Louis Farrakhan: Heed the Message, Not the Messenger

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 15: Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, speaks at a press conference near United Nations headquarters on June 15, 2011 in New York City. Farrakhan expressed support for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and condemned the NATO-led military strikes in Libya. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark also called for an end to the strikes at the event. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

People familiar with Louis Farrakhan are sure to have strong opinions about the man. Throughout his lifetime, Farrakhan has been a polarizing figure. Disciples of the Islamic minister praise him for his insights and leadership while detractors condemn him for his controversial assertions. Although Farrakhan has been a prominent activist for the black community, he’s also been accused of espousing anti-Semitic, anti-white, homophobic, and sexist views. Furthermore, his position as leader of the Nation of Islam, an organization founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad, has put him at odds with Christians, the Jewish community, and other black leaders. Nevertheless, Farrakhan has been steadfast in his efforts to improve the conditions of blacks in America. With the upcoming Millions for Justice, a march commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, he promises to cultivate a sense of unity and equality.

10/16/95: Louis Farrakhan during his speech at the Million Man March rally at the Mall. BILL O'LEARY/TWP.
10/16/95: Louis Farrakhan during his speech at the Million Man March rally at the Mall. BILL O’LEARY/TWP.

Before his foray into the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan was known as Louis Eugene Wolcott. As a child, he grew up playing the violin and singing calypso music. His love for music blossomed, and he eventually became a professional musician. Farrakhan performed under the monikers “The Charmer” and “Calypso Gene” and recorded several calypso records. While performing in Chicago in 1955, Farrakhan attended Saviours’ Day, a Nation of Islam holiday, and heard Elijah Muhammad speak. He had grown dissatisfied with Christianity and became intrigued by the Islamic faith. In a recent interview with The Breakfast Club, a New York based radio show, Farrakhan explained the reason for his conversion to Islam. “I was upset as a Christian because I wondered why white Christians treated black Christians so badly and yet said we were all from the same God. That didn’t ring well with me.” Upon returning to New York, he attended a mosque where he heard Malcolm X speak. Farrakhan was so inspired by Malcolm X that he decided to convert to Islam.

louis2At the request of Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan had to forgo his music career to join the Nation of Islam. As a member, he became Malcolm X’s protégé and served as his assistant minister in a Boston mosque. Farrakhan quickly rose through the ranks of the organization and became the head minister of Temple No. 11 in Boston and later the minister for Temple No. 7 in New York City. Following the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, Warith Deen Mohammed became the new leader of the Nation of Islam. He changed the organization’s name to the American Society of Muslims, promoted a more orthodox view of Islam, and strove for more inclusiveness by reaching out to Christians and Jews. These changes prompted Farrakhan to split from the group and create his own Nation of Islam which followed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. During the early 1980s, he continued to bolster the Nation of Islam and lent support to Jesse Jackson during his presidential campaign. In 1995, Farrakhan achieved his most notable accomplishment when he organized the Million Man March.

The march was held on October 16, 1995 in Washington D.C., for the purpose of strengthening the bonds between black men, their families, and the community as a whole. The event fostered brotherhood, fellowship, and leadership and was one of the largest political gatherings in American history. Although there has been debate over the total number of attendees, the march was monumental and led to approximately 1.7 million black men registering to vote according to the Nation of Islam website. Several noteworthy black leaders also attended the event including Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, and Stevie Wonder.

Farrakhan believes that today’s youth have the ability to realize the vision of their predecessors. As he told The Breakfast Club, “Our young people represent the strongest and the best generation that we’ve ever had. They’re not the wisest, but they are the best because they are fearless. And when you see fearless young men and women, that’s the generation that God’s hand is on cause that’s the generation that will fulfill the promise of the ancestors who died struggling for truth, freedom, justice, and liberation.” Countless individuals suffered and died to provide a better life for future generations. Because of their efforts, young black men and women today have more opportunities to achieve their aspirations.

louis7The Nation of Islam leader also explained that rappers bear a responsibility as influential figures. “The rapper doesn’t think he’s a leader, but he’s got followers all over the world. The biggest preachers don’t have as many followers as one rapper […] How can we get you to rap where intelligence is coming through the lyrics with a beat that begins to open the minds of people? Our people want better and they’ll do better if they are shown better.” Farrakhan makes a salient argument because rap has become a fixture in mainstream media. Many black youth revere rappers which, in effect, makes them role models. With their wealth and fame, rappers could provide inspiration to young listeners if they incorporated positive and insightful messages into their songs. Additionally, he argues that black celebrities should pool their resources to purchase land and establish businesses in predominantly black neighborhoods. In this way, black communities would undergo economic growth and self-sufficiency.

He also decried the “crabs-in-a-barrel” mentality and advocated solidarity within the black community. In order to thrive, blacks should unite to surmount societal injustices. However, it’s fair to question whether Farrakhan is the appropriate person to take this stance. When Malcolm X distanced himself from the Nation of Islam upon completing his hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Farrakhan denounced him. He even went so far as to call him a traitor and wrote that “such a man is worthy of death” in the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, ten weeks before Malcolm X was assassinated.  It’s difficult to reconcile Farrakhan’s advocacy for unity with the vitriolic rhetoric he directed at his former friend and mentor. One could argue that this was in the past, and his positive contributions in the succeeding decades were much more substantive. Yet I can’t imagine someone like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. discarding a comrade, even if they adopted a divergent perspective.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES:  Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan speaks to reporters at a news conference at the United Nations 04 March. Libya sponsored the news conference at which Farrakhan spoke about developments regarding sanctions on Libya and Iraq.    AFP PHOTO/Don EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan speaks to reporters at a news conference at the United Nations 04 March. Libya sponsored the news conference at which Farrakhan spoke about developments regarding sanctions on Libya and Iraq. AFP PHOTO/Don EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent years, Farrakhan has also been highly critical of President Barack Obama. In 2011 during an American Clergy Leadership Conference, he called Obama a ‘murderer’ and an ‘assassin’ for the United States’ involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. While Farrakhan is entitled to his opinions, it seems disingenuous to exalt harmony while publicly vilifying black leaders. Nonetheless, he’s proven capable of galvanizing the black community for a noble purpose. The Million Man March, for example, was a successful, harmonious gathering that elevated the collective black consciousness. Though it’s still debatable if his intentions excuse his divisive notions.

To raise awareness for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, Farrakhan has promoted the hashtag #JusticeOrElse on social media. As Farrakhan states on the justiceorelse.com website, “If we are denied what rightfully belongs to us then there has to be unified action that we take that will force the justice that we seek.” This gathering will address issues such as inadequate education, police brutality, poverty, and racial discrimination. In contrast to the inaugural march, this gathering will be more inclusive by being open to people of all ethnic backgrounds, races, and sexual orientations.

While many of Louis Farrakhan’s views are inflammatory and reprehensible, he does make some valid points regarding the state of the black community. Fractured families, drugs, intra-violence, and racial oppression are pervasive obstacles. To combat these issues, people must coalesce and strive for socioeconomic stability. Regardless of how you view Farrakhan, Millions for Justice seems like a great cause. The march will take place on October 10 in Washington D.C.  I certainly hope that this congregation will foster prosperity and bring about true justice.

-Elijah Yarbrough