Last month, the Rev. James Meeks, a prominent black clergyman here, became embroiled in a dispute over the planned march of 1 million black men in Washington on Oct. 16 that is being orchestrated by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
In a letter to a select group of other black ministers that later became public, Meeks objected to the march on religious grounds. Noting that Farrakhan began his call for the march with the traditional Muslim proclamation that "there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Messenger," Meeks wrote:
"To say that there is no God but Allah declares Christ who is God nonexistent. How can we follow or allow our men to follow one who denounces our Christ?"
If Meeks's letter was meant to rally opposition to the march here in Farrakhan's home city, there is no evidence that it did so. Organizers of the march fired back with a sharply worded statement accusing Meeks of resorting to "this age-old tactic of divide and conquer" in an attempt to foster "a Christian backlash" against the march. Meeks, who did not respond to several requests for an interview, has had nothing more to say publicly about the march.
Indeed, while Farrakhan is one of the most controversial figures in the country, criticism by other black leaders and organizations of the march that he conceived has been scant and muted. In much of white America, Farrakhan is seen as a racist and antisemite who does not fit the image of a traditional civil rights leader such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesse L. Jackson.
But march supporters argue that the theme of the event -- a "Day of Atonement" in which black men pledge to take responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities -- has provoked a powerful response in black America that has overwhelmed any reservations about Farrakhan's role. That message "has struck a very deep chord and has transcended Farrakhan," said James Blake, a City University of New York professor and the march organizer for Queens.
According to Lu Palmer, a veteran civil rights activist here who is friendly with both Jackson and Farrakhan, a vacuum in national black leadership has helped the Nation of Islam leader to emerge as "the preeminent leader in the black community today," a status that will only be enhanced by a successful march in Washington.
"I think Jesse has faded and there just isn't another leader who has the confidence of black people that Farrakhan has," Palmer said. "He will gain greatly and the Nation will gain greatly" if the march comes off as planned.
"You can count on two or three fingers the black leaders who would be seen as major national leaders," he added. "Once you get by Jesse -- and I insist that Jesse has faded -- who do you have?"
March organizers in Chicago and other cities report strong grass-roots support for the march, as did a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll in which half of all blacks interviewed said they were aware of the march and an overwhelming majority of those said they backed the idea.
But this will not necessarily translate into 1 million black men marching through the streets of Washington this month. In the New York area, the hope is to produce 250,000 marchers, but organizers say they are not certain they will reach that goal. Conrad Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front in Chicago, predicted that total march participants will "easily" exceed 250,000, the number who marched with King in Washington in 1963.
The Chicago goal is to send 47,000 men to the march, Worrill said, although march organizers have reserved enough buses to carry fewer than half that number. Others will travel to Washington by other means, including chartered aircraft, he said.
In Philadelphia, the Rev. Ralph E. Blanks of the Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church said that interest in the march is strong "not only among our men but from the women of our congregation who want our men to be there and take part in it."
But also in Philadelphia, an exchange between Mayor Edward Rendell and Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, illustrated how, to Farrakhan's critics, the march's widely acclaimed theme cannot be separated from its creator.
Rendell endorsed the march as a means to focus attention on congressional budget cuts in social programs and as a way for "young black boys to see a large group of African American men doing something very, very positive." Morrison said he was troubled by Rendell's endorsement, saying that Farrakhan is a "messenger of hate" who will "reap great benefits as a result of this march."
Rendell, who is Jewish, replied, "I do think you can separate the message from the messenger," adding that "this march is a whole lot bigger than Louis Farrakhan."
That is a common theme among mainstream leaders and organizations that are supporting the march or who have maintained a low profile in their opposition. Last month, for example, the executive committee of the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, formally voted not to endorse the march.
The established leaders of the NAACP, who are held in contempt by Farrakhan and his allies, have kept a distance from the Nation of Islam and have strained relations with the march's national director, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who was ousted in 1994 as the NAACP's executive director because of allegations of personal and financial misconduct.
Nonetheless, Earl Shinhoster, acting NAACP executive director, plans to participate in the march and said there is "fairly strong" support for the march by local NAACP branch leaders.
"At the grass-roots level, this is an idea that resonates very, very strongly," Shinhoster said. "Perhaps this is one of those unique circumstances where the message is more powerful than the messenger."
"Farrakhan made the call, but the march belongs to us," said Bob Law, host of the only nationally broadcast black call-in radio show and New York City chairman of the march. "I don't want to minimize his role, but it would be the same thing if Jesse Jackson or Colin Powell had called for the march."
Mainstream black church leaders have approached the march warily. Of the six largest predominantly African American denominations in the country, the leaders of two have announced opposition to the march while three others are officially neutral. But these were decisions by national church leaders and are not binding on individual ministers, many of whom are reportedly urging their congregations to participate in the march and a related call for all blacks to stay away from work, school and other everyday activities on Oct. 16 in a show of solidarity.
Meanwhile, Farrakhan has assiduously courted other black leaders who might have felt threatened by his growing prominence as the march's creator and de facto leader. These include Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton in New York, who initially said he feared the march would subordinate Baptists to Muslims, elevate Farrakhan at the expense of more established African American leaders and play into "Newt Gingrich's stereotype of black men."
But by last week, when Farrakhan flew to New York to attend Sharpton's 41st birthday celebration, the New Yorker was firmly on board as a march supporter. Several march organizers said Sharpton and other late-comers "jumped on a moving train," but Sharpton maintains he responded to Farrakhan's request for help after being assured that the event will be ecumenical, not Muslim-dominated, and that it will not be "anti- any group on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or sex."
In Chicago, Meeks's silence since his initial opposition to the march also appeared to reflect a growing sense of grass-roots momentum behind the event. Meeks, who heads the Illinois chapter of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, wrote his letter to the other ministers in August. Some black Chicago leaders suggested that it may have been a ploy to prevent Farrakhan from eclipsing Jackson on the national stage.
Whatever Meeks's motivation, the public dispute over the letter served as "a rallying cry" that swept aside the initial reluctance of many black church leaders here to join forces with Farrakhan, said Robert L. Storman, a spokesman for march organizers in the Midwest. "We needed something to get this campaign out of the mud," he said. "That was the spark that ignited the fuse."
By September, Jackson, like Sharpton, had endorsed the march. So, too, had one of the most prominent members of Meeks's congregation, Jesse Jackson Jr., son of the two-time Democratic presidential contender who has launched his own political career with a run for the House seat vacated by convicted sex offender Mel Reynolds (D).
The younger Jackson will not participate in the march because of campaign commitments but views it as "positive," said Delmarie Cobb, his press secretary. Staff writer Dale Russakoff in New York and special correspondent Debbie Goldberg in Philadelphia contributed to this report. CAPTION: Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, foreground, and Benjamin F. Chavis, Million Man March organizers, during recent event at Howard University.