WASHINGTON -- A broad spectrum of civil rights leaders who rarely appear together gathered here yesterday for a discussion of racism in America and worked hard to project an image of unity. But they didn't succeed in eliminating the tensions among them.
Assembled on a Washington stage were two-time presidential candidate Jesse L. Jackson; Benjamin Chavis, the new leader of the NAACP; and Louis Farrakhan, controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, along with Rep. Kweise Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who is a member of the Black Caucus.
Brought together by Mr. Mfume for the caucus' annual legislative weekend, the civil rights leaders made it clear that they are united in purpose, if not in their methods, and that they don't want to air their differences publicly.
"If we have differences, we never discuss them with you," said Mr. Farrakhan, pointing to a bank of television cameras.
But a dispute over the failure to invite Mr. Farrakhan to speak at last month's March on Washington by civil rights groups marred the declarations of brotherhood. After Mr. Farrakhan was excluded, he attacked the organizers of the march in his newspaper, the Final Call, which his followers were selling yesterday outside the meeting at the Washington Convention Center.
A question from the audience asked how the panelists could seek unity "when there is such disunity" among black leaders, specifically mentioning Mr. Jackson, who was prominent in the march, and Mr. Farrakhan. Both men insisted that there is no rift between them.
But the relationship has not been the smoothest. After endorsing Mr. Jackson's 1984 presidential bid, Mr. Farrakhan was quoted as describing Judaism as a "gutter religion" and praising Adolf Hitler as "a great man," prompting Mr. Jackson to disavow his support.
Mr. Chavis acknowledged "it was a mistake not to have Mr. Farrakhan speak at the March on Washington." But, he added, "it was also a mistake, Mr. Farrakhan, for your publication to denounce brothers who did not prevent you from speaking."
Mr. Farrakhan thanked Mr. Chavis for his statement but then went on to add pointedly, "A mistake is an unintentional departure from right. An error is an intentional departure. . . . It was more than a mistake. It was an error."
What was not discussed yesterday was the charge in Mr. Farrakhan's newspaper that in deciding not to invite him, organizers had succumbed to pressure from Jewish supporters of the march. The newspaper accused "negro leaders" of "an act of cowardice."
In the newspaper, Mr. Farrakhan wrote: "We must be free from this inordinate influence and control by members of the Jewish community. So, I say to those powerful Jews who wield this kind of influence and power: LET MY PEOPLE GO."
The dispute over the March on Washington overshadowed the discussion of unity, which consumed most of the two hours.
The panel session was organized by Mr. Mfume, who said later, "I was concerned about the level of speculation . . . that there has been a rift or tension" among the leaders in the civil rights community. "So, I wanted to go to the heart of it" by putting them in a room together.
For Deborah Hall-Greene, human resources manager for a high-tech firm that does government research, "It was absolutely fantastic -- especially to see the leaders come together."