In a recent nationwide poll by Time Magazine, Louis Farrakhan finished second (a rather distant second, I think) to Jesse Jackson in popularity among blacks. He has demonstrated an ability to attract tens of thousands black men to meetings around the country, and is planning to lead a million black men on a march on Washington next year. His organization is credited with rescuing significant numbers of black folks from lives of poverty, drugs, violence and other forms of self-destruction. At the same time, Farrakhan's rhetoric and that of his former national representative, Khalid Muhammad, is virulently anti Semitic, anti-gay, and otherwise considered "antithetical to the American character." (Z Magazine, June 1994)
Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have long been under attack by Jewish organizations and many black leaders as being anti-Semitic, even as some black leaders seek closer ties to the NOI in the dual hope that something good can be accomplished for black folks _and_ that the NOI's vitriolic demagoguery can be reduced. In fact, it has been widely reported that Farrakhan has been seeking to moderate the NOI's rhetoric and positions in order to become more mainstream, and there is even some evidence to the effect that Jewish and black leaders have been willing to grant the NOI some leeway as it moves to the center. It hasn't been easy as the attacks on Chavis (and the attacks on Kweisi Mfume before him) attest.
To some extent, as reported above, Chavis and others have been charged, tried and convicted because of their willingness to sit down and talk to Farrakhan. Had Chavis sought to meet with nationalists and pan Africanists other than Farrakhan, there would not have been the same degree of media and other attention. Still the opposition amounts to an attempt to have Farrakhan and his organization omitted from black leadership discussions, and to weaken any possible influence on the NAACP.
Writing in the June issue of Z Magazine, Ron Daniels discusses "The Farrakhan Phenomenon":
"What is the appeal of Louis Farrakhan? The answer may lie in a perspective put forth by Professor John Bracey of Amherst University (sic) in his book _Black Nationalism in America_. Bracey contends that throughout the history of Africans in America, Black sentiment has swung like a pendulum between various forms of integrationist and nationalist strategies. While neither of these tendencies ever quite disappears from the spectrum, Bracey postulates that there are factors which determine which of these tendencies will be dominant in any given period. According to Bracey, whenever conditions appear to be favorable for a better life for Black people in this country, optimism translates into an ascendancy of integrationist thoughts and strategies. Whenever conditions appear unfavorable for Black people to achieve a better life, nationalist tendencies and strategies gain ascendancies."
The current trend is toward nationalism, particularly among the young and the poor, thus the increase in Farrakhan's popularity. Consider the following:
1) How can Farrakhan reasonably be left out of discussions about black problems with other black leaders when he is more popular among blacks than almost any of them? I don't think he can reasonably be left out. The argument is that inviting Farrakhan confers respectability on him, allowing his influence to grow. I don't buy that. Farrakhan already has a sizable and growing following, and sitting down with Chavis and the others does less to increase his following among blacks than does the inordinate focus on him by the press and by Jewish groups.
2) How can you get Farrakhan to moderate his views without talking to him? I don't see how you can. In the world of diplomacy, our government deals with pariahs all the time. To sit down with someone like Farrakhan does not require acceptance of his views. Farrakhan may not moderate his rhetoric, but it is certainly worth a try.
3) Are other black leaders so stupid, so weak, so lacking in character that they are unable to sit down with a Farrakhan and tell him to his face where they feel he is wrong, to argue with him, to disagree and to walk out of the room if necessary? No they are not, at least some of them -- Cornel West, for instance -- are not.
4) How can the energy of the trend toward nationalism be tapped to benefit blacks without descending into the depths of black is beautiful, white is bad and Jews are evil rhetoric? This is THE question! Clearly this is part of Chavis' aim.
Black leaders are presented with a Hobson's choice. The alternatives are to 1) continue with the attempt to build unity among black leaders, including Farrakhan and others they disagree with, but who have substantial followings in the black community in an attempt to solve problems in the black community, or 2) to reject any contact with Farrakhan and other "radicals" while maintaining continued good relations with black moderates, whites and Jews (i.e., people they already agree with) in an effort to maintain "good race relations." My assumption is that Chavis doesn't want to choose, but if forced will continue with the effort he has started precisely because the second, accomodationist, approach has not resolved problems facing blacks.