Washington. -- It did not grab as much attention as the peace signing between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization did earlier in the week, but to black Americans it was no less momentous.
In a quest for what Jesse Jackson cautiously called "operational unity," some of the nation's top black political and civil-rights leaders, including the NAACP's Ben Chavis and the Congressional Black Caucus' Kweisi Mfume, embraced Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan as a full partner in efforts to improve the lives of African-Americans.
"No longer will we allow people to divide us," said Mr. Mfume, bringing a crowd of 2,000 to its feet in a town hall-style meeting titled "Race in America" during the caucus' annual weekend-long conference in Washington.
"We want the word to go forward today to friend and foe alike that the Congressional Black Caucus, after having entered into a sacred covenant with the NAACP to work for real and meaningful xTC change, will enter into that same covenant with the Nation of Islam" and other organizations, such as fraternities, sororities and professional groups.
Amazing. First, peace in the Middle East. Now this.
Mr. Farrakhan, savoring the moment, is sued apologies. He apologized for publicly attacking Messrs. Jackson and Chavis and other organizers of last month's civil-rights March on Washington after he was denied an opportunity to speak at the event.
"It was more than a mistake," Mr. Farrakhan said contritely. "A mistake is unintentional. It was an error."
His apology followed an admission by Mr. Chavis that "We were wrong" for disinviting Mr. Farrakhan.
Still, the embrace was an awkward one, appearing to come at arm's length, perhaps because notably missing from Mr. Farrakhan's apologies was one for the Jews, whom he has offended more than once.
"I just don't know how you can bring about change if you don't work with peo- ple that you don't agree with as well as those that you do agree with," said Mr. Mfume.
And Mr. Jackson described the unity question as an "operational unity," not uniformity, which means "you agree in those areas when you can and you disagree when you must."
Many who were caught up in the emotionalism of the moment saw the rapprochement as a sign of hope, but to my eyes it looked just as much like a sign of despair, a sign that mainstream black leaders are so desperate and confused over how to win back the respect of ghetto blacks that they will tarnish their long-held commitment to coalitions and desegregation by embracing the nation's leading black separatist.
When someone is not sure where he's going, he may try anything. The Black Caucus almost doubled in size after last year's elections, but it still seems unsure of its new clout, unsure of which direction to take black America and unsure what to do about a president who is a fellow Democrat but seems to want to hold black interests at a distance, for fear of frightening his white supporters.
The NAACP also has anguished internally over whether to choose Mr. Jackson or Mr. Chavis or somebody else to succeed retiring President Ben Hooks. Mr. Jackson, never wanting to do anything that would divide blacks against blacks, dropped out of the running. Mr. Chavis prevailed, and his top priority has been to build support among young blacks, a group more enchanted by Mr. Farrakhan than most are.
Can Mr. Farrakhan deliver? We'll see. He brings to the caucus a brand of self-help conservatism that, unlike that of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or other black Republicans, makes no accommodation with white power. It makes no accommodation with white friends, either.
Quite the contrary, he flamboyantly thumbs his nose at whites, including Jews, who allied themselves with blacks in higher percentages than any other ethnic group.
"Jewish leaders have made me a litmus test for those who expect money from Jewish interests," Mr. Farrakhan wrote in his newspaper, the Final Call, lashing out at those who kept him off the Washington march program. That's vintage Farrakhan, blaming everyone but himself for the controversies he has generated, as if blacks do not react just as angrily when someone says about us what he has said about Jews.
On those rare occasions when blacks criticize Mr. Farrakhan for his Jew-baiting, he responds that his critics must be -- what else? -- paid puppets of the Jews, as if no intelligent black person could possibly have come up independently with so momentous and complicated a thought. No, goes the Farrakhan wisdom, they must be programmed. Why else would they break ranks?
Actually, when black leaders decided not to include Mr. Farrakhan at the Washington march it was for reasons not unlike those that kept Elijah Muhammad away from the 1963 march. The civil-rights movement's thrust toward desegregation was respectfully but fundamentally opposed to the Muslims' thrust toward separatism. Now, instead of denunciation, our elected leaders turn to the Nation of Islam for consultation.
From Martin Luther King to Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, black Americans have achieved greatest progress when we coalesce with others who share our interests. That coalition-building spirit lives today, but its pulse is weak.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.