One nation under Farrakhan

At the Million Family March in Washington, the black nationalist leader changes his tune to join the multicultural chorus.


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Alicia Montgomery
October 17, 2000 12:00PM (UTC)

On the fifth anniversary of his great triumph, the Million Man March, black nationalist and rabble-rousing racist Louis Farrakhan tested his drawing power once again, calling for a gathering of the faithful on the National Mall. The Million Family March was a collaborative effort between Farrakhan's Nation of Islam and the forces of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the power behind the Unification Church -- which owns the Washington Times newspaper, and recently acquired the United Press International wire service.

The mix of these two groups, both on the margins of American political life, was bound to result in a strange brew for the Million Family March. And it did.

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First of all, there wasn't really a march at all. There was no organized parade snaking through the streets, unless you count the crowds of browsers meandering among the bean pie, beef hot dog and T-shirt sellers lining Constitution Avenue. It was a political rally with a street-fair spirit, with mini-merchants hawking $2 souvenirs throughout the six-hour affair, and the sweet scent of $1-a-dozen incense sticks floating through the fall air.

The stated message of the march was sweet as well. The organizers' news release claimed that the event was meant to "focus on strengthening the family through the principles of atonement, reconciliation and responsibility." That's all well and good, but it's hardly the kind of message that's made Farrakhan a household name, at least in white America. While there's always been a Billy Graham-ish, family-first aspect to Farrakhan's message, it's the anti-Semitic and anti-white words that landed his face in the national papers.

But you didn't hear any of them on the Mall Monday, at least not from Farrakhan. A speaker from Syria did slam "the Zionist media" for deceiving Americans about the latest Arab-Israeli conflict, and there were several calls for unity between different ethnic minorities and "poor whites," as if whites who made a decent living were part of an enemy class. However, Farrakhan himself had few negative things to say about whites in general or Jews, who have been his favorite targets in the past. (He's called Judaism "a gutter religion" and once referred to Jews as "bloodsuckers.")

No, Farrakhan seemed to have been infected with the same "inclusive" spirit that seized the Republicans earlier this year. "As I look at the children of Abraham, Christians, Muslims and Jews," Farrakhan intoned to the thousands gathered, "Abraham would be totally upset when we recognize him as a father and God as a father, and then turn around and slaughter each other." With priests, rabbis and Baptist preachers literally beside him on the dais, Farrakhan spoke of the uniting power of God, no matter what the religious sect of the worshipper.

He called the racism that affects American society -- and which has frequently informed his previous speeches -- poison. Race, class, religion and ethnic affiliation, Farrakhan said were "false yardsticks used by human beings to justify their ill-treatment of one another."

Most of his followers attributed the message of inclusion to the mood of the march and the moment, and the word most often used to describe the event was "positive." "Farrakhan focused in on the family," said Jerome Smith. "It's a better message today," said Rob Austin, who has been listening to Farrakhan for years. "He's trying to bring people together."

The new rhetoric notwithstanding, the event itself was about as integrated as the Republican National Convention, which is to say that the podium showed a rainbow sensibility, but the crowd was a monotone. Almost everyone in attendance was black. There was a smattering of whites and some Latinos, and, like the convention, whoever controlled the cameras televising the event frequently homed in on the diverse faces.

Aside from that, the event had an African-American nationalist flavor, with the red, black and green flags of black nationalism lifted up in many hands and clusters of women floating by in the head-to-foot coverings mandated by some sects of Islam. Pictures of Farrakhan were everywhere, on buttons, T-shirts and the ubiquitous event posters that featured what seems to be the one Nation of Islam-approved pose for him: looking skyward, smiling broadly, eyes shielded by the sunglasses he wears day and night.

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And that's how he looked at the podium. After a Farrakhan biopic, complete with booming classical music, ran on the half-dozen projection screens scattered about the Mall, the man himself mounted the stage, the Capitol dome rising behind him. He graciously thanked Moon, along with several African-American celebrities -- rap mogul Russell Simmons, as well as power couples like Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. He then launched into a two-hour sermon covering everything from rap lyrics to abortion to this year's presidential race.

When he did talk politics, he kept partisanship at bay, only hinting at support for Al Gore and the Democratic ticket. However, his rhetoric resembled that of George W. Bush more than any other presidential candidate. As the GOP had in its convention, Farrakhan urged blacks to drop their automatic loyalty to the Democratic Party, scolding that "you have been too good to those who lie and deceive you" in political office. Like the Republicans, he called for a cleanup of gangsta rap lyrics and sent a pro-life message that asked women to remember that the "womb is a sacred space."

Other parts of Farrakhan's message echoed the Green Party's Ralph Nader, with several slams against the wastefulness of government programs that fatten the pockets of corporations. He even picked up the Nader line that the two major party presidential candidates were exactly the same -- but with a Pat Buchanan pitchfork twist, saying a choice between Gore and Bush is like a choice between "Beelzebub and the devil." Still he strongly urged his audience to register and vote, despite the demonically limited range of possibilities, and said that people power could be used to sway whichever candidate. "Even the devil will do good under the gun," he said.

But what gun was Farrakhan under that he would veer so sharply from his borderline black separatist philosophy to embrace multiculturalism? As he reminded the crowd, which once broke into chants of "Farrakhan for president," he's no politician. He doesn't need votes from the whites he'd vilified in the past, and blacks who have supported him have done so without a push for inclusion.

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Some who gathered to hear him speak admitted there was a difference between some of Farrakhan's earlier speeches, though not necessarily a distinction. "He was definitely toned down," said Cabral Riddle, a Washingtonian in his 20s. "But if I said he was saying something different this time than what he said before, that would be saying he didn't tell the truth. And he always tells the truth."

At least one of his supporters, Ohio resident Sylvia Johnson, spoke out in favor of the old Farrakhan. "I always thought of him as having a 'separate but equal' message, and that his emphasis was on the black family," said Johnson. "Now he says that race isn't really as big a factor as it used to be." Is that the case? "He's entitled to his opinion," replied Johnson.

Farrakhan himself, however, was unwavering in his optimism about his dream of his multiracial, multiethnic coalition. "Before me, I see a coat of many colors," Farrakhan said. "I went to my tailor and tried it on." We'll see how long it fits.


Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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