The Nation of Islam on Friday announced plans to sponsor candidates for four Los Angeles City Council seats in next year's elections--marking the first time the Muslim group has explicitly involved itself in local politics.
Spokesmen for the Nation of Islam, which is headed by Minister Louis Farrakhan and has eschewed direct participation in political elections in the past, said their organization would offer candidates for the 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th City Council districts.
Nation of Islam officials, who are working on the campaigns with the Democratic Coalition for Progress, a nascent grass-roots group, said they would announce the names of the candidates later.
"We are definitely going to do this," said Nation of Islam spokesman Leonard Farrakhan Muhammad, who is managing the Nation's only other political effort: The campaigns of three Muslims seeking political office in Maryland and the District of Columbia.
"There are many able brothers and sisters here in Los Angeles that we feel will be fine public servants," said Muhammad. "And these are not just Muslims; there are other Christians as well."
The campaign efforts mark a significant change for the group because, while it has supported some candidates in the past, the Nation of Islam has maintained that black people should formally separate themselves from white America and its institutions. As a result of this stance, it has generally avoided political contests.
During the 1984 presidential race, Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam backed Jesse Jackson, but Jackson publicly repudiated the Muslim minister after Farrakhan made controversial remarks about Adolf Hitler in a radio sermon.
Farrakhan was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying: "Here, the Jews don't like Farrakhan, so they call him Hitler. Well, that's a good name. Hitler was a very great man. He wasn't great for me as a black person, but he was a great German, and he rose Germany up from the ashes of her defeat . . . after the first world war.
"Now, I'm not proud of Hitler's evils against the Jewish people."
But ultimately Farrakhan was widely quoted as saying only that Hitler was "a great man."
Nation of Islam officials said the group has decided to plunge into politics because they believe any victories by their candidates would produce equal opportunities for the communities they represent.
"The reality is that we are in America," said George X Cure, a Muslim minister and a candidate for one of the non-voting U.S. congressional seats representing the District of Columbia. "The communities are crying out for justice. The political arena is a tool by which that must take place."
Some in the white and Jewish communities have accused the Nation of Islam of racism and anti-Semitism--charges the group has repeatedly denied--but the Muslims said they didn't think these perceptions would hamper their ability to reach non-black voters.
"If you are in war and you need a foxhole," said Muhammad, "you don't care who dug the foxhole."
The City Council candidacies would mark the second time this year that the Nation of Islam has plunged into mainstream politics. On May 4, the religious movement introduced three candidates in the District of Columbia and Maryland.
"What we found in Washington, D.C. is that when the Nation of Islam stands to represent the aspirations of the community, many will stand up in concert with us," said Cure.
Cure said the candidates' chances in the D.C. area have been bolstered by the success of the Nation of Islam's anti-drug programs. Its Dopebuster unit has been praised for efforts to clean up drug-plagued communities around the District of Columbia.
The Nation of Islam drew wide community support after Nation member Oliver X Beasley was shot and killed Jan. 23 by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy during a scuffle between deputies and Nation members.