Before Kweisi Mfume entered last September into what he called a "sacred covenant" with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, he and other prominent black leaders sat down with Farrakhan to discuss their concerns.
None of them, including Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the NAACP, were unaware of Farrakhan's past attacks on whites and Jews.
But they also felt the need for unity within the black community, especially to combat the growing scourge of violent crime.
L So what did these mainstream black leaders say to Farrakhan?
"As best as I can recall, people expressed their outrage at anti-Semitism and divisions among groups that clearly need to find ways to work together," said Representative Mfume, D-Md., who heads the Congressional Black Caucus. "We said to him that we disagree with you on this point or that point, but we also said we are not trying to change you or convert you."
But if there was any man in need of changing, wasn't it Louis Farrakhan? He had called Judaism a "gutter religion" and said whites were "the skunk of the planet earth."
When he met with you, did he ever deny saying those things? I asked Mfume.
"He never said he had not said those things," Mfume said. "What he said was: 'There has been some misunderstanding of our positions, but I assure you I understand where you are with your outrage and disapproval of those kind of things.' "
And that was good enough for you to then embrace this man? I asked.
"I don't know if it was 'good enough,' " Mfume said. "Time will judge all of this."
But it seems that time has. After an extraordinarily vitriolic attack on whites, Jews, Christians and others by Nation of Islam national spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad some weeks ago, the covenant between Farrakhan and the Black Caucus seems all but officially dead.
In fact, others members of the caucus are now distancing themselves from it.
"I don't think it was ever an official position of the caucus," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, told a reporter last week. "I don't think a great majority of the caucus ever saw ourselves engaged in any type of partnership or covenant with Minister Farrakhan."
But when I read that statement to Mfume, who was unaware of it, he bristled.
"That is his opinion," Mfume said. "I am the chairman of the organization and it is our desire to work with anybody, any time with most issues."
And last September, other black leaders backed Mfume. Benjamin Chavis publicly stated that it had been a "mistake" not to invite Farrakhan to speak at the 30th anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King's March on Washington.
And Mfume, in announcing his new ties to Farrakhan, was faintly combative about it, saying he was making the announcement "to friend and foe alike."
Mfume, who has had good relations with the Jewish community in Baltimore, saw himself reaching out to Farrakhan and somehow nudging him toward the center, moderating him, while at the same time getting Farrakhan's support to fight crime.
"The risk was enormous, but the possibilities were even greater," Mfume said. "Life is fraught with risk, and I thought and still believe the effort was worthwhile."
But what was the likelihood that Mfume could actually moderate Farrakhan compared with Farrakhan's ability to exploit his relationship with Mfume and the other black leaders?
Unlike Mfume, Farrakhan does not depend on votes. Unlike Jesse Jackson, Farrakhan does not have hopes for a political future. Unlike Benjamin Chavis, Farrakhan does not head an organization with a broad base of support.
Farrakhan's popularity depends on an extreme message to a fringe group. And if he were to allow himself to be nudged to the center, he would risk losing his base of support.
And, as I write this, Farrakhan has refused to repudiate the statements of his spokesman, a stance that has embarrassed Mfume, called his judgment into question and undermined him with some members of his own caucus.
So I asked Mfume how he was feeling these days.
"I don't think God puts more on you than you can bear," Mfume said, laughing a small, hard laugh, "but I was thinking of letting him know I am getting near the breaking point."