As a young man studying music and then as a singer i nightclubs, Louis Eugene Walcott learned valuable lessons for his later career as Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
He mastered the difficult art of crescendo. In a recent public performance, a 130-minute speech given in a football stadium in Atlanta, his voice and his gestures grew so that they peaked when he reached the one topic that excited his audience enough to stand and cheer. The topic was Jews.
The buildup, in one sense, had occurred over a period of several days. In another sense, it was part of a very public fight that has lasted years.
Mr. Farrakhan's aides in Atlanta had announced they wanted Jewish community leaders to meet with him to discuss their differing points of view. Members of Jewish organizations, denouncing Mr. Farrakhan as anti-Semitic, refused unless he apologized for remarks found offensive in the past.
As has occurred in other cities, Mr. Farrakhan was primed to use the incident to win applause: He cited it as another example of alleged injustice directed by Jews against blacks.
"I just wasn't made to bend," Mr. Farrakhan told his audience of 25,000 at the Georgia Dome, his voice getting louder. "I just wasn't made to shuffle. I just wasn't made to take a back seat. I just wasn't made to apologize when I haven't done nothing wrong!"
After the applause faded, he spoke for another hour, mostly about national economic problems, and about a quarter of the audience responded by drifting out of the stadium. He asked people not to leave. He offered another tidbit of what apparently enthralled them. He boomed out another challenge everyone understood to be directed to Jews, though they went unnamed.
"Don't you think," he said to cheers, "you got some things to apologize for?"
And by then Mr. Farrakhan was shouting.
He would sit down and talk with anyone, he said. Then again, maybe not everyone. "Your hands are too bloody!" he said.
The exodus of people stopped.
Louis Farrakhan, according even to his detractors, is a gifted speaker. He is a tall, strikingly handsome man of 59 who is not without ambition or hubris. In his speeches he has favorably compared his own actions with those of Jesus, the apostle Paul, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. There is considerable irony in the linkage to Malcolm: Shortly before Malcolm was murdered, in 1965, Mr. Farrakhan published a statement suggesting his one-time mentor deserved to die.
Several names and talents
Mr. Farrakhan's father was a schoolteacher; his mother, a domestic worker. As a boy named Louis Eugene Walcott, he sang in an Episcopal church choir. In his days as a professional singer, he was known as Calypso Gene, and as The Charmer. When he was recruited into the Nation of Islam by Malcolm, he became Louis X.
As Louis Farrakhan, he has sought for 15 years to rebuild the black separatist organization slowly built by Elijah Muhammad, beginning in the 1930s, and brought to public attention in the 1950s and early 1960s by Malcolm X. Mr. Farrakhan has sought to preserve a movement fueled in large part by African-Americans' frustration and anger, and by the electricity generated by its chief spokesman.
Mr. Farrakhan, like Elijah Muhammad, publishes a newspaper, The Final Call, devoted largely to praise for the works of the Nation of Islam and harsh condemnation of its critics.
Like Elijah Muhammad, Mr. Farrakhan offers his supporters an unconventional version of Islam; his ministers teach that Allah appeared in human form in the 1930s to choose Elijah Muhammad as the prophet to show blacks how to obtain economic and political independence from whites.
Like Elijah Muhammad, Mr. Farrakhan has worked to expand the Nation of Islam as a business. A company that Mr. Farrakhan says was established with financial aid from Libya markets soaps and shampoos. The Nation also sells videotapes, books and items of clothing. Mr. Farrakhan took time in his speech in Atlanta to promote a non-prescription drug marketed by a colleague.
A company organized by the Nation of Islam, N.O.I. Security Inc., has obtained contracts through competitive bidding to provide unarmed guards at public housing projects in Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. A Baltimore City Council member, Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, has proposed hiring the company to provide security at the high-rise Murphy Homes in West Baltimore.
The Nation's public face, here as in other cities, is seen on the well-dressed young men selling The Final Call on street corners. All the men are unfailingly polite. All of them politely refuse to give their names or discuss the Nation of Islam.
For non-members, white or black, the reception is much the same at the Nation's local headquarters, Muhammad's Mosque Number Six, an unprepossessing building sandwiched between a gasoline station and a restaurant in the 3300 block of Garrison Blvd.
Members decline requests to be interviewed, as did Mr. Farrakhan. "We don't have any statements to make to the press," says Jamil Muhammad, head of the mosque. "We don't " have authorization to have any contact."
Criticism of Jews
Mr. Farrakhan has gradually added to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad so that the rallying point is no longer a blanket condemnation of all whites but criticism directed largely at Jews. His organization casts Jews as having been among the promoters and profiteers of the slave trade, and it maintains that Jews today are wrong in challenging his version of history.
It is the subject that has brought him the greatest public attention. In 1984, after endorsing the presidential candidacy of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Mr. Farrakhan was quoted describing Judaism as a "gutter religion" and praising Hitler as "a great man." Mr. Farrakhan's remarks led Mr. Jackson to disavow his support.
"Louis Farrakhan is someone people need to be vigilant about," says Mira Boland, fact-finding director in the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League. "His organization is anti-white racist, and it is anti-Semitic."
The league is a frequent target of criticism in The Final Call and refuses to meet with members of the Nation of Islam. "We do not share platforms or meet with Klansmen, neo-Nazis or bigots of any kind," Ms. Boland says.
Relations between the Nation of Islam and orthodox Muslims are, at best, cool. Prayer leaders at mosques in Baltimore say they have no contact with the congregation on Garrison Boulevard, and they apparently seek none.
"Louis Farrakhan is aware he is not 'orthodox,' and he is anything but stupid," says C. Eric Lincoln, a scholar of religion who has known Mr. Farrakhan for more than 30 years. "He believes you have to deal with people where they are, not where you'd like them to be."
Platoons and contributions
In Atlanta, Mr. Farrakhan's audience included platoons of young men dressed in dark blue uniforms with red epaulets, and platoons of young women dressed in white uniforms and red gloves. When there were errands to perform, the men and women ran, not walked.
They brought contributions of cash and checks to the stage: A contribution of $1,000 from Mosque Number One, in Detroit. Another $1,000 from the temple in Philadelphia. Another $1,000 from a member in Los Angeles. A box said to contain $16,000 from temples in the Midwest.
"Farrakhan speaks the truth about how people of color have been treated for 6,000 years," said an auto worker who had traveled from St. Louis. "He is the only one to speak about the empowerment of blacks," said a bank clerk. "He stands for the economic development of our people," a power plant technician said.
Mr. Farrakhan arrived three hours after the time announced for his speech. His aides used the interval to praise his courage and to show a videotape, broadcast onto two large screens: Mr. Farrakhan with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, an image that elicited applause. Mr. Farrakhan with Jesse Jackson, to which the audience responded with silence.
Mr. Farrakhan playing the violin. Mr. Farrakhan lifting impressive amounts of weights -- bringing more cheers. Mr. Farrakhan jogging on a track.
He took several deep bows when he appeared on stage. Guards with binoculars swept their gaze over the audience. "I don't know why controversy follows Farrakhan," Mr. Farrakhan began, and members of the audience laughed. "But I can't come into a city without seeming to create a stir."
No, he said: He would not shuffle, bend or bow. "The day of master and slave," he said, his voice suddenly becoming very loud, "is over."