Now that Louis Farrakhan has completed his 14-city tour of America, the response of America's black leaders needs to be closely examined. They have argued that Farrakhan's message of black economic hope is worth extracting from the message of anti-Semitism in which it is always embedded.
In Washington he talked of economic self- sufficiency for blacks and the "wickedness of Jews." In Los Angeles he called on blacks to make "an exodus" to economic self-reliance in their communities. To Jews he said: "Don't push your 6 million down our throats when we lost 100 million (to slavery)." And in New York when he asked the crowd of 24,000 "if Jews who are angry with me are righteous people?" they rose to their feet and roared back, "No!"
In all three cities prominent black leaders, including two mayors, refused to denounce Farrakhan until after he delivered his anti-Semitic message.
New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel wrote in a letter to The Washington Post: "I believe that in our society the First Amendment requires that we defend the right to speak even when we despise the message."
Rangel is making the same argument made by a Los Angeles Times editorial two days after Farrakhan spoke in Southern California. The editorial said: "We as a newspaper chose to wait for we wanted to avoid violating the rights of free speech with comments that might be construed as prior censorship." This is a peculiar definition of censorship: criticizing a man who has made a series of virulently anti-Semitic speeches before he makes yet another.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley promised black leaders to withhold comment until after Farrakhan spoke, and it took the Washington Jewish community almost eight weeks to persuade Mayor Marion Barry to make a statement criticizing Farrakhan. On Sept. 9 he grudgingly conceded that Farrakhan's anti- Semitism "didn't help our city at all."
Civil rights leader Julian Bond when asked on Cable News Network's "Crossfire" whether he condemns Farrakhan, said: "I renounce his anti-Semitism." Later in the program he said: "I praise him for what I take to be the positive part of his message. I condemn him for what I know to be the hateful hate-filled portion of his message . . . but you've got to ask yourself what is he saying to these people? Are they coming to listen to him condemn Jews or are they coming to listen to him speak a message of uplift and hope? . . I think it is the latter, not the former. . . . I think that's a positive message."
When Bradley spoke after Farrakhan's appearance in California, he said: "I am sure there are many people who agree with much of what he said last night. He talked about economic development."
While there is some truth to both of these statements, they dangerously miss the point. Farrakhan does not deliver two separate messages. His message of hope is built on a message of hate. The black Muslim minister has linked black poverty to the myth of Jewish exploitation in a classic example of anti-Semitic manipulation. Here are his own words from a speech given to an aroused crowd in Youngstown, Ohio, in July 1984:
"Blacks and Jews have gotten along well -- well because one is a dependent and one is independent . . . well because one is a little slave and the other a master." Later in the same speech he said: "I know that black people will never be free until the stranglehold that Jewish leadership has on the black community is broken completely." And more recently, in his Washington speech in July he asserted that: "black people will not be controlled by Jews."
What too many people, black leaders among them, have failed to acknowledge is that Farrakhan's mixed message of hope and hate is directed at people who are vulnerable because they are so desperate for economic self-reliance that they are particularly susceptible to scapegoating of this kind.
Farrakhan cannot be allowed to escape responsibility for taking advantage of such people; nor can his anti-Semitism be treated as a sidelight. It's part and parcel of his message.