Sounding like a conservative politician and preacher, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan spoke reproachfully Saturday night of a vain society "where greed, lust and an inordinate self-interest have taken over," and scolded blacks for not organizing and taking more economic control of their communities.
Speaking in Las Vegas, the 61-year-old Muslim leader avoided much of the politically explosive language that in the past 10 years has made him a controversial figure and drawn the enmity of a broad spectrum of political and religious leaders. Instead, Farrakhan emphasized his theme of self-empowerment and self-discipline among blacks, urging them to organize economically and socially.
"The Polish organize, the Jews organize," he said in a speech before 6,000 at the Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "What is wrong with you? . . . You have been here longer than any racial or ethnic group, and you have less to show for it."
Six days after his former spokesman was shot in Riverside, Farrakhan did not comment directly on the ambush, but said: "We live in such a dangerous hour. . . . To hurt people because you disagree with them is totally unacceptable in civilized society."
Farrakhan spent much of his speech addressing the much-publicized criticism of him. "While talk of racism and anti-Semitism swirl around my head, I'm here to let you know that calling Farrakhan a racist and a bigot and an anti-Semite is not going to help you solve your problems," he said to sustained applause. "I deplore racism. I am saying it again: I deplore racism.
"To be a racist, to me, is to be one who promotes his or her race as superior to, or better than . . . any other race. . . . That's wickedness."
Farrakhan spoke extemporaneously for several hours. In a thundering voice, he railed against depriving other human beings of their rights. "Although I want to see black people uplifted," he said, "I will never resort to evil to uplift black people at the expense of others."
He also described the notion of him being against white people as "silly."
"We have done nothing to keep white people from being successful. We have done nothing to keep Jewish people from being successful. We do not marshal our energy, time, money or talent to block any individual from achieving their talents," he said. "So do not use false labels to describe Louis Farrakhan."
Farrakhan's remarks were dramatically different in tone from those by Khallid Abdul Muhammad, who spoke a week ago in Los Angeles. Muhammad, who had been suspended as a top aide and spokesman because of anti-Semitic and anti-white remarks during a speech in November, reiterated those sentiments last week.
Farrakhan--who had gotten in trouble in February for saying he basically agreed with Muhammad--did not make any direct reference to the shooting of Muhammad in Riverside, allegedly by an ousted Nation of Islam member.
Farrakhan suspended Muhammad, 46, as his senior aide after a speech in which Muhammad called Jews "the bloodsuckers" of the black community, criticized the Pope and urged the killing of South African whites. Muhammad was shot last week in the legs in an ambush in which four of his bodyguards and a bystander were also wounded.
James Edward Bess, 49, an ousted minister of the Nation of Islam, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault. Police believe he acted alone.
In his speech Saturday, Farrakhan apologized to the audience for the stringent security requirements. Everyone in the arena was searched with hand-held metal detectors and frisked before being allowed to enter.
Mindful of his venue, Farrakhan also noted that "gambling is forbidden in the Koran," and called Las Vegas "a city founded in sin."
He said prepaid reservations at a hotel were canceled at the last minute, forcing him to make a last-ditch effort to find a room to stay so he could speak. Saying that his reservations were canceled because "they must have found out it was I who was coming," Farrakhan said: "Since I've been here, I have felt like Mary trying to find a place to give birth to her baby."
Farrakhan's arrival did indeed spark some controversy. A proclamation signed by only two City Council members welcomed him to the city and urged him to promote unity. The proclamation earned a public denunciation from the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.
Officials at the Thomas & Mack Center reported getting calls from people concerned about Farrakhan's speech. "The university condemns any message of hate or bigotry," said Ron Drake, the assistant director in charge of marketing for the arena, "but we must recognize 1st Amendment rights to free speech for anyone who books our arena."
The university is not sponsoring the speech. The Nation of Islam rented the arena for $20,000 plus expenses.