both men, for instance, gave historic speeches (King’s “I have a Dream” and Farrakhan’s “Million Man March”) on the Washington Mall. Farrakhan, like King, can quote an entire book of scripture from memory. He frequently weaves both Koranic and Biblical references into the same message. And Farrakhan possesses the ability to speak for two spell-binding hours without once repeating himself or losing his train of thought.
Even Farrakhan’s call for “worldwide religious unity between Jews, Christians, and Muslims” evoked memories of Dr. King. As we all recall, King developed his strategy of non-violence after extended contact with the Hindu Ghandi.
I am extremely interested to see who will assume the mantle of leadership in the Nation of Islam now that Farrakhan is stepping down. I hope the new leadership will continue to focus on education and business development within the black community.
Lee Walker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change.