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Steinberg: So where has Farrakhan led his Nation?

Minister Louis Farrakhan delivers speech Friday March 25 2011 JacksState University JacksMiss. as part 6th Annual Conference Veterans Mississippi Civil

Minister Louis Farrakhan delivers a speech Friday, March 25, 2011 at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., as part of the 6th Annual Conference of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Farrakhan, who leads the Chicago-based Nation of Islam delivered a speech on the need of a new grassroots movement for a change in education. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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Updated: November 2, 2012 6:14AM

Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, was seen last week dining with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

Between Ahmadinejad’s stealing of the election in 2009, his suppression of the Iranians who filled the streets to protest after, his quest to develop an atomic weapon, and his threats against Israel, Ahmadinejad must have been hurting for dinner companions.

Farrakhan, as is his habit, was happy to comply. Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Moammar Gadhafi — the world has yet to offer up a dictator Farrakhan won’t endorse.

The Anti-Defamation League called this a meeting of “two leading purveyors of anti-Semitism.” I disagree, at least with the “leading” part. That Farrakhan is an anti-Semite is without question, though he alternates gleeful provocations with injured denial. His historical distortions are textbook hate. And while he is indeed leader of the Nation of Islam, the followers of his whom I talk to always seem not exactly led to where he’s at, but conscientious and respectful, viewing the minister with benign acceptance, the way you’d indulge a beloved but doddering uncle.

Though the group’s leader, the question is: Where did he lead it? It is Farrakhan’s general lack of impact — with the sole exception of the 1995 Million Man March, an example of the positive influence Farrakhan might have exerted had he not hamstrung himself with his various obsessions, anti-Semitism being just the most notorious — demanding that Farrakhan be put in historical context.

Rather than a threat or some kind of beginning, Farrakhan represents the end of a failed and marginal line of thinking, heir to a 100-year-old subcurrent in African-American history that was rejected by the vast majority of blacks, and for good reason. It is the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, champion of the moldy idea that blacks aren’t part of America and can find success only by forming their own society, ideally back in Africa.

Today, many might assume that only white bigots could feel that way. But a few blacks once did, too. Garvey, if you are unfamiliar with him, was a Jamaican who came to this country in 1916, and, like Farrakhan, established all sorts of failed businesses, including the Black Star Line, a flotilla of ships intended to ferry blacks to their homeland.

Garvey gained supporters. Like Farrakhan, he preached a gospel of dignity, which explains the plumed hats and gold braid. Garvey was hobbled by the fact that most American blacks did not want to go to Africa but instead wanted to gain their rights here, in this, their own land. W.E.B. Du Bois described Garvey’s stance as “Give up! Surrender! The struggle is useless; go back to Africa and fight the white world.”

“Mr. Garvey apparently does not know,” James Weldon Johnson wrote, at the time, “that the American Negro considers himself, and is, as much an American as any one.”

Just as Farrakhan undercuts himself by cavorting with his nation’s enemies, Garvey unwisely embraced his foes too. Finding most African Americans unenthusiastic about his plans, Garvey made the stunning blunder of soliciting the one group that desired blacks to return to Africa even more passionately than he did: the Ku Klux Klan. Once he met with the Klan, Garvey’s support evaporated. The U.S. Justice Department had brought Garvey up on flimsy charges of mail fraud. Rather than support him, a pantheon of black leaders, including Chicago Defender publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott, signed an open letter urging the government to use its “full influences completely to disband and extirpate this vicious movement.”

In 1923, Garvey was sentenced to prison for five years. He lashed out at his trial judge, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Julian Mack.

“When they wanted to get me they had a Jewish judge try me, and a Jewish prosecutor,” Garvey said. “I would have been freed but two Jews on the jury held out.”

It was a calumny that would echo.

“From this curious moment onward into the late twentieth century, black Zionism would carry a distinct malodor of ideological anti-Semitism,” historian David Levering Lewis wrote. That “late twentieth century” was a reference to Farrakhan, and should be updated to “early twenty-first century.” How much further it continues after Farrakhan is an open question. Whoever leads the Nation next should at least pause to reflect on the limited good the group has done, the greater good it might have done had it not been chained to Farrakhan’s various fantasies, the most harmful being not his tired anti-Semitism but his notion that blacks must build a separate society to prosper, which is a vine that has failed to bear fruit for a century.

Summing up Garvey’s life, scholar William Ferris said, “He can talk big, but cannot do big.” Words that are an equally apt summation of the tragic career of Louis Farrakhan.

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