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His final flash of defiance

Thousands gather in downtown Detroit for Farrakhan's last speech, which urges blacks to avoid the military.

February 26, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — In a fiery speech promoted as his last, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan railed against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, calling on the black community to avoid military service at all costs.

To join the military "would be the worst mistake you've ever made," Farrakhan told a packed Ford Field sports arena Sunday in downtown Detroit.

He continued, "America is preparing for war, for Armageddon."

Sunday's speech was the first time Farrakhan has spoken publicly since undergoing a life-threatening surgery in January to correct damage from prostate-cancer treatment last year.

It also came as Farrakhan struggles to bolster a religious organization that helped lead the nation's civil rights movement, but whose political and cultural influence is waning.

"It still has a tremendous amount of influence in black politics," said Vibert White, a former Nation of Islam minister who now is director of the public history program at the University of Central Florida. "But in many ways, particularly on the broader national political arena, they are now somewhat irrelevant."

Standing before thousands of curiosity-seekers and tearful Nation of Islam followers, the 73-year-old minister spoke with the strength and vigor of a man decades his junior.

For nearly two hours, Farrakhan led a rally that was part religious revival, part fundraising pitch. He pounded the podium to punctuate points. His voice rose to a feverish growl to express his outrage, and fell to a hushed whisper at more somber moments.

Pointing out that his days as one of the country's most controversial voices in the national political discourse are coming to an end, Farrakhan told the audience, "My time is up."

Still, he noted that his exit would not happen right away.

"There are many things in my heart that I need to express," Farrakhan said. "It will take many weeks, many months to tell it all."

If this was his final public bow, Detroit was an ideal stage for it. The Nation of Islam was founded on these streets more than 70 years ago, and returned to its roots for its annual Saviors' Day, which commemorates the birth of founder Wallace D. Fard and wraps up a convention for Nation members.

They've returned to a city plagued with problems that harken to the group's earliest days during the Great Depression.

The Motor City has been scarred by riots and crime, the downward spiral of the domestic auto industry and the flight of its upper and middle classes. Economists call the greater Detroit area the country's poorest urban center, with the nation's highest unemployment rate. Much of the city is lined with miles of burned-out or ramshackle homes and empty lots.

On Sunday, though, the downtown streets were packed with visitors from as far as California and Texas.

Lines of attendees stretched along the ice-covered roads for nearly half a mile, waiting in the shadows of glass and steel skyscrapers for the chance to hear the charismatic leader speak one last time.

Ticket scalpers and T-shirt vendors roamed the sidewalks, vying for sales with a woman hawking pies and a teenager selling bootleg copies of Farrakhan's older speeches.

Some of the recordings included Farrakhan's more incendiary statements, such as calling Judaism a "gutter religion" and accusing the federal government of intentionally destroying the levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to eradicate the city's poor black population.

Farrakhan insisted Sunday that the "slurs" of his critics -- "calling me anti-Semitic, anti-white, anti-gay, anti-American" -- were simply efforts to incite an assassination attempt and smear the Nation of Islam.

Founded as a religious movement, its membership boomed in the 1950s under Malcolm X, who promoted black empowerment and nationalism. When Farrakhan became leader in the late 1970s, internal strife and a powerbase split undercut the organization's strength and eroded its membership base.

Officials won't say how many members the group has, but reports place that number at fewer than 70,000. About 2.5 million African American Muslims live in the U.S.

Though Farrakhan's proclamations are often extreme, political and religious experts say such sentiments strike a chord across an ideological and economic spectrum in the black community that is far larger than the Nation of Islam's membership base. For some people, said White, Farrakhan expresses feelings of alienation and anger that other black leaders are often unwilling to address.

Jacquintella Washington, a Detroit homemaker, said she had always wanted to see Farrakhan speak in person and thought this might be her last chance.

"I agree with a lot of what he says. Some of my family belongs to the group, and they're worried about what's going to happen when he leaves," said Washington, 39.

"We're all worried about the same things: the economy and the war."

At one point Sunday, after chastising Democrats and Republicans for unwillingness to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Farrakhan called for the country to pressure Congress to impeach President Bush.

Then he glanced at House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), who was sitting on the stage.

"Do something," Farrakhan said to Conyers. "If you don't want to impeach him, censure him."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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