Farrakhan On The March

Louis Farrakhan is not a radical. He's a conservative," says Kevin Gray, a liberal black activist in South Carolina. To most white Americans, that notion seems bizarre: if Farrakhan--the militant Nation of Islam leader who once called Judaism a "gutter religion" -- isn't a radical, who is? But consider the tenets of the "Million Man March" Farrakhan is organizing for Oct. 16 in Washington: Women should stay home with the kids. Blacks should get off welfare and assume responsibility for themselves. And black men should atone for beating their wives, using drugs and other sins.

The Million Man March probably won't live up to its billing, but organizers say they may draw 250,000--the number that attended Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. If the march crosses that historic threshold, it will force a new look at Farrakhan and, more important, at the state of politics in black America. Commentators view blacks as liberal Democrats like Jesse Jackson or, less often, as conservatives like Clarence Thomas. But there is another group--perhaps the silent majority of blacks--that holds a different mix of views: hostile to drugs, welfare and feminism yet supportive of affirmative action; endorsing the use of black spending power to achieve political goals, and, often, turning to Islam as a source of discipline. Farrakhan hopes he will, through the march, emerge as the undisputed leader of this evolving political bloc.

Not surprisingly, the march has provoked enormous anxiety among other black figures since it was announced last year. Until last month posters featured a large photograph of Farrakhan superimposed on the White House. Many black leaders balked because they view Farrakhan as divisive. "We ain't marching behind no Farrakhan," declared National Baptist Convention U.S.A. president Henry J. Lyons. Others thought describing the event as a "Day of Atonement" focused too much on negative black behavior instead of racism.

But as African-Americans increasingly perceived GOP rhetoric on affirmative action and welfare to be directed at blacks, more people outside the Nation of Islam looked on the march as a well-timed opportunity to dramatize their political strength. Organizers have reserved 10,265 buses so far; they expect an average of 40 people per bus. About 150 doctors and 300 nurses have signed up for emergency service. Activity has been greatest in Philadelphia, Washington, Houston, Chicago and New York; the Hartford, Conn., school district may let students take the day off to go. Farrakhan has also asked blacks to avoid shopping or working that day to demonstrate economic clout. Sensing growing interest, Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus have finally endorsed the march.

Farrakhan has adeptly tapped into a traditional black conservatism about women. Organizers excluded women from the march to send a two-part message: men have to shape up and a woman's place is in the home. "We've had a problem with men standing up for us and themselves," says Philadelphian Sandra Mills, who is wary of Farrakhan but is helping to get men to the march. "Women are just so happy these men are standing up." The patriarchal theme has broadened the march's appeal. The Rev. Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, which has, with four other churches, registered 65,000 marchers, says men must "assume our rightful role in our families."

Competing faiths: The day may also highlight the revival of black "religious conservatism," which, says Scott Appleby, professor of religious history at the University of Notre Dame, "is at the heart of this march." The rally comes at a time when Muslim and Christian denominations are aggressively competing for inner-city congregants. In Philadelphia, the number of blacks turning to orthodox Islam has jumped 50 percent in the past five years, in part because of the hunger for structure and discipline, says Fareed Numan, a consultant with the American Muslim Council. Yet both the nation's largest Baptist congregations and Warith Deen Muhammad, whose orthodox Muslim group is about 100 times larger than Farrakhan's, have denounced the march and criticized his racial views.

What will it mean if the march draws a large crowd? Farrakhan has been hinting at a greater involvement in politics, with an emphasis on registering blacks to vote as independents. He hopes a large turnout will enable him to, as Farrakhan puts it, "leverage" influence with the two major parties. This voting bloc--with its mix of social conservatism, economic "empowerment" and black solidarity--is not what Democratic politicians are used to. These voters could turn to anyone, from Colin Powell to Farrakhan. So if nothing else, the Million Man March may well signal the beginning of a new era for black politics.