Local blacks stand by Nation of Islam


The pastor, the barber, the student: None is a member of the Nation of Islam, and none considers himself an anti-Semite. But none is quick to condemn the black separatist group for its former spokesman's tirade against Jews.

Only a tiny fraction of Baltimore's black residents attend the Nation of Islam's Muhammad Mosque No. 6 in Northwest Baltimore. Yet the Nation's clean-cut, bow-tied young militants have apparently established a reservoir of community goodwill that won't easily dry up.

A sampling of African-American opinion about Khalid Abdul Muhammad's controversial speech at a New Jersey college showed at least as much concern about the media storm in the wake of his attack on Jews, the pope and whites as about the remarks themselves.

Many whites cannot fathom why black leaders will not sever all ties with the Nation of Islam. But black citizens seem troubled by the threat the controversy poses to African-American harmony at a time when all hands are needed to tame the violence on inner-city streets.

Some say the news media eagerly seized on the anti-Semitic remarks to divide blacks.

"Everyone grips on that one issue," Jamillah Nasir, an English major at Morgan State University, said angrily. "Why is it that the only time African-American opinion is valued is when there is controversy around the African-American race?

"Why should we be censored?" she added. "That brother [Mr. Muhammad] has his opinion, and he's entitled to it, and no one else should feel the need to refute what he said or to validate it."

Lenny Clay, owner of a West Baltimore barbershop, said although Mr. Muhammad's remarks were ill-expressed, blacks should not feel the need to apologize to whites. He said the Congressional Black Caucus should stand by the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis T. Farrakhan.

Last week, the caucus, defying its chairman, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, repudiated the working relationship the Baltimore Democrat had sought with the Nation of Islam.

Mr. Clay said, "Minister Farrakhan has more support around the country than the Black Caucus does. A whole lot more."

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of West Baltimore's Bethel AME Church, complained that a double standard is applied to racially offensive remarks. When South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. (Fritz) Hollings recently likened African diplomats to cannibals, the storm of criticism passed quickly. But the Nation of Islam controversy continues, he said.

"Racism, sexism, homophobia, hatred of any kind demands a vigilant response," Mr. Reid said. But the Hollings remark was "handled differently by the press, by the Black Caucus, by politicians in general. It does raise the issue of fairness."

Besides, Mr. Reid says that what he considers the real message of Mr. Farrakhan -- who delivered a moderate address at Bethel AME in November -- rarely gets out.

"I do not believe that hatred is a part of Farrakhan's message," the pastor said. "I think his message is one of empowerment, economic development, promoting a method to develop high self-esteem among the least and the lowest of us . . . economically and socially."

Yet it is clear that Mr. Muhammad's Nov. 29 speech at Kean College in New Jersey, in which he called Jews the "bloodsuckers of the black nation," among other slurs, differed from the Nation of Islam's core message only in tone.

After the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith published excerpts of the remarks, Mr. Farrakhan demoted his national spokesman -- but said that he spoke many "truths."

Waving a copy of the Nation of Islam's publication "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," Mr. Farrakhan told a news conference that Jews were deeply involved in the slave trade. (Mainstream historians say there were Jewish slave traders, but that their influence was not unusual.)

This week's issue of the Nation of Islam's newspaper, The Final Call, features an interview with a Wellesley College professor who maintains that "Jews were an integral part of the slave trade," that they tried to "monitor and control" blacks by being active in the civil rights movement, and that Jews have great influence in portraying blacks negatively in the media.

Such statements and the Muhammad speech are part of what Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Harvard University's Afro-American Studies Department, calls "top-down anti-Semitism."

The notion that Jews played a key role in a black holocaust is accepted "among significant sectors of the black community," he has written.

He says the Nation of Islam could, by the same selective use of historical facts, have produced "a damning treatise on the involvement of left-handers" in the slave trade.

Most troubling, he says, is the idea that what Jews are alleged to have done in the past shows "the signs of an essential nature that is evil" -- and that blacks should regard Jews as enemies in the present.

If opinion polls are correct, the Nation of Islam's brand of anti-Semitism may find a receptive audience among a considerable minority of black Americans.

A 1992 survey by the Anti-Defamation League indicated that anti-Semitism is more than twice as common among blacks (37 percent) in the United States as among whites (17 percent).

This minority agrees with such statements as: "Jews have too much power in the U.S. today" and "Jews don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind."

The ADL -- which Mr. Farrakhan calls "wicked" and The Final Call labels "the neo-Nazi vanguard of American Judaism" -- says anti-Semitism is more common among older, less educated blacks (and whites).

But echoes of the Nation's anti-Jewish literature are easily found on Morgan's campus, where the Nation has an active association.

"Honestly, it's no mystery that Jews financed the slave trade," said Roots Baily, a telecommunications major, as several friends nodded.

Mr. Baily acknowledged that "Jews have been through hard times," but he added that "every chance they get, they let people know about it."

Citing Steven Spielberg's acclaimed movie about the Holocaust, Schindler's List," he said, "Spielberg lets people know he's been through pain, and Khalid Muhammad lets people know that our people have been through hell."

Wendell Edwards, a Morgan political science major, regretted that the Muhammad controversy had diverted attention from the Nation of Islam's philosophy of black self-help.

"They're positive, they're militant, and they're good people," he said. "They give black people something to be proud of."

The news media, says the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church in West Baltimore, enjoys playing up the negative aspects of any story -- including the Nation of Islam.

"The media has had a good time. It continues to have a good time," he said. Mr. Bascom views Mr. Farrakhan as a "dissident," a creation of society's treatment of minorities.

"I don't think hate is a part of his message," Mr. Bascom said. "His message is one that is ultimately trying to set America free."

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