For Rally, Farrakhan The Wild Card

Posted: April 13, 1997

He preaches personal responsibility.

He exhorts African American men to get serious about fatherhood.

He decries drug use and black-on-black violence.

Yet the same Louis Farrakhan has said: ``Christians preach love but practice hate and tyranny, use God to cover up their corrupt and dirty practices.'' (1985)

And: ``Catholicism has been by white people, for white people, to subject black people to a white kind of theology that strips us of ourselves until recently.'' (1994)

And: ``Little Jews died [in the Holocaust] while big Jews made money. Little Jews [were] being turned into soap while big Jews washed themselves with it.'' (1995)

And: ``We have no hope that we can effect true reconciliation between blacks and whites in this country. . . . The answer ultimately is going to be separation.'' (1990)

Yet, Monday morning, the Nation of Islam leader comes to Philadelphia in the guise - city officials hope - of healer.

Farrakhan's appearance here is at once a political master stroke of peacekeeping by a supreme deal-maker of a mayor; a welcome platform for a black nationalist leader seeking a more moderate image; and a source of troubling questions.

``Everyone's focusing on the short-term gains'' of avoiding violence in Grays Ferry, said Murray Friedman of the American Jewish Committee. ``But the city has allowed itself to be blackmailed so that whenever a racial episode emerges that gets heated, it appears that action will have to be cleared with Louis Farrakhan.

``I don't know of any other leadership around the country that's elevated Farrakhan to this level.''

By persuading Farrakhan to speak at a rally alongside a host of civic and religious leaders, Mayor Rendell hoped to take much of the steam out of a black protest march planned for Grays Ferry.

Neighborhood people say they will march as planned Monday morning. But the Nation of Islam won't be with them.

Rodney Muhammad, leader of the Nation's Philadelphia mosque, announced Farrakhan's decision Tuesday.

That should cool the atmosphere considerably in Grays Ferry, where all-too-separate communities of blacks and whites are grappling with the aftermath of two galvanizing events earlier this year: the beating of a black woman's family and the robbery-slaying of a white teenager.

Rendell's maneuvers were ``brilliant,'' said Jerome Mondesire, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.

``He rose to a very tricky and difficult challenge that was fraught with pitfalls and booby traps, and he did a wonderful job in the best interests of the city.''

To Mondesire, the march had trouble written all over it from the start. ``This wasn't like a march from the '60s or the Million Man March Redux,'' he said. This protest was fueled by anger after the beating of Annette Williams, her teenage son and nephew by at least 20 whites in late February.

Passions intensified last month when a 16-year-old white youth, Christopher Brinkman, was shot in a drugstore; two blacks were arrested, though police declared robbery, not race, the motive.

It was easy to foresee a nightmare brewing in Grays Ferry: Narrow rowhouse streets. Black people defiantly parading on white-held turf. Twelve hundred police in riot gear. Helicopters buzzing above. A vision of conflict, not two weeks before Philadelphia plays national host to the Presidents' Summit on America's Future.

For the pragmatic Rendell, cutting a deal with Farrakhan was an ``easy call.''

``I don't agree with 100 percent of what Minister Farrakhan says,'' Rendell said last week, ``but if I limited myself to appearing in public meetings with people that I agree with 100 percent, I'd be pretty lonely.''

The stance places Rendell in striking contrast to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who refused to appear last year with Farrakhan at a rally outside U.N. headquarters commemorating the Million Man March.

``I think that any rally that focuses around Louis Farrakhan is a terrible mistake . . . `` Giuliani said, ``because whatever point is trying to be made is dwarfed by Farrakhan's rhetoric of hatred, rhetoric of division, which is unrelenting.''

Apart from Marion Barry of Washington, D.C., it is hard for people who have followed Farrakhan's career to think of any major-city mayor who has shared a stage with the Nation of Islam leader.

But then, pliability is part and parcel of the Rendell governing style.

On Thursday, for instance, he expressed sympathy with people planning to protest the summit - an event he is helping to organize - on the grounds that ``volunteerism'' is no substitute for an economic policy of real employment.

``I am probably, if I have time, going to join the protesters,'' he said.

As for Farrakhan, Rendell said: ``I appear with public figures many times, every week, whose views I disagree with in part . . . So I don't use a litmus test and say I won't appear at an event with you unless I agree with every single thing you say.''

Rendell agrees with some Farrakhan goals. ``African Americans taking responsibility for their children? Of course I agree with that. And Minister Farrakhan was the major proponent of that concept in this country.''

Rendell, who is Jewish, has few illusions about Farrakhan's capacity for venom: ``He has said some things that could be reasonably construed as anti-Semitic.''

But it was more important to look at larger city interests, Rendell said.

``Being mayor is a very pragmatic job,'' Rendell said, ``and particularly being mayor of an American city in the 1990s, you do the best you can to try and survive to position yourself to grow and make compromises all the time, and try and accomplish what is good for the city.''

One illustration of that philosophy was Rendell's decision to support the Million Man March, to the extent that city offices were used to organize bus transportation to the march.

David L. Cohen, Rendell's closest adviser, said Rendell repeatedly has expressed abhorrence to many of Farrakhan's views, but his approach to the Muslim leader depends on circumstances.

On July 4, when Farrakhan came to Philadelphia to stage a Million Man March commemoration, Rendell ignored him. Several years ago, when the Nation of Islam wanted to hold a male-only rally at the Civic Center, the city refused a permit because the event would have excluded women.

``You have to look at the particular incident, the particular event,'' said Cohen. ``I don't think Ed Rendell has a general rule, `I'll always embrace them or I'll always shun them.'

``He takes the approach, `Where I agree with someone, and it's in the best interest of all Philadelphia, I will work with him.' ''

Farrakhan, who joined the Nation of Islam after hearing a fiery speech by Malcolm X about 40 years ago, has been trying to broaden his base in recent years. He would like to be seen as extending a conciliatory hand toward black religious and political leaders, the Arab-Islamic world, whites and Jews. But he often finds that he cannot do all those things without jeopardizing his hard-line base.

``I think that part of the paradox is that he is trying to cultivate support among so many different groups,'' said Claude Clegg, a North Carolina history professor and biographer of the late Elijah Muhammad, the Nation's longtime leader. ``Within the Nation of Islam, he must placate hard-line black nationalists, while at the same time he is trying to make himself more palatable to the outside.''

What does he really believe? ``That's the $64,000 question,'' Clegg said.

Farrakhan's ideology has greatly moderated. He no longer talks publicly about the Nation of Islam's theosophy, which includes references to white devils, the creation of white people by a mad scientist or the role of the planet Mars and interplanetary space ships in the resolution of black suffering.

But at Nation of Islam rallies, subordinates continue to spout raw anti-white, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish rhetoric. Followers routinely distribute anti-Semitic publications, notably The Secret Relationship of Blacks and Jews, a faux history by the Nation of Islam that claims Jews played a preeminent role in American slavery.

Last year, Farrakhan toured Iran, Iraq, Libya and four other African nations, returning to declare America ``a modern Rome . . . a modern Sodom and Gomorrah.''

``There is no wicked nation in the past that approaches the evil that is practiced in America on a daily basis,'' he told followers.

Rendell expects the Farrakhan who appears tomorrow to be a far more moderate version. The mayor watched a video of a recent Farrakhan address and declared it ``a fine speech.''

Jewish and Catholic leaders are unconvinced, to say the least.

``You don't invite an arsonist to help put out a fire, and you don't stand with an unrepentant bigot to fight bigotry,'' the Anti-Defamation League says in a newspaper ad appearing Sunday.

``Inviting Louis Farrakhan is no different than inviting a white supremacist.''

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