As Maximum Leader Louis Farrakhan delivered his rambling, paranoid, and nearly endless speech to cap off Monday’s historic Million Man March, it became clear what the Nation of Islam minister felt his listeners should really atone for. Blacks and whites had to atone for leveling harsh words at him, for denying him sole credit for the migration of black men to Washington, and for trying to deprive him of his rightful status among the Biblical prophets as a true messenger of God.
“Whether you like it or not, God brought the idea through me,” Farrakhan proclaimed at the outset of his two-hour-and-20-minute Sermon on the Mall.
Farrakhan singled out President Bill Clinton as a particular sinner. Clinton had committed the cardinal offense of dissing the Muslim leader during his Monday-morning speech in Texas denouncing racism. One march speaker praised that speech as the best of Clinton’s career. But Farrakhan didn’t see it that way. Throughout his long- running talk, Farrakhan spoke directly to the president in a tone of injured pride.
“Sir, with all due respect, that was a great speech you gave,” Farrakhan lectured Clinton from his national bully pulpit. “But, of course, you spoke ill indirectly of me.”
When Farrakhan finally got around to directing his message of atonement to the throngs of black men standing before him, he delivered valuable words about rebuilding African-American lives and communities in a divided nation. But that exhortation came near the end of his speech, after a chaotic jumble of facts, figures, and ideology blaming the problems of African-Americans squarely on “the control mechanisms of our former slave-masters and their children.”
Farrakhan also devoted an early portion of his talk to his weird theories of numerology and his idea that the design of the Mall is “a secret Masonic ritual” that symbolizes America’s inherent racism. A few years back, aides to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)—whom Farrakhan denounced by name Monday—spent considerable time developing the theory that the Mall had been laid out in the form of some pagan symbol. In this era of increasing polarization and conspiracy, the extremes on all sides may find themselves meeting each other—probably on the Constitution Avenue axis of the Masonic pentagram.
The massive crowd of black men appeared much larger than the official estimate of 400,000, but far below the organizers’ figure of 1.5 million, and Cora Masters Lady MacBarry‘s hyperbolic claim of “nearly 2 million.” But the actual size seemed insignificant in the face of the organizers’ success in convening a huge, tranquil gathering. The national commons had the feel of a gigantic church service as men stood quietly for hours, listening attentively to the messages delivered by the speakers.
One of the better speeches of the afternoon, surprisingly, came from the Rev. Al Sharpton, who sounded like Jesse Jackson circa 1984 as he preached racial harmony and political activism. Referring to the so-called revolt of the angry white man in last year’s congressional elections, Sharpton said, “Get ready, America, for the story of 1996, when the enlightened black man votes in a new Congress.”
Jackson also proved he can still talk the talk. He declaimed against the legal inequities that send blacks to jail for possessing small amounts of crack while whites get probation or short sentences for possessing larger amounts of powder cocaine. But the Jacksonian era has passed, at least with many of the marchers. Few in the audience joined in his chants, a greatest-hits medley that included such classic cuts as “I Am Somebody,” “Down With Dope,” and “Keep Hope Alive.”
Jackson also irritated Farrakhan followers by stating that the conservative political agenda had inspired the colossal turnout. “Minister Farrakhan didn’t organize the march,” Jackson said. “Clarence Thomas and Gingrich organized the march.”
But Jackson seemed to be in the minority. Despite months of minimizing his involvement and keeping his name away from the march, Farrakhan confirmed what many had suspected all along: The event was about him, after all. The Nation of Islam leader carefully situated himself as the keynote speaker and, therefore, as heir to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And he ensured that speakers who would praise him (including Rep. Charles Rangel [D-N.Y.]) and espouse his brand of black nationalism got a great deal of time at the podium.
After Farrakhan’s erratic performance in his first major televised address, the question of whether anyone can succeed King remains an open one. Many marchers, such as 23-year-old Detroit auto worker Omari Griffin, came to Washington to show solidarity with their black brethren, not to deify Farrakhan. “I’m not in the Nation of Islam,” he said. “I’m just here for the cause: unity.”
But no matter which new leaders emerge in the nation’s black community, those on the Mall stated by their presence that outsiders would not make the choice. “We’re tired of everybody telling us who our leaders are and who can be our friends,” said Larry Protho, a 47-year-old businessman from Gary, Ind. “That’s something we have to decide on as a people.”
NORTON’S BIG CHILL
Fear that the tortured spirit of D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke had invaded the body of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton gripped LL last week when we picked up the phone to hear Norton shrieking: “YOU’RE LYING! YOU’RE LYING!”
After a few moments, Norton calmed down enough for LL to figure out what had prompted her stellar imitation of the volcanic Clarke. The spark for Norton’s explosion was a paragraph in LL’s column last week in which we tried to sum up her position on a congressional proposal to pump $42-45 million into the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Acting MPD Chief Larry Soulsby and his officers are eager to get the money, which would pay for additional officers, 99 new squad cars, and computers that would reduce time spent on cumbersome arrest and crime reports.
“You made that up, fella,” a furious Norton said of LL’s description of her views. “Try to get it straight!”
Norton said that it is true, as LL reported, that she regards the proposal put forth by Rep. Fred Heineman (R-N.C.) as “smoke and mirrors” because the money has not been included in the D.C. appropriations bill pending before Congress. But Norton insisted that it is not true that she fears the money could come burdened with conditions that trample home rule.
If Congress funds the bonus, Norton vows, the aid will come with no restrictions that would violate the city’s right to self-government. She claimed she has convinced Heineman and the House Republican leadership that such conditions would be a mistake.
Norton also said she does not oppose the Heineman proposal. Nor does she worry that Congress would deduct the crime aid from the city’s $660-million annual federal payment (although her spokesperson, Donna Brazile, still considers that a possibility).
Why is Norton so certain about all this? Because House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told her so, that’s why.
“The Speaker has given me his personal commitment that there would be no money deducted,” Norton said during last week’s phone confrontation. “He said, “Eleanor, not 1 cent out of your money.’ ”
And, she added, “I have a commitment from the Speaker on home rule.”
“Where are we on Heineman? Basically, we’re not talking, because there is nothing to talk about yet. You have led my people out here to believe that I’ve got $42 million in my hand and I’m sitting on [it]. You ought to know me better than that,” she told LL indignantly.
Norton said she does not object to bypassing the mayor and the D.C. Council and giving the money directly to the police department. “Why would I want to give the city a slush fund?” she asked.
Just six hours before Norton exploded at LL, she attended the Oct. 13 funeral of slain MPD officer Scott Lewis. Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. also attended the funeral, which attracted 1,300 mourners to the National Cathedral. Hizzoner came despite the wish of Arlene Lewis, the slain officer’s mother, that he stay away. According to a police source, MPD officials had told the mayor of Arlene Lewis’ objections before the service.
Barry’s presence also irritated some police officers, who view him as hostile to the thin blue line. These cops are enraged that Barry did not attempt to visit officer Lewis at D.C. General until just hours before he was unplugged from life support systems—and died—on Oct. 9. Arlene Lewis turned Barry away from the hospital before Hizzoner saw her son. The mayor has not spoken out publicly on officer Lewis’ death, but he did offer his condolences privately to the grieving mother at last week’s funeral. Then he left, well before services had ended.
That evening, Norton turned out for a vigil at 14th and H Streets NW, the corner where Lewis was shot. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas also appeared at the event, which drew nearly 200 residents, MPD officers, and members of the National Guard. The presence of the politicians—especially Thomas—upset many in the crowd. Earlier this year, Thomas had joined other councilmembers in voting to cut MPD’s pay.
At the end of the march down H Street, Norton and Thomas gathered before waiting TV cameras. At that point, Capitol Hill anti-crime activist Sally Byington urged residents and officers to cross the street so that the politicians would stand largely alone.
“We’re not here for the politicians; we’re not here for the media,” Byington said. “Our goal is to clean up H Street for Scott. We don’t know how we’re going to do it, but it’s going to be a total approach.”
Fraternal Order of Police Chairman JC Stamps said of Norton afterward, “I did not appreciate her coming there. She’s clouding the issue: She opposes the [money] for the officers and yet she comes.”
During the impromptu news conference near the spot where her son was gunned down, Arlene Lewis told Norton, “If you really want to help, then go to the federal government and get that money for the police.”
Norton promised to call her friend Gingrich and see what could be done.