WASHINGTON -- After two weeks in the eye of a firestorm over his efforts to build a relationship with the Nation of Islam, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume is trying to put the controversy behind him and seek a "truce" between the separatist black Muslim group and its critics.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," the Baltimore Democrat said that "too much has been said" and that it is now time to start judging Nation of Islam leader Louis T. Farrakhan and those embroiled in verbal battles with him by their "deeds," not their words.
"It's time to look at ways to bring people together and communities together to develop, for the first time in a very long time, a real effort to respect all people and all religions," he said after the talk show.
"I honestly hope the rhetoric on both sides ceases, that we have a truce, that we try to find ways to deal with how we got to this point to begin with," Mr. Mfume said.
The Maryland congressman said yesterday he was "open and receptive" to, and would look forward to, a broad-based summit with black leaders, including Mr. Farrakhan, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has proposed.
He added that, in light of the fireworks sparked by an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-white speech by a Farrakhan aide in November, he hoped that the White House would consider convening a summit on race that the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has sought.
Since the speech by Farrakhan aide Khalid Abdul Muhammad, Mr. Mfume has been caught between his attempt to reach out to the Nation of Islam and increasing calls from fellow House members -- especially Black Caucus and Jewish members -- to keep the controversial group at a distance.
Last week, the Black Caucus overwhelmingly rejected a "sacred covenant" that Mr. Mfume forged with the Nation of Islam at the caucus's conference last fall.
Mr. Farrakhan repudiated his aide at a press conference last week, but he faulted the style, not substance, of Mr. Muhammad's speech.
The news conference, dominated by attacks on the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, exacerbated tensions for some and provoked strong counterpunches from Jewish leaders as well as some Black Caucus members.
But leaders of the NAACP surprised many on Friday by saying that they were satisfied with Mr. Farrakhan's rebuke of his aide, satisfied the Muslim leader was not anti-Semitic or racist, and ready to give him a seat at the table at a summit of black leaders that NAACP chief Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. proposed.
Yesterday, ADL officials said they were "disappointed" with the NAACP's response in light of the fact that Mr. Farrakhan said he stood by the "truths" of Mr. Muhammad's speech.
"What greater proof than his endorsement of what was said do we require to conclude that the leader of the Nation of Islam has not changed his profoundly repugnant racist and anti-Semitic beliefs," ADL leaders said in a statement.
Responding to the NAACP, Mr. Mfume and others who have tried to shift the focus from words to deeds, the ADL statement said, "We, like all right-thinking Americans, prefer to make judgments based upon deeds and actions, and not words alone. Yet we cannot forget that words too often become the basis for action and must never be ignored."
Mr. Mfume declined to call Mr. Farrakhan's remarks anti-Semitic but said, "I think that what he has said has been conceived to be that way and perceived that way by a number of people, including myself, over the years. Asked if he agreed with Mr. Farrakhan when, at his news conference, he called the ADL "anti-black and anti-American," Mr. Mfume said he did not want to label the organization or its leadership, but he did not flatly reject Mr. Farrakhan's attack.
Returning to his home base in Chicago, Mr. Farrakhan continued yesterday to defend the substance of Mr. Muhammad's speech while denouncing its tone.
"You could not listen to brother Khalid's words, the way they were formed, and not feel some sort of revulsion," Mr. Farrakhan said.
But he added that "if you listen to the speech in its entirety and in context, there were things that he said that told the truth. All you got was that little stuff they put in the paper."
Mr. Farrakhan told a cheering crowd that "enemies" of black people have created a distorted view of the talk.
"The enemy saw in brother Khalid's words the opportunity to destroy the unity, though budding and fragile, between the Nation of Islam and the Congressional Black Caucus."