WASHINGTON — The Congressional Black Caucus Wednesday renounced its "sacred covenant" to cooperate with controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in the wake of mounting furor over Farrakhan's refusal to repudiate an anti-Semitic outburst by one of his aides.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), chairman of the caucus, who proclaimed the so-called covenant last September, told a press conference that his group's ability to work with Farrakhan has been severely jeopardized.
Mfume labeled "evil and vicious" the remarks made by Khalid Abdul Muhammad on Nov. 29 at Keene College in New Jersey, when he referred to Jews as "blood suckers of the black nation." Mfume said: "Nowhere in American life can we give sanctuary to such garbage."
Adding to the pressure on Farrakhan to denounce the remarks, the Senate voted its own unanimous condemnation of them Wednesday in a resolution offered by Sens. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"If Mr. Farrakhan wants to enter the political and social mainstream, then his actions will have to speak louder than the words of some of his associates," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
Mfume said that Farrakhan has scheduled a press conference here today to announce how he will deal with Muhammad.
No matter what Farrakhan says, however, the episode has laid bare what one analyst called "an open wound" in American urban society: the pervasive friction between two minority groups that have suffered discrimination and often find themselves in an intense rivalry for jobs, education and the chance to live in a peaceful neighborhood.
"There is a failure of many Jews to understand the sense of crisis in the black community," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. On the other hand, Mellman contended, "there is a lack of appreciation by blacks of Jewish anxieties over their embracing people like Farrakhan who are vicious anti-Semites."
In political terms, this latest eruption is a sign of a dangerous erosion in the time-worn alliance of constituency groups that elected Bill Clinton to the presidency and on which nearly all Democratic office-seekers depend.
"This is just another sign of a fracturing of the traditional Democratic coalition," said Steve Erie, a UC San Diego specialist in urban politics.
He pointed out that many of the elements melded together by Franklin D. Roosevelt more than a half-century ago, such as blue-collar workers and Roman Catholics, already have defected in large measure to the Republican Party. The friction between blacks and Jews, Erie said, amounts to "a squabble among the surviving remnants of the New Deal coalition."
At the White House, aides to President Clinton claimed that they were heartened by the number of black leaders--such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and NAACP head Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.--who have denounced Muhammad's remarks.
But one Democratic consultant speculated that if the current tension "gets to be even more of an open wound," more direct action by party leaders may be necessary.
Vice President Al Gore, who has strong ties to Jewish groups, took on the assignment of adding the Administration's voice to the chorus of protest, calling Muhammad's speech "the vilest kind of racism," in an address to the United Jewish Appeal earlier this week.
Pointing out that, besides castigating Jews, Muhammad had attacked the Pope, whites in South Africa and the mentally handicapped, Gore added: "It sickens me to hear it. Farrakhan should reject it."
But the most severe blow to Farrakhan of all was Wednesday's rejection by Mfume and the Black Caucus--just as Mfume's public embrace in September was the biggest boost Farrakhan had received in his drive to gain respectability and broaden his influence.
Mfume said that in pledging to work with the Nation of Islam the caucus was trying to tap into Farrakhan's reputed ability to improve the quality of life among urban-core blacks by promoting the concepts of self-help and self-discipline.
"We know full well the tremendous things the Nation of Islam has been able to do to bring safety to public housing projects, to create a climate of self-esteem among young people, to stop the killing, the violence and pain and to work toward economic development," Mfume said.
Some analysts said that Mfume is eager to preserve the appearance of unity among blacks.
"There is tremendous pressure to present a solid front and not to be critical of others on our side," said Milton Morris, vice president of the Joint Center of Political Studies, a think tank focusing on African American affairs.
Whatever had prompted Mfume to declare a working partnership between the Black Caucus and Farrakhan, his move had alarmed many Jews.
"We can work with the Black Caucus," said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League. "We cannot work with Farrakhan."