Except that the crowd was overwhelmingly male and almost entirely black, the experience on the Washington Mall last week seemed solidly American. It was vast: hundreds of thousands of people packing a 13-block-long stretch of the grand, grassy park known as America's Main Street. It was long: prayers at the dawn of a sunny day, benedictions at dusk. It was powerful: as rousing at times as an old-style evangelist's camp meeting. A collection was taken, hymns sung, responses shouted to more than a score of orators. And keynote speaker Louis Abdul Farrakhan dwelt on a theme in tune with mainstream America's prevailing conservative sentiments - self-improvement, self-reliance, family values. "Clean up, black man," he demanded, "and the world will respect and honor you." The head of the Nation of Islam also brought to the rally a personal record of polarizing controversy. But there was an underlying message in his starring role: he feels destined to lead America's black minority up from a mire of social distress.
Farrakhan, initiator of the event named the Million Man March in its planning stages last year, was clearly the main man the multitude came to hear. Immaculately groomed as ever, flanked by uniformed Fruit of Islam bodyguards, he gave the pumped-up crowd 2½ hours of oratory from behind a bulletproof glass screen in front of the U.S. Capitol building. He ranged through arcane calculations in numerology and mystic notions of human history. He declared that he had been chosen by God to bring black people to that "pregnant moment - pregnant with the possibility of tremendous change in our status in America and in the world."
He sent his listeners to their homes across the United States - and some 200 back to Canada - pledged to eschew violence, avoid drugs, stop the neglect and abuse of women and children, and build an all-black economy. They vowed, at Farrakhan's prompting, to improve "spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, politically and economically for the benefit of myself, my family and my people." The occasion also vaulted a man who is both assailed as a virulent racist and acclaimed as a moral model towards a vanguard position in America's divided black leadership.
Dominant mall reaction: "a historic moment" that will help the 33 million U.S. blacks fight crime, family dissolution - and, as many speakers stressed, judicial bias. (Research shows that blacks constitute 13 per cent of drug users, but make up 35 per cent of arrests, 55 per cent of convictions and 74 per cent of imprisonments for drug possession.) The next day, Farrakhan claimed a wider leadership role. Outlining plans for an agenda-setting black summit meeting, he said: "You are going to have to live with me. To some, I'm a nightmare, but to others, I'm a dream come true."
To end the nightmare and extend the dream, his critics say, Farrakhan himself must "clean up." Veteran civil rights activist Julian Bond, a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said that in order to close "his war against other Americans," Farrakhan must abandon "the anti-Semitism, the homophobia, the white-bashing, the Catholic-bashing, the standard messages of hate that have been part and parcel of him for the last 30 years." That reputation prompted the 87-year-old NAACP to refuse support for the Million Man March. It led others, including President Bill Clinton and potential black presidential candidate Colin Powell, to temper acclaim for the event's purpose with criticism of Farrakhan's place in it.
Farrakhan, 62, has faced down graver accusations than those that Bond enumerates. After the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, a black Muslim leader faulted for backsliding, Malcolm's widow was among those who traced blame to Farrakhan. (Early this year, Malcolm's daughter Qubilah Shabazz faced charges, later dropped, of conspiring to murder Farrakhan.) Two months before the 1965 killing, Farrakhan wrote: "Such a man deserves death." Twenty years later, Farrakhan acknowledged that his words created a climate that helped provoke the killers. Of widow Betty Shabazz, he said, "I can understand her pain as I bear my own."
It was Malcolm X who had recruited Farrakhan, then a Boston calypso singer-guitarist in his 20s named Louis Eugene Walcott, into the Black Muslim movement. Two decades later, in 1977, Farrakhan gained the leadership of a moribund Nation of Islam. The sect had been broadened to include all races after the death two years earlier of its founder, Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan set about returning to core beliefs based on a visionary experience of Elijah's in 1930 - that the tribe of Shabazz, the black race, was Allah's chosen people and African-Americans needed to assert freedom by "waking up, cleaning up, standing up."
The appeal of Elijah's admonition helped Farrakhan rebuild the Nation of Islam's membership from about 5,000 to as many as 100,000 adherents now. He has drawn wider personal support by preaching separate self-development in place of the traditional drive for government-supported racial integration. And as one biographer notes, "his refusal to court the white establishment draws the admiration of many better-off blacks."
In broadening his base, Farrakhan lately has toned down racist rhetoric. As he expounded on God granting him the idea for the Million Man March, he declared: "He didn't bring it through me because my heart was dark and I was filled with anti-Semitism." And he offered to talk with Jewish leaders - although, he noted afterwards, he would not meet them "on my knees."
His pride is part of Farrakhan's appeal. So is his personal example as a man who cares for his health, his appearance and his family of nine children. He preaches against drugs, alcohol and lewd entertainment. And his emphasis on atonement for destructive social impulses, along with the promise of self-reform, strikes a popular note. But for many in black America, and in the white majority, his notion of supplanting the struggle for interracial harmony is frightening.
Against the success of last week's rally stand memories of an earlier "March on Washington." In August, 1963, at the opposite end of the capital's mall, a throng of 250,000 - white and black, women and men - found lasting inspiration in a speech of less than 20 minutes. The dream revealed in that speech was based on the belief that the destinies of all races are bound together. With faith in that, it was promised, "we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope." Now, for Farrakhan's separatist vision to succeed, it must somehow erase the still-vivid dream of unity evoked three decades ago by Martin Luther King.
Maclean's October 30, 1995