Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said yesterday that America remains rife with racism that keeps too many blacks poor, uneducated and out of work and that to overcome it, black Americans must unite and draw strength from one another.
Farrakhan, in Washington for the events to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March, including a rally tomorrow on the Mall, blasted federal anti-poverty efforts over the last 30 years as hypocritical attempts to either win votes or temporarily pacify the downtrodden. But, in keeping with his self-help message, Farrakhan said that before any progress can be made, black people must spend less and produce more rather than immediately seek government help.
"We're tired of begging others to do for us what we have the capacity to do for ourselves," he said. "If you don't have a desire to help yourself, nobody will help you."
His comments came during a wide-ranging news conference at the National Press Club in which he touched on police brutality, the state of the education system and his own personal growth over the decades.
Looking well after a bout with prostate cancer, Farrakhan was characteristically defiant and blunt -- decrying the Bush administration and chiding his critics for seeking to have other black leaders repudiate him for remarks they perceive as sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic. His rebuttal was this: Mind your own business.
"Go talk to black people," he said. "We are in the room because our people need our unity. It's our business. And we're going to take care of our business."
Those critics include the Anti-Defamation League, which, on its Web site yesterday, termed the event a "sideshow." David Bernstein, Washington director of the American Jewish Committee, said that Farrakhan's involvement mars the event, regardless of its purpose.
"It taints everybody," Bernstein said. "We think it's regrettable."
Farrakhan moved this week to soothe a rift within his movement over attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. In July, the Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington and the national executive director for tomorrow's gathering, said in a sermon at his church that lesbians were about to take over and that black women who earn more than men are partly to blame for breaking up families -- notions widely criticized. But this week, Farrakhan offered Keith Boykin, president of the National Black Justice Coalition, which advocates for gay rights, a speaking slot on tomorrow's program. There was no gay representation among speakers 10 years ago, and that has been a source of estrangement in the black gay, lesbian and bisexual community ever since.
"It is our most sincere hope that this portends a new chapter in the story of how we liberated our community from the prison of homophobia," said H. Alexander Robinson, executive director of the coalition, in a statement. "This chapter is about reconciliation, education and acceptance of the gifts and talents that gay people of African descent have and will continue to contribute to the quest to lift up our people."
Organizers said yesterday that 3,000 buses and tens of thousands of cars will converge on Washington beginning tonight for tomorrow's gathering, called the Millions More Movement. Speeches and music begin at 5:30 a.m. A series of events at Freedom Plaza, sponsored by black gays and lesbians, will also take place throughout the day.
Minister Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, who was the national director of the Million Man March, said he was unsure if the numbers this time will rival those of a decade ago, when hundreds of thousands showed up.
But Muhammad said the goal 10 years ago was to draw as many participants to the Mall as possible, and this time the idea is to mobilize for the long term. Work groups have been meeting for months and have promised to provide specific tasks and direction for attendees to take back to their communities. Unlike a decade ago, Muhammad said, he has compiled e-mail addresses and phone numbers for each of the organizing committees.
"This is not a joy ride," Muhammad said, referring to the joyous nature of events surrounding the Million Man March. "People are coming out of desperation. They want a better quality of life."
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast has become a rallying point. The slow response by federal agencies and the tens of thousands of people left stranded in New Orleans -- most of them black -- showed how programs to alleviate poverty have failed, Farrakhan said.
Like other black leaders, Farrakhan said that relief efforts were slow because most of those who needed help were poor and black. "It is tragic," he said, "that Katrina took the mask off of poverty . . . in the richest country in the world."
Farrakhan also reiterated a concern that has been voiced by large numbers of evacuees from New Orleans: the possibility that the levees were intentionally blown up, sacrificing poor people to save those better off. Asked by one reporter if people would think he was "nuts" for raising the issue, Farrakhan said, "It is the responsibility of government to prove the rumor false."
"People will say, 'Oh that's preposterous. There goes Farrakhan again,' " he said.
But he reminded people that blacks and Native Americans have plenty of reason to be suspicious of government, and he mentioned the Tuskegee experiment, in which medical treatment was withheld from black men with syphilis in a U.S. Public Health Service study of the long-term effects of the disease, making them involuntary guinea pigs. Farrakhan said that while he has moved away from an entirely black nationalist agenda, he has not forgotten the wrongs of the past.
"I have not always loved America," he told reporters yesterday. "I saw the wickedness of American hypocrisy toward black people."