His speech in Detroit last weekend was billed as his last major public address, but associates of Minister Louis Farrakhan won't say the ailing Nation of Islam leader is retiring. I understand their disbelief. Farrakhan has been written off before. He's also managed to stage enough encores to rival the late James Brown.
Nevertheless, this time I take him at his word. "My time is up," he declared. "The final call can't last forever."
I agree. I thought Farrakhan's time was up in 1975 after the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's co-founding leader, died. His son, Minister W.D. Muhammad, an orthodox Muslim, disbanded the organization. He also announced that the Nation's seemingly prosperous business empire was almost $10 million in debt and its claims of 100,000 members actually amounted to 5,000 to 10,000, if that.
"New members would just come and go, come and go," he told me in an interview at the time. Orthodox Islam, many of his followers found, offered a more lasting and universal peace across lines of race and class.
But, while Muhammad turned to Orthodox Islam on Chicago's South Side, Farrakhan decided the old Nation's time was not up. He broke away and revived the old Nation. In 1981, he held the Nation's first annual Saviour's Day convention in Chicago since the elder Muhammad's death.
Farrakhan burst into mainstream media in 1984 while providing Muslim security escorts for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's first presidential campaign. Remarks viewed as anti-Semitic brought understandable condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League. The controversy also triggered a classic black reaction, the circle-the-wagons syndrome that boosts the credibility among blacks of any black leader who is criticized by whites, whether it is deserved or not.
In an interview back in the 1980s, Farrakhan told me how his personal call to Islam came in 1955. While others were launching a civil rights movement down South, Louis Eugene Walcott was a 22-year-old violinist and calypso singer billed as "The Charmer." While performing in the old Mister Kelly's nightclub in Chicago's Rush Street district, a friend took Walcott to hear the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, co-founder of the Nation of Islam. It changed the young Charmer's life.
Now it looks as though Farrakhan's era ended in many ways with his greatest achievement, his historic Million Man March in 1995.
He took a big risk in summoning a million black men to the Washington Mall in a big day of solidarity and "atonement," whatever that was going to mean. What if no one showed up? As it turned out, Farrakhan understood something that the sight lines of national news media missed: an urgent frustration bubbling in black American men about the state of black America.
I was there. I only had to walk a few blocks from the news bureau where I work. Hundreds of thousands of other black men came from across the continent, many of them on buses sponsored by Christian churches.
But, long-range results from the march are hard to find, except for a few heartwarming stories about positive local actions in neighborhoods here and there. Instead of building a national network of follow-up actions, Farrakhan focused on other priorities, including the building of his reputation in Sudan and elsewhere as an international figure.
At age 73, Farrakhan turned over day-do-day leadership duties last fall to fight medical problems related to his battle with prostate cancer with which he was diagnosed in 1991. His latest announcement raises questions about who will follow him. The charismatic skills of "The Charmer" will not be easily replaced. But that doesn't mean the demand for someone like him will go away.
More than other conventional black community organizations, the Nation of Islam is known for effective outreach to prison inmates and others who are the most alienated from mainstream society.
That's why the Nation of Islam resisted being merged into conventional Islam in the mid-1970s. Instead, it fragmented into several different local mosques under several different leaders across the country. I expect the Nation and other organizations like it to go on as long as there is a demand among frustrated black Americans for a voice that speaks directly to their pain, fears, resentments and suspicions. Were organizations like the Nation not around, somebody would find it necessary to invent them.