Putting faith in a million men

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They are the odd couple for real, knotted together by mutual need.

When the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was in a hole, Louis Farrakhan threw him a rope. The rope is the Million Man March, the campaign to bring that many black men to Washington a week from today to show their commitment to their families and to the African-American community.

The idea was Minister Farrakhan's. Dr. Chavis signed on to organize the event. As for the hole, Dr. Chavis had dug it by getting fired as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in August 1994, after allegations of sexual impropriety and misuse of the organization's funds.

These two men -- each of them banking his prestige on this march -- could not be more different.

Chavis

Dr. Chavis, 47, is an ordained minister in the 1.5 million-member United Church of Christ. The son of a brick mason and a schoolteacher, he has spent nearly his entire life in the mainstream civil rights movement.

He endured 4 1/2 years in prison in Wilmington, N.C., in the 1970s after being convicted on charges involving a firebombing, a conviction later overturned.

The violence occurred during a Chavis-led campaign to bring about equal treatment for blacks in Wilmington's public schools.

Through his long career -- from his youthful picketing of the segregated library in his hometown of Oxford, N.C., to his eight years as head of the Commission for Racial Justice and to his 16-month tenure as head of the NAACP -- one important quality defined Dr. Chavis: He had the desire to bring people of differing points of view together. That is, he has been a integrationist, both within the African-American community and between blacks and nonblacks.

Farrakhan

Louis Farrakhan, 62, is leader of the Nation of Islam and for decades has operated apart from the mainstream civil rights movement. He is not conciliatory, nor an integrationist. He is an outsider.

Born in 1933 as Louis Eugene Walcott, he was recruited into the Nation of Islam by its most charismatic apostle, Malcolm X. He abandoned his surname to become Louis X and later Louis Farrakhan and quickly became a star in the black nationalist movement.

The Nation of Islam's cardinal tenet was that blacks are God's chosen people in America, held in bondage by the white race.

Minister Farrakhan was a true believer. When the Nation of Islam's founder Elijah Muhammed died and his son began to favor orthodox Islam, Minister Farrakhan broke away to form a group that adhered to the principles of Mr. Muhammed -- a striving for black self-reliance and economic autonomy.

It is not clear when the friendship between Minister Farrakhan and Dr. Chavis began, but it clearly solidified during Dr. Chavis' tenure at the NAACP.

Roger W. Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University, sees the relationship "as some kind of symbiotic coming together of two men who had major needs and significant problems."

Minister Farrakhan was trying to undo the damage caused by anti-Semitic statements by one of his spokesmen. Dr. Chavis was vulnerable because of the controversy about his work at the NAACP.

'Something to repair'

"Each had something to repair," Mr. Wilkins said.

As the NAACP's director, Dr. Chavis made a point of inviting Minister Farrakhan to an African-American leadership summit in 1993. But the invitation offended many NAACP supporters, who objected to Minister Farrakhan's remarks about Jews or to his unorthodox version of Islam.

Armstrong Williams, a conservative black talk show host, described Dr. Chavis' gesture toward the Nation of Islam as "embracing the element of Islam perceived as being bigoted."

By 1994, Minister Farrakhan was talking about a march on Washington. To broaden its appeal, he decided he needed someone outside the Nation of Islam to organize it. So Dr. Chavis would be chosen as a bridge to the larger black community.

"It's building up steam," says James Williams, editor of the Baltimore Afro-American. "I think, based on what we can sense ** from the grass roots, they're going to have a good contingent."

Many Baltimoreans say they are going, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Rep. Kweisi Mfume. They will join Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. and the Rainbow Coalition's the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in the ranks.

But not everyone approves of the event. Leaders of two large black religious denominations, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, of the 8.2 million-member National Baptist Convention USA, and the Rev. Bennett W. Smith Sr., head of the 2 million strong Progressive National Baptist Convention, do not endorse it because of religious differences with Minister Farrakhan.

Locally, seven East Baltimore pastors, led by the Rev. H. Walden Wilson of the Israel Baptist Church, have come out against it. The NAACP has not supported it, nor has the National Urban League.

Minister Farrakhan's presence is the problem for some; for others, the problem is the absence of women.

"When I was a kid, my granddad had a church in Kansas City, Kansas," Mr. Wilkins said, to begin to explain his misgivings. "When Granddad and the deacons were strutting around in the church, the ladies were downstairs in the kitchen fixing the food to keep it going.

"I say that any march designed to strengthen the backs of black men has to celebrate the nurturing qualities of black women."

Support is growing

Enthusiasm seems to have grown as Minister Farrakhan has withdrawn into the background. But the event is still seen as serving the goals of the Nation of Islam, by emphasizing an atonement by black males and a call for African-American self-sufficiency.

"I would hesitate to call it a civil rights march," Mr. Williams says. "The audience for this is the black community itself, not the larger, white community.

"It doesn't ask the larger community to do anything."

No one suggests that a million men have to show up for the march to be considered a success. The largest political demonstration in the capital's history occurred in 1969, when 600,000 people protested the Vietnam War; the 1963 civil rights march on Washington brought more than 200,000. A turnout even approaching those numbers would be considered an accomplishment for Minister Farrakhan and Dr. Chavis.

Ron Walters, a political scientist at Howard University, said success for Minister Farrakhan "would extend his base far outside the Nation of Islam. For Chavis it would give more legitimacy to his leadership."

Others anticipate something more transforming.

After Oct. 16, said Don Rojas, an ally of Dr. Chavis, "There will be more emphasis on economic empowerment of communities rather than the talented tenth being groomed and given opportunities. There will be more of an attempt to find strategies that would empower the grass roots."

Mr. Rojas said he believes the leaders of traditional civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League will be weakened as a result of their reluctance to endorse the march.

The movement "will be more populist," Mr. Rojas continued, "because the bulk of this support is coming from the grass roots than from the black middle class. As we get closer [to the march] more and more middle-class people will support it, but the real impetus is coming from the black masses in the inner city."

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