A squad of volunteers hit the streets of the District last September selling tapes, fruit, books and newspapers to raise thousands of dollars to achieve one goal: to bring to Washington the controversial Muslim leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Last Monday evening their efforts paid off. More than 10,000 people, almost all of them black and most of them non-Muslim, gathered at the Washington Convention Center to hear Farrakhan -- a man many people have labeled a racist and a bigot for his anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The speech by the leader of the Nation of Islam was scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m., so hundreds of those attending came straight from work. Many of the women wore high-heeled shoes, and the men wore suits or sports jackets. Included in the crowd were young adults in entry-level jobs, college students, entrepreneurs, artists, secretaries, teachers and government workers, as well as many from the ranks of the unemployed.
"It wasn't 10,000 Muslims or 10,000 poor people there," Barbara Smith, a 34-year-old janitor, said later. "It was people from all walks of life, from Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest D.C.
"I saw people who were at Howard University when I was there," she said. "I saw someone who worked with me at the post office. I saw my old supervisor from the VA hospital, and some of the veterans who used to come to the hospital."
What most of Farrakhan's supporters seem to share is a belief that he is the only black leader who could lead black people out of unemployment and political despair. And as for the strident anti-Semitism -- Farrakhan spoke Monday of the "wickedness" of Jews -- the audience seemed to ignore that message, preferring to hear only his prescriptions for black self-determination.
"I thought he preached a lot of hatred, but I didn't hear that," said Smith, who was hearing Farrakhan in person for the first time Monday. "He spoke his mind . . . . I might not agree with everything he says. It's no different than people who support Reagan. Do they agree with everything he says?"
There were groups of handicapped people, local Muslims and some who had come from Baltimore. They stood in the steamy evening air, in a line that sometimes wrapped around the four sides of the enormous building, and waited patiently while a group of Muslims searched their purses and frisked their bodies, politely but thoroughly.
The average age seemed to be about 30, and a number of the older members of the crowd indicated they had been following Farrakhan for many years, since the days when he was a representative of the late Elijah Muhammad, who built the Nation of Islam.
"If there's any salvation for the black man, it's through Minister Farrakhan . . . . ," said an elderly woman who asked not to be identified.
"You know how you can hear the truth and it just feels right? That's the way it is when I listen to Minister Farrakhan," said Lena Washington, a 45-year-old housewife and former dental technician. "He speaks nothing but the truth.
"He has a message for the black man -- actually, for anyone who wants fairness," said Washington, whose husband, a photographer, left work early to attend the speech.
When members of the audience were asked how they learned about the event, most said they had seen posters in their neighborhoods. There had been no extensive media campaign to drum up interest. Mostly, there was word of mouth.
"There was a 'human commercial,' and that demonstrates how much faith people have in Minister Farrakhan," said John Raye, president of John Raye & Associates, a public relations and marketing firm that volunteered its services to help organize the event.
"We had tremendous support from Temple No. 4 the Nation of Islam church in the District -- they were the real soldiers -- and the non-Muslim community," he said. "My staff of 18 worked on this seven days a week during the last few weeks. We programmed our computerized phone system to make 1,000 calls a day, 4,000 in all to announce the program."
"We went through neighborhoods in a car with a bullhorn," he said. "On the Fourth of July, we rode through Hains Point. Some people wore signs on their bodies and stood at busy intersections. We went to places all up and down Georgia Avenue, all the Metro stops and major bus stops used by black people, up and down 14th Street, at all the bus stations and airports and even in Potomac, Md., and Reston, Va.
"We did radio shows," added Raye, a former broadcaster. "Small businesses put signs in their shops. There was a lot of one-on-one contact, and we had a mailing list . . . ."
Before the word was spread, volunteers had raised enough money to pay the $6,000 rental fee for the convention center and the costs of posters and fliers, stamps, phone services and flowers that lined the stage during Farrakhan's speech.
Farrakhan has been popular with a number of blacks since the early '60s. Tapes and albums of his speeches have been available to the public, mainly through local temples of the Nation of Islam.
He burst onto the national scene last year after traveling with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to Syria to help gain release of U.S. airman Robert Goodman Jr. But Farrakhan was dropped from the campaign after he made well-publicized statements that Israel would have no peace "structured on injustice, thievery, lying and deceit using God's name to shield the country's dirty religion . . . ."
Later, he condemned a reporter for revealing that Jackson had referred to Jews as "Hymies." Despite the controversy, blacks in major cities have turned out this year to hear Farrakhan speak.
Farrakhan's mentor, Elijah Muhammad, had preached that whites were "devils." Farrakhan directed most of his vehemence against Jews, saying, "I know their wickedness."
"Jews know their wickedness, not just Zionism, which is an outgrowth of Jewish transgression," he said here last week. "I intend to raise the ante tonight! Black people will not be controlled by Jews. Black leaders will either come out for us, or get the hell away from us. Who is your master -- God or Jewish leaders?"
It was not until near the end of his two-hour speech that Farrakhan shifted his remarks to talk about economic independence for blacks. He spoke with passion about building black businesses and supporting black-owned enterprises -- a theme reminiscent of the preachings of Elijah Muhammad.
"His Farrakhan's philosophy regarding economics has always been very sharp," said Wilbert Morrison, 45, owner of a transportation service company, before the speech. "I'll support anyone who encourages blacks to take advantage of the free enterprise system."
"This is the first year he has come up with a suggestion, a plan," said Lena Washington. "POWER is the way."
POWER, or People Organized to Work for Economic Rebirth, is a company Farrakhan set up with a $5 million interest-free loan he received from Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The company is expected to manufacture household detergents, soap and toothpaste.
Posters and fliers announcing the speech had indicated that Farrakhan would discuss POWER and reveal an economic strategy for blacks. But he spent most of his speech talking about other subjects, until he finally asked the audience: "I want to know, if we make our own toothpaste, mouthwash and deodorant, can you see yourself buying it?"
The room roared with cheers. "Can you see yourself brushing your teeth with POWER toothpaste? Can you see yourself saying, 'I feel strong because under my arm I got POWER?' "
Farrakhan has said that people are attracted to him because of his stand as a "strong, uncompromising voice among black people," that there has been a need for that voice in the "hearts of black people" since the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the death of Elijah Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad's son, Warith Deen Muhammad, took over the Nation of Islam after his father's death. The younger Muhammad, who studied Arabic and Islam in Cairo, sought to bring the religious group more in line with traditional Islam. He opened the group to all races and offered to work with whites to solve economic problems of blacks.
Because the Nation of Islam's debt was substantial, the new leader scrapped the group's unprofitable businesses; that paid the bills but alienated some of the membership.
Farrakhan opposed the changes in religion and policy, particularly the practice of working with whites to solve problems. As a result, Muhammad changed the name of the group several times. Farrakhan separated, taking with him other disenchanted members.
Warith Muhammad has since disbanded his group, thus freeing members to join Muslims throughout the world. The membership of Farrakhan's Nation of Islam is said to be about 10,000.