Rep. Charles Rangel, who once had the courage to take on and indeed defeat Adam Clayton Powell, has now been intimidated by Louis Farrakhan. The commander-in-chief of the Nation of Islam is coming to New York's Madison Square Garden next week, and Rangel was asked for a comment on the visitation. He told The Daily News that he would neither renounce nor repudiate Minister Farrakhan because "there are some constitutional questions there as to freedom of speech."

Mr. Rangel would appear to be hiding behind the First Amendment, which was intended to be a shield but not a camouflage jacket. The congressman is trying to imply that in order to respect Farrakhan's First Amendment rights, he must relinquish his own right to speak on the matter of Farrakhan and anti-Semitism. Is this the kind of lesson in freedom of speech that the congressman gives when he speaks to the schoolchildren of his district? Does he tell them that they can't answer a virulent racist because if they do, they would be violating the racist's First Amendment rights?

Like many black leaders around the country, when it comes to Farrakhan, Rangel is less concerned about anybody's First Amendment rights than with not getting caught in the cross fire between the minister and his favorite target -- Jews. There is also the fear that he might alienate those of his own constituents who may admire Farrakhan.

During last year's presidential primaries, I asked Denny Farrell, the Manhattan Democratic county leader, why he and other prominent blacks were being so resolutely silent as Farrakhan brought back memories of another cleric, Father Charles E. Coughlin, with a musical voice and a message equating social justice with hatred of Jews. Farrell told me that he thoroughly disagreed with Farrakhan, but that he would not be saying anything until the primaries were over for fear of doing injury to the black unity behind Jesse Jackson.

But after the primaries, Farrell still evaded the subject, and most of the rest of New York's black leader have also been strategically silent. (A sudden notable exception is David Dinkins, soon to become Manhattan borough president. Of course Farrakhan has the right to free speech, says Dinkins, but the silence of others can suggest assent to what he is saying.)

Farrakhan is shrewd. He says, for instance, that "the Jews have an iron grip on the politicians." Therefore, any politicians, including black politicians, who take issue with Farrakhan reveal that they are in thrall to Jews. Those who do not criticize Farrakhan show themselves, thereby, to be "independent."

For instance, Nathan Perlmutter, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith, quotes from the Los Angeles Times a statement by the chairwoman of economic development for the NAACP's Southern California Area Conference: "The black leadership, and rightly so, is not interested in being dictated to by the Jewish leadership as to when and if they repudiate Louis Farrakhan. There is a strong sentiment in the black community and among the black leadership that the Jewish community has had too much dominance, influence and control."

Perlmutter notes that as Farrakhan barnstorms from city to city to send out the twin beacons of economic self-sufficiency and the "wickedness" of Jews, black public officials in those cities have been importuned by Jewish leaders to speak out against Farrakhan.

Is this, Perlmutter asks, what Jews should be doing? "At this stage in our communal maturity," he says, should Jews "go about 'imploring' people to please, pretty please, condemn anti-Semitism? Our pride aside, how meaningful is a criticism of anti- Semitism which has to be cajoled?"

It was never said about Malcolm X that he could be cajoled by anyone. Around 1963, he was speaking at Wayne State University in Detroit. After his talk, the moderator invited questions, and a student rose and delivered a fierce anti-Semitic speech more or less in the form of a question.

At the podium, Malcolm X looked at the moderator and then at the student, saying, "I suspect our moderator is Jewish, and I won't put him in the position of silencing you, so I'm afraid I'm going to have you to ask you to shut up."

Okay, better he should have debated the questioner than telling him to shut up, but at least Malcolm X did not pretend that the question reflected an acceptable point of view or could be ignored. However, Farrakhan might say that Malcolm X was one of those blacks in the iron grip of the Jews.