The Making of a Sideshow

Bigotry doesn’t get tired.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has been fulminating against whites and Jews for decades, is still at it.

In remarks he made in a meeting with Detroit City Council members and local clergy last week, Farrakhan, who was invited to discuss revitalization of the economically devastated city, instead exploited the venue for yet another of his venomous tirades against “Satanic Jews.”

Were it that alone, we would not devote this space to the topic. Notoriety serves his cause; the inflammatory quotes gain more attention by coverage of them than they otherwise would. Besides, it has long been clear that Farrakhan does not speak for the majority of African-Americans; indeed, he is widely regarded as an embarrassment.

However, in this case, we think it worthwhile to mention the reaction to his tireless bigotry. That came in the form of an unequivocal condemnation from Michigan Democrat John Conyers, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and an influential African-American leader.

Conyers described the remarks as “unacceptable, racist, anti-Semitic” and said that they “have no place in civilized discourse.”

Even today, after so many years of Farrakhan, the Conyers statement cannot be taken for granted.

While Conyers deserves recognition for his stance, which will no doubt put him at odds with certain segments of his constituency who do not share his appreciation of civilized discourse, it should not be overstated either.

In fact, Conyers did not issue his condemnation until three days after the Anti-Defamation League first denounced the speech, and publicly named the “Dean” of the Congressional Black Caucus as one of the attendees.

But, to his credit, he spoke out. As the ADL noted, other members of the audience not only failed to walk out in protest, they “embraced” the octogenarian hatemonger, and some of the like-thinking local clergy later praised him as well.

It has never been an easy matter to criticize the members of one’s own community for wrongdoing such as encouraging racism or anti-Semitism. It has often taken no small amount of courage to do so, given the popularity and power sometimes wielded by these bigots.

When another Nation of Islam ambassador of bigotry, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, spewed his hate at Kean College in Union, New Jersey, on November 29, 1993, it took several weeks and numerous newspaper reports and columns before black leaders came forth to denounce the infamy.

Roger Wilkins, an African-American history professor at George Mason University, forcefully chastised black faculty members at Kean for “avoiding swift condemnation of Muhammad’s bilious diatribe” and “failing to uphold the best traditions of the black struggle.” William Gray, then head of the United Negro College Fund, and Congressman Charles Rangel were among those who followed Wilkins’ lead.

During an August 5, 2005, civil rights march in Atlanta, entertainer Harry Belafonte openly denigrated prominent African-Americans in the Bush Administration, notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, by comparing them to what he fantastically supposed were the positions of Jews in the Nazi hierarchy. “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich,” he said. When Belafonte visited the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, friend to Ahmadinejad, he praised him, saying that “millions of the American people … support your revolution…We respect you, we admire you.”

Project 21, a group of black conservatives, added their names to the honor roll of courage and decency by calling upon prominent Americans to disavow Belafonte’s views.

A 2011 “Black Voices” opinion poll asking blacks to name the “most influential black leaders” found Martin Luther King, Jr., at the top of the list, with Barack Obama second. Farrakhan did not make it into the top 25. In 2009, however, an AP poll had listed Farrakhan as No. 5, with 4 percent of respondents picking him as the nation’s “most important black leader.”

The lesson here is that we cannot tire in the struggle against bigotry. The courage and persistence of those who took a stand publicly against such bigots and demagogues have borne fruit. It is largely because of them that Farrakhan today is less of a menace, more of a sideshow, and more easily repudiated.

Thus, we did not have to wait weeks, but only a few days, for Congressman Conyers to speak up.

It’s not everything, but it’s something.