Jonathan A. Greenblatt is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
From Charleston to Baltimore and Ferguson, it’s undeniable that our country continues to wrestle with racism and inequality. But recently there have been some notable and hopeful developments — including bipartisan prison reform and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse.
This weekend in Washington, a major demonstration will take place that is billed as a call for justice yet is being organized and led by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of bigotry against whites, Jews and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The stated goals of Saturday’s commemoration of the 1995 “Million Man March” — including advocating for educational equity, ending police violence against people of color and addressing poverty and racism — are admirable and critically important. Tens of thousands of black men attending that first Million Man March two decades ago pledged to renounce violence except in self-defense and to “strive to love my brother, as I love myself.”
Yet Farrakhan has repeatedly rejected this central pledge of brotherly love. Instead, he frequently has promoted hatred — and not just years ago, but in the weeks leading up to this march.
At a promotional event in Milwaukee in August, Farrakhan said, “White people deserve to die, and they know, so they think it’s us coming to do it.”
In July in Miami, he told a crowd, “If the federal government will not intercede in our affairs, then we must rise up and kill those who kill us, stalk them and let them feel the pain of death that we are feeling.”
Over the summer in Detroit, Farrakhan called for the crowd to join him in Washington and said that tolerance of homosexuality in the United States was evidence of a “sick society.”
And at that same event, he said, “[Vice President] Biden said that Hollywood members of the Jewish community single-handedly made same-sex marriage legal. . . . You’re God’s chosen people? And you promote something that God rejects? You’ve lost your covenant status! You are not the chosen of God, you are the chosen of Satan! . . . You’re promoting homosexuality. God doesn’t. You promote filth. God condemns it!”
In the United States, the First Amendment protects every person’s right to say even the most hateful things. But generally, when extreme rhetoric, such as the quotes above, is expressed publicly, civic leaders, entertainment personalities and others of good will stand up to the hate speech and reject or marginalize the speaker. Unfortunately, we did not see that during Farrakhan’s recruitment tour.
Should Farrakhan get a pass because his broader message is focused on empowerment, addressing issues of racism and inequality that unfortunately endure in this country? The short answer is no.
But many people of good will seem to be willing to ignore or overlook Farrakhan’s hate speech, dismissing it as tangential to his main messages.
That is a mistake. As a society, we ignore such hate at our peril.
Most people in the huge crowd at the original Million Man March did not subscribe to Farrakhan’s message of hate. But while he did not display his bigotry at that rally, he never abandoned anti-Semitic tropes. Such intolerance has been a constant drumbeat in his speeches and writings for the past 20 years.
All Americans should be frustrated by economic and educational inequity and a dysfunctional criminal justice system. But Farrakhan undermines the push for equality and progress when he simultaneously promotes hatred and intolerance of others.
It is time for supporters of this weekend’s rally to take a public stance and embrace a message of equality and empowerment but reject messengers like Farrakhan who peddle bigotry and hate.
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