BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last Sunday in Detroit, Louis Farrakhan gave what was billed as his last public speech. [CLIP]: [APPLAUSE] MINISTER: Here is the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan! [CHEERS, APPLAUSE] [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: He said his time was up, and his final call was for reconciliation. [CLIP]:
LOUIS FARRAKHAN: Brown and black and red against white or white against brown, black and red—I don’t want to see that. I want to see one nation. VOICES IN CONGREGATION: One nation! That’s right! LOUIS FARRAKHAN: Under God. We all can live in peace. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The papers were respectful. “Nation of Islam at a Crossroad as Leader Exits” solemnly noted The New York Times on page one. “Farrakhan Preaches Peace” observed The Washington Post on page three. It was a far cry from 1994 when Time magazine correspondent Sylvester Monroe suggested a story on Farrakhan. Monroe later said that the editors first proposed the cover line “Ministry of Hate,” but he argued that it failed to capture Farrakhan’s appeal to many African-Americans.
They compromised on “Ministry of Rage” but Farrakhan wasn’t always the Minister of Rage. Once he called himself The Charmer, back when he sang calypso. [SOUND CLIP]: [CALYPSO MUSIC] LOUIS FARRAKHAN: [SINGS] If you want to be happy/ Living a king’s life/ Never make a pretty woman your wife/ If you want to be happy/ Living a king’s life/ Never make a pretty woman your wife. [END CLIP] [CALYPSO MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was as The Charmer in 1955 that he first encountered the Nation of Islam and gave up the music world. He rose through the ranks of the NOI but left when the son of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad sought to move the faith closer to traditional Islam.
In the late ‘70s, Farrakhan decided to rebuild the Nation of Islam along its original lines, focused on “white devils” and racial separation. The mainstream press pretty much ignored him, until, in 1984, presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, during a chat with a black Washington Post reporter, referred to New York City as Hymietown. ARTHUR MAGIDA: Then a certain Jewish group, the Jewish Defense League, which has a minuscule membership, picketed against Jesse Jackson. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arthur Magida is the author of Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation. ARTHUR MAGIDA: Farrakhan rushed to his defense, saying in a sense, Jews, you harm this brother, it’ll be the last brother you ever touch, and there was this volley of harsh words. Farrakhan was called The New Hitler. Farrakhan then said that Hitler was great, wickedly great. Then he called Judaism, or certain practitioners of Judaism followers of, quote, “a dirty religion” and it has gone downhill ever since. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Farrakhan said that the Washington Post reporter who quoted Jackson on Hymietown would be punished with death. Salim Muwakkil, Chicago Tribune columnist, senior editor of In These Times and a former member of the Nation of Islam, has covered Farrakhan for years. He says that Farrakhan found the mainstream media easy to manipulate. SALIM MUWAKKIL: I guess you could see it as Farrakhan’s genius. Indeed, the Nation of Islam was classically racist when it called white people devils, and said that they essentially were incapable of acting with justice.
But he has transformed that rhetoric so that white devil is no longer white people. It’s the attitude of white supremacy, and so Farrakhan has been altering that racist message since his assumption of leadership. BROOKE GLADSTONE: He’d play with the mainstream press, extending his hand across race lines and snatching it back again. SALIM MUWAKKIL: And he’s done it by occasionally being outrageous in the press and alternately, conciliatory and contrite. He’s managed to calibrate his message in a way that maintains his credibility with his hardcore followers, and flirts with mainstream respectability but doesn’t quite get it. But I think that’s by design. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Farrakhan played the media like a violin, literally. As a child, he trained as a violinist. His first national exposure was as a prodigy on Ted Mack’s famous Amateur Hour.
But the media paid a lot more attention when he picked up his fiddle in April 1993. [VIOLIN MUSIC]
SALIM MUWAKKIL: That all started with an invitation for Farrakhan to play Mendelssohn I believe in North Carolina, with a small orchestra. ARTHUR MAGIDA: When word got out that he was playing Mendelssohn—Mendelssohn was born Jewish. He converted out of Judaism [LAUGHS]when he was eight, nine, ten years old. That part, though, was overlooked--it was received as Farrakhan’s musical overture towards the Jewish community. [VIOLIN MUSIC] That episode I think was misinterpreted and Louis Farrakhan, being a really smart, savvy guy, allowed it to be misinterpreted. SALIM MUWAKKIL: In some ways I think the media wants him to reform, and they’re pulling for him to make this transition. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Salim Muwakkil.
SALIM MUWAKKIL: Whenever they pull overtly, I think he says something outrageous to chasten them. [CLIP]: LOUIS FARRAKHAN: Why should we pay taxes for a police department that kills our grandmothers? [CHEERS, APPLAUSE] Kills our babies? Shoots us down? [END OF CLIP] ERNEST SMITH: I was sort of taken with something Cornell West said the other day. He said there’s a little bit of Louis Farrakhan in every African-American. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ernest Smith chairs the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University. ERNEST SMITH: And I think what he meant by that is that Louis Farrakhan is essentially an African-American man who wasn’t really beholden to any sort of white power structure, and he can say whatever he wants to about anybody. And I think that there is that sort of vicarious delight that maybe some African-Americans get in what Farrakhan will say, because he isn’t really limited. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here’s what he said to Mike Wallace on CBS in the mid-90s, when Wallace said that Nigeria was the most corrupt nation on earth. LOUIS FARRAKAHN: Have Nigeria dropped an atomic bomb and killed people in, in Hiroshima, in Nagasaki? Have they killed off millions of Native Americans? How dare you put yourself in that position as a moral judge! I think you should keep quiet. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ernest Smith says there are two things to remember about Farrakhan. ERNEST SMITH: First of all, the sort of demonization of him in mainstream media as America’s Bigot-in-Chief actually did make him more popular, and he seemed to understand that. And then there was this image of him that he put forth himself in his newspaper, The Final Call, which is essentially the penny press of the ghetto.
You could go in any inner-city black neighborhood in this country and find one of these young men out in the street selling this paper, and in that what we got was this image of this man who really loved his people, who was going to stand up for his people against the white people and that was the only person that really, truly could speak a certain sort of truth to—particularly an urban under-class African-American audience. You know, pull yourself up. Don’t look for a hand-out. Believe in God. Take care of your children. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In October 1995, Farrakhan gathered hundreds of thousands of black men on the Washington Mall for what he called the Million Man March. The media were impressed with his emphasis on family, clean living, self-reliance. They missed his other message, that assimilation would not lead to fulfillment. ERNEST SMITH: So you will see, you know, middle-class, upper-middle-class young African-Americans, going to the Million Man March. What was that but an expression of their longing for a sense of community that, in a sense, assimilation that taken them from.
Since that longing, since that sense of spiritual isolation continues, I think there will be a need for a voice like his, and so I think we’ll probably see this theme again. Who it will be, I don’t know. BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the media missed that theme, what did they get from the Farrakhan story? I asked Arthur Magida. ARTHUR MAGIDA: What did the media get out of it? The media got great covers. Oh look, there’s a black man being angry! Isn’t that scary! Well, I think it’s incumbent [LAUGHS] upon the media to always examine why any man is angry or why any woman is angry.
There was such a great tendency with Farrakhan to reduce him to this cardboard figure. Black man is railing at White America! Look out! BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you’re Jewish, right? ARTHUR MAGIDA: Yes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You spent a lot of time with Farrakhan. Did you like him? ARTHUR MAGIDA: I was fascinated, intrigued, repelled, disturbed by Louis Farrakhan. I was infuriated by his rhetoric and yet he can be perfectly charming. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And of course, his name way back when, when he sang calypso? ARTHUR MAGIDA: It was The Charmer. And it’s that charm that he was born with, that to an extraordinary degree has carried him to where he is today. [CALYPSO MUSIC] BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was charm of a kind that won over the media last Sunday. His condemnation of the Bush administration’s unpopular war was recorded without comment. His calls for reconciliation were well-received. Hardly anyone noticed that among the books he recommended at the end of his speech was one that claims the Jews were behind the slave trade. [CALYPSO MUSIC: DOWN BY THE SEASIDE] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited –– by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Peter Garner and Christopher Werth. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On The Media from WNYC. I’m Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. [CALYPSO MUSIC] [MUSIC TAG] [FUNDING CREDITS]