Journalism tells us “what?” but rarely adds “what now?” A million words written after the Simpson verdict and the Million Man March proclaimed a sea change in the relationship between blacks and whites. Yet hard as it peered at the horizon, the reportage established nothing about what those roiling waters will wash ashore.
The focus of the mystery is Louis Farrakhan. If you read last week’s papers closely you found reason to believe about him what you wished–or feared. Either the march he fathered acquired a scope and majesty that marginalized his influence on it, or the march was his masterpiece of self-aggrandizement. Which was it? The dailies offered contradictory evidence article by article, sometimes paragraph by paragraph.
The New York Times: “‘For most blacks, this is about pain,’ [a Howard University professor] said. ‘The discussion of Farrakhan is a side issue with us.'”
Same page, different article: “But on this 40-foot-long, gray and lavender bus, little but praise was heard whenever Mr. Farrakhan’s name was raised, and it was raised often.
“‘This is an anointed brother,’ Pastor Lomax said. ‘He is a prophet and he’s down with the people.'”
The Chicago Tribune: “While respectful of, even grateful for, Farrakhan’s calling them together, many in the crowd made clear he was not their personal leader; that, indeed, they were separating the messenger from the message.”
Same article: “The turnout at the Mall confirms Farrakhan’s status as a potent force in the black community. As Enell Watts, 65, a retiree from Detroit put it: ‘Farrakhan is our black Moses.'”
The Washington Post: “The black men who came to Washington to march on the Mall were younger, wealthier, and better-educated than black Americans as a whole, and they were far more willing to see Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan assume a more prominent leadership role in the African-American community, a Washington Post poll found.
“The survey of 1,047 participants in the Million Man March also found that it was the message and not Farrakhan that brought these black men and a handful of women and whites to the nation’s capital.”
Columnist Salim Muwakkil in the Sun-Times: “Support for the October event has mushroomed, completely transcending Farrakhan’s controversial paternity.”
Columnist Robert Novak in the Sun-Times: “Farrakhan has pulled off a remarkable tour de force in winning such widespread approval of his ‘message.’ But what exactly is that message? Farrakhan’s ostensible call for ‘atonement and reconciliation’ was overshadowed by the overriding antiwhite racism of his two-and-a-half-hour keynote harangue.”
Last Sunday David Jackson, who’d been tossed out of a venomous “Black Holocaust” rally two nights before he witnessed the Million Man March, wrote in the Tribune: “It has been said so many times last week that it almost became a cliche, but there really were two separate marches. At one, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan delivered a rambling exegesis on numerology and colonial slave trading, quarrelled with his critics and crowned himself the ‘validated’ leader of black Americans.
“The other march belonged to those assembled on the green, whether they were 400,000 or more than a million, as march organizers claim. Their focus was not so much on the speakers platform as on each other, and it was their good will and spiritual rebirth that touched the lives of so many millions more, including me.”
Jeff Greenfield wrote in Monday’s Sun-Times that he believed the march produced “more good feeling among black American men, and more honest conversation about the enduring American dilemma of race, than has ever taken place at one time in one venue.” Yet to dismiss Farrakhan’s “ramblings and ravings” would mean “ignoring the reality that the very antipathy most Americans feel toward Farrakhan makes him appealing to at least some of those who went to Washington.”
An op-ed piece by Russ Rymer in Sunday’s New York Times made a similar point. “Whatever you think of Louis Farrakhan–I don’t think much–his invective protected that initiative from a takeover by the approval of well-meaning whites.”
Rymer identified some of these well-meaning white folk as friends whose voices, responding to the Simpson verdict, had “held a rare note of panic.” These were folk who “prefer to talk about race as an issue, as something distant and abstract, albeit important….They can talk about skin color without its getting under their skin.”
But Louis Farrakhan is so far under white Americans’ skin he’s a third-degree burn. The media’s preoccupation with him can be laid to first journalistic principles: wax poetic about truth, beauty, and the deeper significance of things if your soul is stirred to, but you’re paid to tell people what they want to know. White Americans wanted to know if the Million Man March was turning Farrakhan into African-Americans’ national kingpin. Brotherhood was the message, but he was the story.
“Farrakhan has gone mainstream big time,” Michael Kotzin, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, wrote Monday in an op-ed column in the Tribune. Unfortunately, Farrakhan “has not been able to shake off his reputation for racism, bigotry, homophobia and above all, anti-Semitism.”
Now here is columnist Joseph Aaron of the weekly Chicago Jewish News. “For years now, there has been much discussion about the rift between blacks and Jews, about how two groups that had once worked so closely together had grown so far apart. I, for one, have felt pained by the separation, having always believed our two minorities had so much in common, shared similar histories, lived having to deal with similar realities. I thought the differences between us could and should be bridged.
“I no longer do. I no longer think they can.”
And Aaron was writing before the march. He was reacting only to the Simpson verdict, which followed Johnnie Cochran’s closing argument. “To compare a racist cop with a big mouth,” wrote Aaron, “to the man responsible for the systematic extermination of six million Jewish men, women and children, is beyond obscene.
“And yet,” Aaron continued, “I still believed the mostly black jury
wouldn’t buy it. I had faith in them and in the system. I had faith in them because I thought they would do as Jews do. For Jews have reacted to a history of being discriminated against, a history of being persecuted, by clinging tightly to justice.
“This black jury, in contrast, acted exactly as Mark Fuhrman would have acted. They didn’t do the right thing, but gave in to the wrong feelings…. Our Jewish values are clearly far different from their values.”
I’m not sure what made Aaron angrier: that the jury refused to punish Simpson or that it refused to punish Cochran. Whatever, he despairs.
He is not alone. A number of the white, particularly the Jewish, readers who composed the larger audience for last week’s reporting from Washington (although their views were not made a part of that reporting) consider the Million Man March a disaster. “I don’t know any of my white liberal friends who felt that there was anything positive in the march,” said Tem Horwitz, a friend of mine. Not because the march failed to transcend Farrakhan, but because transcendence doesn’t matter. It was Farrakhan who proposed the rally, and hundreds of thousands of black men then crossed the country to take part in it.
“It was the inability of the Afro-American community to just not participate that I think constitutes for a large part of the Jewish population a complete invalidation of the intent of this event,” Horwitz said. “Reversing it, if you had a white leader who was saying that all blacks are demons, and this person was part of an event, I think the reaction of most well-meaning people would be a complete disassociation of themselves from that event. Which never seems to be the reaction in the black world to Farrakhan. There’s a certain tolerance for him which doesn’t work in reverse. Does it make me despair? It makes me somewhat cynical.”
From Inc., the Tribune, October 18: “Million Man participants shouldn’t be irate with National Park Service estimates that Monday’s crowd was smaller than organizers’ claims. Consider this local history lesson: In 1979, a flak for Mayor Jane Byrne made an official estimate of 1.75 million for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Grant Park….A later inspection of aerial photos taken for The Tribune showed the crowd to be more like 100,000.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Dorothy Perry.