His marathon speech to the "Million Man March" here last week was vintage Louis Farrakhan. It was at times angry, at times nurturing. It was equal parts insight and incoherence--a jumble of politics, religion and just plain Farrakhan.
Few could quibble with his calls for black men to set down their arms and pick up their babies, respect their women and clean up their musical lyrics. At the same time, few could fathom his deconstruction of the number 19--in which the 9 represents a fetus in a womb.
The 400,000 or more black men amassed before him on the Mall applauded enthusiastically when Farrakhan struck a chord. They listened quietly when he veered. And both the speech and the vast crowd's reaction to it offered clues to what--for millions of Americans across the country--was the most puzzling thing about the march:
How could something so awesome and so profoundly positive have originated with someone like Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam?
For years, he has been widely dismissed as a racist anti-Semite who lambastes whites as devils and preaches black separatism--views that are not shared by the majority of African Americans as well as whites. At the same time, there is almost universal agreement that Farrakhan's was the only voice capable of calling forth such a multitude.
How could a man whose views appear to be so extreme exert such influence over so many? More important, what does it mean for the future that a leader considered so marginal and repugnant by the white community is accorded such respect by so many blacks?
Unquestionably, the success of the march has catapulted the onetime calypso singer to new prominence. "You will get better acquainted with Louis Farrakhan, and you are going to have to live with me," Farrakhan said at a news conference the morning after the march. "To some, I'm a nightmare. But to others, I'm a dream come true."
And the immediate reaction of some in the white community was to renew their denunciations; politicians and pundits joined in warning the black community that embracing Farrakhan could only hurt their cause.
But dismissing the messenger risks missing the larger message that underlies his influence--the answer to the question of why this one man can elicit such a powerful response among blacks who do not support major elements in his credo.
Part of the answer is that Farrakhan's core message of pride and self-respect, as well as his defiant verbal flogging of whites, strikes a responsive chord among thousands and thousands of disenchanted blacks. They brush aside the abhorrent parts of his message more easily than many whites do.
"There are always many people, probably most of the people, at his rallies that do not fully embrace everything Farrakhan is about," said Steven Barboza, an author who has studied the Nation of Islam and interviewed Farrakhan. "It's like going to a concert. Everyone takes something different away. Farrakhan's rhetoric strikes a chord among those who are disenfranchised. It makes people feel good."
Not just the down and out.
"I am not Muslim. I do not embrace the Muslim faith," said Kenneth Thomas, publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black weekly. "There are certain things he says I think are questionable. Some of what he says I don't even think he believes. But a good deal of what he says makes a hell of a lot of sense. If the man has something positive to contribute, let's take the positive."
An equally important element in Farrakhan's appeal is the fact that while the national spotlight has focused on his anti-Semitism, he and the Nation of Islam have earned respect, even gratitude, in the black community for their gritty effort to cleanse black neighborhoods of crime and drugs and to reclaim the lives of blacks in prison.
"His main issue is about economic self-sufficiency for blacks, and he's actually acting that philosophy out," said C. Eric Lincoln, a professor emeritus at Duke University who has studied the Nation of Islam for four decades. "Many people don't hear that because they are sidetracked by the offensive remarks he makes."
For many blacks at least, Farrakhan's record of hands-on effort--sometimes crowned with substantial success--means more than his rantings. As a result, a man whom most Americans have considered an ugly anomaly irrelevant to the task of healing relations between the races appears to be at center stage and possibly part of a solution.
The response to Farrakhan, whose original name was Louis Eugene Walcott, also points out just how fractured race relations have become, with many African Americans disillusioned by mainstream black leaders and desperate for a new path.
"The compelling interest of black people is to improve the circumstances of their living and being," Lincoln said. "For many black people, things couldn't be worse. Why not Farrakhan? He can't make things worse, and he might make them better."
Throughout its history, the Nation of Islam has been a balm to many poor blacks frustrated with white America. Malcolm X helped bring the group to the national stage, and used his dynamic speaking style and fierce black pride to give the group far more clout than its membership might suggest.
The group traces its roots back to the 1930s, when a traveling salesman named Wallace D. Fard began preaching to blacks in Detroit about a "natural religion of the black man." His message of racial separation caught the attention of a black Baptist preacher from Sandersville, Ga., named Elijah Poole. Embracing the mystical Fard as "Allah's messenger," Poole changed his own name to Elijah Muhammad and began preaching a nationalist theology that gave a special black American twist to the worldwide Islamic faith.
He said white people were devils, created by a black, mad scientist named Yakub. Through gene splicing and cloning, Yakub created from "the original man"--who was black and from the African continent--a race of white-skinned, straight-haired, often blue-eyed, devils. They had the personalities of snakes and were biologically incapable of doing what was just, pure or clean. He said these devils ultimately would be destroyed by the black Allah, or God.
Elijah Muhammed also taught his disciples that the black man was good, pure and just. He said that since blacks were oppressed in America by whites, the best recourse for black Americans was to separate themselves from the institutions of the devil race.
Malcolm X found the Nation of Islam while in prison and later became its leading minister. He split with the group in the early 1960s when he became disenchanted with Elijah Muhammad's anti-white teachings and suspected the leader of sexual misdeeds.
Farrakhan, who was the minister of the Boston mosque, and Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam's national spokesman, feuded behind the scenes over their allegiance to the master, and some still suspect that Farrakhan played a role in Malcolm X's assassination. Farrakhan has denied involvement, admitting only that he stirred sentiment against Malcolm X.
The controversy arose again earlier this year when one of Malcolm X's daughters, Qubilah Shabazz, was arrested for allegedly hiring a hit man to kill Farrakhan. Prosecutors later dropped the charges, and Farrakhan used the incident to reach out to Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz.
When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son began to moderate the group's views. Instead of following, Farrakhan led a militant faction that claimed the Nation of Islam name as its own. Although the group's internal workings are shrouded in secrecy, various estimates put the membership at anywhere from 10,000 to more than 100,000 people, with more than 100 mosques across the United States.
Under Farrakhan, the group has been active in developing businesses, although with mixed results. Its federal contracts to provide security at numerous public housing projects are under investigation, and some businesses run by the group have experienced financial problems.
The Nation of Islam also runs a network of counseling programs for prisoners, alcoholics and drug addicts, which help to keep black men off the streets and recruit them into the organization.
Farrakhan lives in a large home in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, an integrated neighborhood that has grown used to the presence of his burly security crew, the bow-tie wearing Fruit of Islam. He is still known to pick up his violin at home as a stress reliever. But even his musical tastes are tied to the organization. He once wrote a song titled "A White Man's Heaven Is a Black Man's Hell."
Farrakhan's power at the podium has given the group clout, despite widespread censure by most mainstream black and white leaders for his condemnation of Jews, gays and whites in general.
He held a rally in Atlanta in 1992 that had better attendance than the World Series game the same night. He filled the 16,500-seat Sports Arena in Los Angeles in 1993.
Those were just buildups, however, to the "Million Man March," where he lectured, scolded and cajoled the hordes of listeners for more than two hours.
"Farrakhan has charisma and he knows how to use it," Lincoln said. "He knows where people hurt and how to speak to that hurt. There's a lot of hurting going on today, and Farrakhan has a lot to say."
The question still remains whether much of America has become too turned off by Farrakhan's contentious remarks to listen to those parts of his agenda it might be willing to embrace, and whether Farrakhan's more moderate language in recent speeches is a change of heart or just a temporary change of strategy.
But beyond the future of one leader, the source of his appeal offers valuable insights for the nation as a whole as it struggles once more with its oldest and most difficult problem.