Updated on March 19 2018.
When I was 17, I was a scruffy-headed biracial black and Jewish teenager, and a furious Louis Farrakhan hater. In the mid-1990s, Farrakhan’s fame and influence was at its height; I had once been thrown out of a middle-school gym class for calling the Nation of Islam leader a racist. His Million Man March, a massive collective act of solidarity and perhaps the most important black event of the decade, had been one of the loneliest days of my young life. I sat in homeroom, one of just a few dozen kids in school, wondering why so many people hated people like me.
It was a story my high school English teacher Cullen Swinson told me, years later, that helped me understand why people might associate with the Nation. Scott Montgomery Elementary School was located in what The Washington Post called “The Wicked District” in a grim series on black youth in D.C. in the 1950s. Things were still bleak in the late ‘60s when Swinson began attending Scott—one year, there was a crime scare that enveloped the whole neighborhood.
“Fear would soon become a daily companion in the short walk to and from school every day,” Swinson told me, until “a host of clean-cut, friendly, polite, and ramrod straight, bow-tied young men from the Masjid took up daily residence on every street corner from 7th Street to 1st Street.” They were from the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s paramilitary wing. “I will never forget how they calmed the fears of so many mothers and children, just by their mere presence,” Swinson said.
From the outside, seeing a liberal activist associating with an organization like the Nation of Islam can seem incomprehensible—particularly if you’re Jewish, and you hear in Farrakhan’s speeches the venom that poisoned Europe for millennia and led to the annihilation of a third of the world’s Jews in the 20th century. But I thought back to the story Swinson told me after Farrakhan made national news again in recent weeks, in connection with the Women’s March, the organization that led a massive protest the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It’s a reminder that the sources of the Nation of Islam’s ongoing appeal, and the reasons prominent black leaders often decline to condemn Farrakhan, may have little to do with the Nation’s prejudiced beliefs.
The national co-chair of the Women’s March, Tamika Mallory, was present at the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviour’s Day event in late February, where Farrakhan railed against Jews for being “the mother and father of apartheid,” declared that “the Jews have control over those agencies of government,” and surmised that Jews have chemically induced homosexuality in black men through marijuana. The Nation continues to produce volumes of propaganda blaming Jews for the world’s ills. After the Anti-Defamation League posted a write up of the event noting Mallory’s presence, Mallory and her colleagues were accused of dismissing the concerns of critics on social media who felt they were, if not endorsing anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexism, failing to publicly rebuke it.
“There were people speaking to me as if I was anything other than my mother’s child—it was very vile, the language that was being used, the way I was called an anti-Semite,” Mallory told me. “I think that my value to the work I do is that I can go into many spaces as it relates to dealing with the complexity of the black experience in America. It takes a lot of different types of people to help us with our struggle.”
Then there’s the timing—at a moment of rising anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad, resurgent white nationalism, and anxiety among many liberal Jews about their place in the progressive movement, Mallory’s presence at the NOI event shocked many who identified with the Women’s March.
The incident is the latest episode in a pattern that has repeated itself ever since Farrakhan’s entry on the national stage. The Nation of Islam leader first rose to national prominence defending Jesse Jackson from accusations of anti-Semitism, after Jackson referred to New York as “Hymietown” during the 1984 Democratic presidential primary. Farrakhan called Judaism a “dirty religion,” and warned Jews against attacking Jackson: “If you harm this brother, it will be the last one you harm.” Farrakhan’s defense of Jackson, which many black voters felt was unfairly maligned and taken out of context, helped establish his reputation as someone who, right or wrong, would not cave to the white establishment.
Since then, the cycle has repeated for one black leader after another. Farrakhan says something anti-Semitic, which draws press attention; he is roundly condemned, which draws more press attention, but also causes some black people to feel he is being disproportionately attacked; and the controversy further burnishes his credibility within the black community as someone who is unacceptable to the white establishment and is therefore uncompromised. It is a cycle he has fueled, and benefited from, for decades. After the Saviour’s Day story blew up on social media, Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam began promoting clips of the most inflammatory sections of the speech on Twitter, including a clip in which he says that Jews control the FBI. Currently, his pinned tweet asks, “What have I done to make Jewish people hate me?”
Yet because of the NOI’s ongoing presence in many poor and working-class black communities, time and again Farrakhan is able to threaten the mainstream political ambitions of black public figures who, for good reasons and bad, choose to deal with him. There was Jackson, who ultimately condemned Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism as “reprehensible.” The Democratic National Committee’s deputy chair, Representative Keith Ellison, disavowed his earlier membership in the Nation of Islam, saying that they “organize by sowing hatred and division, including anti-Semitism, homophobia, and a chauvinistic model of manhood.” According to the Washington Post, Ellison also met privately with Farrakhan in 2016 (Ellison put out a statement on March 13 denying he has meet with Farrakhan since a chance meeting in 2013). There’s even Barack Obama, whose presidential ambitions might have been curtailed had a black photographer not buried a photo of the Illinois senator meeting Farrakhan in 2005, conscious of how the image might have been exploited. Obama formally “rejected and denounced” Farrakhan during the 2008 campaign.
“Farrakhan knows who his constituents are. If he can cause some controversy and grab some headlines, he’s gonna do it. I think it’s kind of a hustle. He’s been doing it for years, it’s not going to change,” said Amy Alexander, a journalist who edited an anthology of black writers on Farrakhan called The Farrakhan Factor. “It’s almost like he’s that kid on the schoolyard, who in front of the teacher will drop the f-word just to get the teacher riled up. And if the teacher falls for it every time, what’s that kid’s incentive to stop doing it?”
Most people outside the black community come into contact with the Nation of Islam this way—Farrakhan makes anti-Semitic remarks, which generate press coverage, and then demands for condemnation. But many black people come into contact with the Nation of Islam as a force in impoverished black communities—not simply as a champion of the black poor or working class, but of the black underclass: black people, especially men, who have been written off or abandoned by white society. They’ve seen the Fruit of Islam patrol rough neighborhoods and run off drug dealers, or they have a family member who went to prison and came out reformed, preaching a kind of pride, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship that, with a few adjustments, wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a conservative Republican. The self-respect, inner strength, and self-reliance reflected in the polished image of the men in suits and bow ties can be a powerful sight.
“Even before Farrakhan, the Nation was the first group to really go into the prisons to rehabilitate, or to call incarcerated men and women towards a kind of rehabilitative lifestyle,” said Zain Abdullah, a professor at Temple University who used to teach Islam to people in prison. “They command some respect because of their visibility and presence in lower-class communities. People don’t see them selling out to corporate America, selling out to government. I think people see them as a grassroots organization. They still speak to the poor, to racial injustices, and that’s where their power lies.”
The Nation of Islam had an estimated 50,000 members as of 2007, far from its heyday in the 1960s. Farrakhan’s inability to grow the Nation’s ranks indicates that sympathy with his critiques of white racism does not necessarily translate into broad affection for the man himself.
“What’s interesting is, why is Farrakhan still relevant to these communities, and why is he still as visible as he is? He still commands 20, 30 thousand people,” Abdullah said. “I think people see the Nation as a voice of dissent. A viable voice of dissent. Leadership in these communities, few are as visible as Farrakhan.”
I spoke with several civil-rights leaders who reject Farrakhan’s views but didn’t want to go on record criticizing Farrakhan—in part out of respect for the constituency he represents, but also because they are aware of precisely how he exploits such condemnations to strengthen his own credibility. One prominent civil-rights activist cautioned against reading some black Americans’ sympathy with Farrakhan’s critique of white racism as a wholesale embrace of his message. “The message and appeal of Barack Obama is the polar opposite of Louis Farrakhan. That is more emblematic of the black community’s sentiments than Louis Farrakhan,” said the activist. “In this era of mass incarceration, the Nation still maintains a presence in the prisons, where we have too many people of color locked up, too many men, they are in many of our communities. So the unsparing critique of racism that he provides has a certain appeal.”
For all their attempts at curbing urban violence, the Nation itself has a bloody history. Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation in 1965 after his break with Elijah Mohammed and turn towards orthodox Sunni Islam; in 1973, former members of the Nation were convicted of murdering seven members of the Hanafi Muslim sect in Washington, D.C., five of them children. In 2000, Farrakhan apologized to Malcolm’s surviving family, saying that he felt “regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.” While Malcolm was still alive, Farrakhan said he was “worthy of death.”
Nevertheless, the Nation retains credibility in many black communities as a force for reducing street violence.
It was in that context that Mallory came into contact with the Nation of Islam. Mallory turned to anti-violence activism after her son’s father was murdered, eventually becoming the national director of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. “In that most difficult period of my life, it was the women of the Nation of Islam who supported me and I have always held them close to my heart for that reason,” Mallory wrote in a statement published on NewsOne on Wednesday.
She soon realized that all the women she knew who had lost loved ones to gun violence had also lived in poor, segregated neighborhoods, and she concluded that the circumstances that led to these deaths were systemic and not just individual. And in those neighborhoods, the Nation was present when others were not.
“The Nation of Islam was the place where most of the black men and women that I knew had been there and really had been reformed. Men particularly in my family, people who had been arrested, and people who had been through really troubled situations, I saw them cleaning themselves up and were successful,” Mallory told me. “I found that the Nation had been influential in helping them to turn their lives around.”
Mallory was surprised by the backlash to her presence at the Saviour’s Day event, in part because she’s been going to the annual Nation of Islam function since she was a child—her parents were activists. Although she is a Christian, she says it was common for her to work with the Nation of Islam on anti-violence initiatives, such as the NOI’s “Occupy the Corner” program, which involves members of the Fruit of Islam patrolling dangerous areas to prevent violence. In 1989, after the Fruit of Islam’s “Dopebuster” patrols proved successful in the Mayfair Housing projects, The Washington Post reported that other neighborhoods were clamoring for their help.
That reputation has endured; in 2012, Chicago’s first Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel, said that the Nation of Islam had a role to play in reducing violence in the city. “They have decided, the Nation of Islam, to help protect the community. And that’s an important ingredient, like all the other aspects of protecting a neighborhood.” Emanuel echoed what many black communities had long since concluded—the Nation can be the least bad of the available options, especially in a city like Chicago where the police retain a reputation for lawlessness and brutality in minority neighborhoods.
This is also where the resistance to condemning Farrakhan or the Nation can come from: a sense that despite the Nation’s many flaws, it is present for black people in America’s most deprived and segregated enclaves when the state itself is not present, to say nothing of those who demand its condemnation. Then there is the sense that while Farrakhan’s views are vile, he lacks the power or authority to enforce them. Denouncing the marginalized Farrakhan can seem ridiculous to those who feel like white people put their own Farrakhan in the White House.
“The NOI has kind of faded, because of Farrakhan’s virulent racism and sexism and bizarre crap; I don’t think he’s a leader anyone can follow,” said Alexander. “Some of these hardcore anti-Farrakhan people always want black people to denounce Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, which I reject. Their footprint has shrunk, but in a lot of communities, for a long time, they were helping people and families when nobody else would.”
But with the Women’s March, Mallory is no longer just doing anti-violence work. She’s become a leader of a diverse, national political movement, of which Farrakhan’s most frequent targets—Jews, women, LGBT people—are irreplaceable members.
“We would hope that public figures that aspire to be the leaders of social movements are truly equitable in the way that they tackle intolerance,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We don’t think it should take very much to call out when somebody makes claims like, ‘The Jews control the government. The satanic Jews are behind all the world’s ills.’ I think the response for this is a layup.”
The more politically expedient path indeed seems obvious—but the stakes here for Mallory are personal and not simply political. I asked Mallory if she thought Farrakhan was anti-Semitic, or sexist, or homophobic. “I don’t agree with everything that Minister Farrakhan said about Jews or women or gay people,” said Mallory. “I study in a tradition, the Kingian nonviolent tradition. I go into prisons and group homes and I don’t come out saying, ‘I just left the criminals or the killers.’ That’s not my language. That’s not something I do. I don’t speak in that way. In the tradition that I come out of, we attack the forces of evil but not people.”
Trying to understand anti-Semitism has required something of a cultural adjustment for Mallory, who grew up in Harlem and didn’t know many Jewish people. She told me that once, in a conversation with colleagues she remarked that Jewish people were good with money. “I’ve personally been checked on things like saying, ‘Well you help us with the money because I know that you guys know how to handle money’ and one activist, she immediately followed up with me offline and said, ‘Listen, that’s anti-Semitic.’”
“I asked her, ‘Could it possibly be ignorant language? … I know that it’s ignorant to say that, because it’s a negative stereotype and you reinforce that but again when you say anti-Semitic it’s very dangerous for a person like me. It sounds really bad,’” Mallory said. “So she and I had a conversation. The two things that happened in that moment were one, she basically arrested my language and explained to me why that language was not good for the Jewish community, and at the same time I explained to her why using the terminology that she used was cause for me to feel attacked. And she understood that.”
Mallory said that she now understands why her original remarks were hurtful to her colleague. “Now when I have conversations with other people and they say those things to me, I explain to them, ‘Hey this is what I’ve learned recently about this language,’” Mallory said. “It’s very similar to any person outside of the black community looking at us saying, ‘Get you some watermelon and fried chicken.’ It’s a negative stereotype that’s being reinforced, so this is the kind of unpacking we need to be doing.”
That fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, and the consequences of being a black leader associated with that term, was part of why she reacted so defensively on social media when CNN’s Jake Tapper began a tweetstorm on February 28 highlighting the anti-Semitic statements in Farrakhan’s speech, and Mallory’s attendance at the event. One tweet, in which Mallory wrote that, “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader! Study the Bible and u will find the similarities. Ostracizing, ridicule and rejection is a painful part of the process...but faith is the substance of things!” was interpreted by some of her critics as Mallory invoking the anti-Semitic canard that the Jews killed Jesus, a meaning Mallory said she did not intend.
“When you are labeled an anti-Semite, what follows can be very, very devastating for black leaders. To have someone say that about you, it almost immediately creates a feeling of defensiveness because you know the outcome,” Mallory said. “The same photos that people have pulled up on the internet that showed my relationship with the Nation of Islam have been there for years. And yet I was still able to build an intersectional movement that brought five million people together, and the work that I have done for over 20 years, and it’s very clear that I have worked across the lines with very different people.”
I asked Mallory what she would tell a Jewish activist who was disturbed by her associating with the Nation. “I would say that I hear and understand that and I hope that as I’m able to understand how they feel, I hope that they will also take the time to understand why I have partnered with the Nation of Islam and been in that space for almost 30 years,” Mallory responded.
On Tuesday, the Women’s March released a statement saying, in part, “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles.” In her essay for NewsOne, Mallory wrote that “as historically oppressed people, Blacks, Jews, Muslims and all people must stand together to fight racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”
Neither statement explicitly condemned Farrakhan, and Greenblatt said he was unsatisfied with the responses of either the Women’s March or Mallory. “Even if they respect certain programs his organization runs, that in no way mitigates the malicious things he saying about Jews, and the responsibility for people in leadership positions to recognize it for what it is and reject it in a clear and unambiguous manner,” Greenblatt said.
Therein lies the key conflict for Mallory, and her colleagues at the Women’s March, going forward. The Nation of Islam may be essential to anti-violence work in poor black neighborhoods. It may be an invaluable source of help for formerly incarcerated black people whose country has written them off as irredeemable. It may offer a path to vent anger at a system that continues to brutalize, plunder, and incarcerate human beings because they are black. And it may also be impossible to continue working with the Nation, and at the same time, lead a diverse, national, progressive coalition that includes many of the people Farrakhan and the Nation point to as the source of all evil in the world.
I asked Mallory if she intended to keep working with the Nation. “The brothers and sisters that I work with in the Nation of Islam are people too,” she said. “They are a part of the work that I’ve been doing for a long time and they are very much so ingrained in my anti-violent work of saving the lives of young black men and women.”
“So that’s the answer to that.”
From the perspective of her critics, Mallory’s refusal to denounce Farrakhan or the Nation appears as a condemnable silence in the face of bigotry. For her supporters, Mallory’s refusal to condemn the Nation shows an admirable loyalty towards people who guided her through an unfathomable loss.
But watching Farrakhan bask in the media attention, as yet another generation of black leadership faces public immolation on his behalf, it is impossible to see him as worthy of her loyalty.