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Slouching Toward Washington

They say that Malcolm X liked to quote a line from Aesop, “Even when you are dead, you can get even with an enemy.” He can certainly worry some whites from the grave, as evidenced by the anxiety surrounding the making and release three years ago of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, a film as harmless as Gandhi. But the momentary fashion for “X” caps and “By Any Means Necessary” T-shirts, the possibility that young black men might be influenced by Malcolm X’s inspired belligerence, set off a delirium of alarm, even though The Autobiography of Malcolm X has never been out of print.

Malcolm X died estranged from the Nation of Islam, the cult his charisma had done so much to broaden into a movement. Among those who expressed an unsavory satisfaction in the heretic’s punishment was Louis Farrakhan. As Malcolm X’s protégé, the suspicion goes, Farrakhan had to reassure the jealous Elijah Muhammad.

The Nation of Islam first permitted its members to vote in 1966, around the time that the civil rights movement left the red roads of the South and came up North to falter among the concrete towers. The National Guard was called in to put out fires, more whites left town, plenty of businesses and some blacks followed them. While the Vietnam War spread the mystique of revolution, racial solidarity and group autonomy, supported by rediscovered episodes of US history such as Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, seemed like alternative faiths or secret passageways to power. The exasperated pointed to Muhammad as the most successful disciple of Booker T. Washington’s program of economic self-sufficiency, but blacks on campuses were busy arguing over the validity of armed self-defense and the legacy of Malcolm X.

In his lifetime Malcolm X brought large numbers of young people into what had been an organization composed mostly of the middle-aged. In death he introduced the children of the black middle class and the students everyone expected to become middle-class to what had been, historically, black working-class sentiments about race redemption. Garveyism had been most attractive to the laboring masses who migrated from the South around World War I. Garvey’s movement fell apart in the 1920s, but it left behind in its urban settings a deep feeling about the ancestral destiny of blacks. The founder of Harlem’s largest sect of black Jews had been Garvey’s director of music. Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Poole in Sandersville, Georgia, in 1897, moved to Detroit in 1923 and became a corporal in the local Garvey group. During the Depression he met W.D. Fard, founder of the Temple of Islam, whose ideas were a mixture of millenarianism and Garveyism. When Fard inexplicably vanished from the scene, Poole, now Muhammad, claimed that Fard was the Messiah, the Mahdi, and eventually he left Detroit to spread the Messiah’s truth. Perhaps this tradition of making converts to racial mysticism among those who had left the South explains why separatists, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, always sounded like city slickers trying to wise up countrified cousins just off the bus.

Muhammad had once predicted that Armageddon would come in 1970, but it was difficult to connect him with the Black Muslims who perished the following year in Attica. He trusted in God’s solution, but in 1973 rumors began to circulate that the Nation of Islam’s financial empire was crumbling. The Nation of Islam chain of clothing stores and bakeries may have been overvalued in the public mind to begin with. A three-million-dollar loan was said to have been obtained from Libya and there was some talk that financial difficulties had brought about a shift in the policy of no contact with white devils and that this pragmatism had led to internal strife. Some weakness at the center was suggested by what looked like a collapse in discipline at the outposts. Stories appeared about sectarian murders of Muslims in Washington, D.C., in New Jersey, about Muslim involvement in murder cases in Baton Rouge in 1972 and in San Francisco in 1973. Muhammad countered that they were not affiliated with his temples. In those days everything made sense as an FBI conspiracy once it had been denounced as such. The Nation of Islam had had run-ins with the FBI since the 1930s.

The Dear Holy Apostle was reportedly ailing and Farrakhan became increasingly visible as press spokesman for the Nation of Islam, much as Malcolm X had been before him. He addressed the Black Solidarity Rally in Harlem in 1971 and attended the National Black Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Later that year a violent police confrontation at the Harlem mosque resulted in allegations of police misconduct and a Muslim campaign to have only black policemen deployed in Harlem. Malcolm X, too, had first come to the attention of the New York press during a militant standoff with police in 1957. An observer of those days told me that Muhammad was probably contemptuous of Farrakhan for such claims. As with Malcolm X, he really didn’t like his people making themselves conspicuous, because that brought him to the attention of the IRS.

When Muhammad died in 1975, Farrakhan did not succeed him. One of his sons, Wallace Deen Muhammad, was affirmed as leader. He wanted to bring the group closer to conventional Islamic teachings, and within a year of his father’s death he had repudiated the doctrine about white devils and had even invited whites to join. Muhammad Speaks became Bilalian News. In 1977 Farrakhan, who had been transferred from Harlem’s Mosque #7 to Chicago headquarters, broke with the younger Muhammad over his conciliatory policies. Some of Farrakhan’s children had married some of Elijah Muhammad’s grandchildren. Muhammad’s illegitimate children sued for their portion. It looked like a corporate family soap opera along the lines of Dynasty. The Nation of Islam split into various factions. Wallace Deen Muhammad eventually renamed his group the American Muslim Mission and moved to California.

The son was free of the father, but his rival still had need of the father’s imprimatur. Farrakhan revived Elijah Muhammad’s litany. In 1981 he declared that Muhammad had been resurrected. By bringing the Messenger back from the dead he could revise the act of succession and make himself heir. In 1983 he said that a hurricane that had swept through Texas was Muhammad’s revenge for the execution of a Black Muslim in that state. That Muhammad’s presence was immanent removed an obstruction for Farrakhan. Unburdened of Muhammad’s watchful dollarism, Farrakhan could then insinuate himself where Malcolm X had not been allowed to. He endorsed Harold Washington’s candidacy for mayor of Chicago in 1983, but it was through his fraternal association with Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid in 1984 that he perfected a talent for outrage and became an American celebrity.

In the task of remaking and expanding his constituency it helped Farrakhan that Reagan was in office, that deregulation of capital made every day look like White Collar Crime Day to the poor, that conservative judicial appointments seemed to most blacks like the determination of whites to take up the drawbridge, because, as Baldwin had explained years before in Nobody knows My Name, though one could not accept their conclusions, it was “quite impossible to argue with a Muslim concerning the actual state of Negroes in this country.” It also helped that Farrakhan was so richly despised, because that more than anything gave him the aura of a true black leader. His defenders boasted that King had also been reviled by many whites in his day. The loathing Farrakhan conjured up was all the persuasion he needed with young black men who believed he spoke for them, the outcast, the demonized, and the very image of the black man we were about to be asked to chastise ourselves for at the Million Man March.

In 1985, gauntlets of security guards, the Fruit of Islam, had rapidly frisked each of the men who were part of that October night’s huge audience waiting to enter New York’s Madison Square Garden to hear Farrakhan speak. The formality said that we were being transferred to another jurisdiction, removed from the sidewalks, where policemen gave the orders, to the arena, where authority belonged to Farrakhan. “Power at Last,” his cassette and videotape was titled. Ten years later the Fruit of Islam are famously on offer as bodyguards. There are reports that the Nation of Islam has been awarded security contracts at housing projects, television stations, and cultural festivals in various cities. Whereas in the old days the Black Muslims had rehabilitated individuals by urging them to surrender to their collective identity, the community service the Nation of Islam is now praised for is that of reclaiming neighborhoods through the sheer force of its reputation. Having tamed themselves they hold out the promise to tame others.

I heard more than once on the Mall that Sunday afternoon that the Nation of Islam deserved credit for chasing drug dealers from black neighborhoods, such as a part of northwest Washington the police wouldn’t go into. Most whites and the middle class in general live emotionally and visually isolated from people who feel their neighborhoods are abandoned and under siege. Back up Pennsylvania Avenue, on Freedom Plaza, I watched a group of nine teen-agers, all male, riding skateboards in the five o’clock sun. Their shirttails and the flags high above them answered the breeze. They were white, black, and Asian, but what made them seem so upper-class was that they were clearly there together.


That evening the hall of display tables and people in African costume at the Washington Convention Center’s pre-march “Prayer and Praise” rally resembled Black Expos, those trade fairs that have become an annual event on the civic calendar of most US cities. Inside the large auditorium itself, the delegate-like section seating reminded me of NAACP conventions. When we stood for “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem, I half expected to hear my mother’s alto at my shoulder.

Services in black churches turn easily into protest meetings, and civil rights meetings have long been conducted as prayer services, but this was a fundamentalist crusade. One speechmaker after another swore that “the devil must be mad because he’d lost the souls he thought he had,” or proclaimed that when black men said they shall not be moved the whole black nation stood still “in a divine way.” We saluted upper bleachers of male figures dressed in white, the Turn Germantown Around group that had walked all the way from Philadelphia. Marion Barry welcomed us. “He’s a black man and not afraid to be one,” the M.C. bellowed. We were going to march for the living, the dead, and the unborn, for the grieving families of gunned-down black youth, for the black children born out of wedlock, for the “millions” of black boys and girls on drugs. “Somebody needs to march for Kunta Kinte.” “If they kill you, just rise again.” Former Congressman Walter Fauntroy in his guise as a pastor began to croon one of those old favorites with many verses.

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