WASHINGTON — His marathon speech to the "Million Man March" here last week was vintage Louis Farrakhan. It was at times angry, at times nurturing. It was equal parts insight and incoherence--a jumble of politics, religion and just plain Farrakhan.
Few could quibble with his calls for black men to set down their arms and pick up their babies, respect their women and clean up their musical lyrics. At the same time, few could fathom his deconstruction of the number 19--in which the 9 represents a fetus in a womb.
The 400,000 or more black men amassed before him on the Mall applauded enthusiastically when Farrakhan struck a chord. They listened quietly when he veered. And both the speech and the vast crowd's reaction to it offered clues to what--for millions of Americans across the country--was the most puzzling thing about the march:
How could something so awesome and so profoundly positive have originated with someone like Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam?
For years, he has been widely dismissed as a racist anti-Semite who lambastes whites as devils and preaches black separatism--views that are not shared by the majority of African Americans as well as whites. At the same time, there is almost universal agreement that Farrakhan's was the only voice capable of calling forth such a multitude.
How could a man whose views appear to be so extreme exert such influence over so many? More important, what does it mean for the future that a leader considered so marginal and repugnant by the white community is accorded such respect by so many blacks?
Unquestionably, the success of the march has catapulted the onetime calypso singer to new prominence. "You will get better acquainted with Louis Farrakhan, and you are going to have to live with me," Farrakhan said at a news conference the morning after the march. "To some, I'm a nightmare. But to others, I'm a dream come true."
And the immediate reaction of some in the white community was to renew their denunciations; politicians and pundits joined in warning the black community that embracing Farrakhan could only hurt their cause.
But dismissing the messenger risks missing the larger message that underlies his influence--the answer to the question of why this one man can elicit such a powerful response among blacks who do not support major elements in his credo.
Part of the answer is that Farrakhan's core message of pride and self-respect, as well as his defiant verbal flogging of whites, strikes a responsive chord among thousands and thousands of disenchanted blacks. They brush aside the abhorrent parts of his message more easily than many whites do.
"There are always many people, probably most of the people, at his rallies that do not fully embrace everything Farrakhan is about," said Steven Barboza, an author who has studied the Nation of Islam and interviewed Farrakhan. "It's like going to a concert. Everyone takes something different away. Farrakhan's rhetoric strikes a chord among those who are disenfranchised. It makes people feel good."
Not just the down and out.
"I am not Muslim. I do not embrace the Muslim faith," said Kenneth Thomas, publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black weekly. "There are certain things he says I think are questionable. Some of what he says I don't even think he believes. But a good deal of what he says makes a hell of a lot of sense. If the man has something positive to contribute, let's take the positive."
An equally important element in Farrakhan's appeal is the fact that while the national spotlight has focused on his anti-Semitism, he and the Nation of Islam have earned respect, even gratitude, in the black community for their gritty effort to cleanse black neighborhoods of crime and drugs and to reclaim the lives of blacks in prison.
"His main issue is about economic self-sufficiency for blacks, and he's actually acting that philosophy out," said C. Eric Lincoln, a professor emeritus at Duke University who has studied the Nation of Islam for four decades. "Many people don't hear that because they are sidetracked by the offensive remarks he makes."
For many blacks at least, Farrakhan's record of hands-on effort--sometimes crowned with substantial success--means more than his rantings. As a result, a man whom most Americans have considered an ugly anomaly irrelevant to the task of healing relations between the races appears to be at center stage and possibly part of a solution.
The response to Farrakhan, whose original name was Louis Eugene Walcott, also points out just how fractured race relations have become, with many African Americans disillusioned by mainstream black leaders and desperate for a new path.
"The compelling interest of black people is to improve the circumstances of their living and being," Lincoln said. "For many black people, things couldn't be worse. Why not Farrakhan? He can't make things worse, and he might make them better."