October 16, 1995 will be a tragic day in our history, and yet America slumbers. On that regrettable morning, it is expected that one million black men will march on the Capitol under the auspices of the Nation of Islam, and we are told from all sides not to be alarmed. With all due respect, I would disagree with the proponents of this demonstration and all those who indulge them: I would say that every freedom-loving American should be very alarmed indeed.
Louis Farrakhan, Minister of the Nation of Islam and a prolific peddler of anti-semitic, chauvinistic and black supremacist doctrine, is the driving force behind this demonstration. The ostensible purpose of his "Million Man March" is to reaffirm the spirit of black manhood. Conrad Muhammed, a representative of Farrakhan, amplified this idea in a recent speech at the ARCO Forum. According to Muhammed, "If the black man continues to be the Achilles heal of America, then the future of America does not hold well." The black man is indeed becoming more and more disenfranchised and alienated throughout this country. But is that really what this massive demonstration is concerned with?
What lies at the core of this divisive issue is the Nation of Islam's notion of "the Black Man." It is essential to understand that Farrakhan has his own very particular perspective on the meaning of "manhood," a perspective which came of age in the darkest moments of the nineteenth century, and which, if espoused in the white community today, would be considered tantamount to fascism. In this archaic vision, women are meant to look after the home and remain, essentially "barefoot and pregnant," while the strapping (i.e. ardently homophobic, anti-semitic, Muslim) males look to more important matters.
Yet members of the academic and political communities seem genuinely unconcerned. "Well," goes the argument, "you needn't worry about the Nation of Islam's biases; there are only 50,000 members." A few months ago, I might have even agreed. But now what I see is an organization which has successfully scheduled a march in which one million men are to participate. Moreover, they seem to have been able to convince major constituencies throughout this country that there is nothing objectionable involved here; they have achieved legitimacy in spite of their disgraceful bigotry. Think for a moment: How many other organizations come to mind which have that sort of influence?
What's more, several of our most prominent African-American leaders, including Maya Angelou, Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, and our very own Professor of Afro-American Studies and Religion Cornell West '74, have agreed to take part in this self-styled "national day of atonement." In a lecture to the Class of '99, Professor West argued that the march would only be Farrakhan's if those marching in it shared his beliefs. Since they don't, went West's defense, the march will have little to do with him.
In this case, the argument that the "message" may be considered independent of the "messenger" is simply not convincing. I would ask West and others who are similarly inclined to imagine what their reaction would be to the following scenario. Tomorrow, David Duke calls a march of one million white men to reaffirm the spirit of American Democracy (i.e. his own particular vision of "American Democracy"). In response, all sorts of prominent white intellectuals, such as Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson and William F. Buckley Jr., come out of the woodwork and volunteer their oratorical services. When asked if they support Duke's agenda, they reply, "The march is only his if we look at it that way." Sure it is.
The simple truth is this: one million black men, including their spiritual and intellectual leaders, have answered Louis Farrakhan's request to "jump" by replying, "how high?" This response is reflective of an immense influence which will undoubtedly yield terrible consequences in our political future. Whether West or others agree with Farrakhan's dogma, their participation in his march assigns to him a power and authority which should be nothing short of frightening to all those who treasure liberty. I would urge all members of the Harvard community to take off their rose-colored glasses and look with unhindered vision at this "march of shame." Fanaticism and bigotry have never been the path to equality, and they cannot be awarded that distinction on October 16. Let us not have to admit, years down the road, that we were the intellectual Neville Chamberlains of our day.
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