The recent references to Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam leader, reminded me of the days when we were interacting with Black Muslims, as they were called, during our student days while living in Harlem. Contrary to the image of hate of whites, we found our Muslim neighbors cordial once the ice had been broken. Within Harlem it was a well known fact that the Muslims were the most effective group in rescuing people from drug addiction and a criminal life pattern.The news reports of our media back in those days — early 1960s — almost inevitably distorted any news events in Harlem which was viewed as some sort of black whole of crime and brutality. The upshot was that the almost exclusively white police from the outer boros of suburbs were murderously free to do their criminal things, up to and including murdering African Americans on a whim — a young man had spoken back when ordered to move back and would get a bullet in the head and a spare gun of a cop thrown down beside his body to ‘justify’ the murder. Witnesses to the contrary were disregarded and the sort of anger one has seen manifested by Jeremiah Wright was understandable then and a background to the Sean Bell outrage — although two of the 3 police involved in his case are African Americans.

One of the subtleties lost both then and now was/is that there are two quite different Black Muslim traditions that have been competing with each other for half a century — that dominated by Farrakan and that launched by Malcolm X (probably assassinated in 1965 by Farrakan supporters). Malcolm actually went to the Middle East to explore Islam there and became a Sunni. He also had moved far from the hate sources of his tradition towards reconciliation with the rest of us in American society who had, indeed, been racists and oppressors for so many centuries of our minority groups.

There are now two different houses of Muslim worship in Harlem — that of the Farrakan wing and that started by Malcolm. I do not have access to the inner workings of them now, but I suspect that some of the original divergencies are still at work. One thing of which I am sure is that while Farrakan may have moderated his hatreds as he has aged, he is still a man who seems not to have repudiated his bigotries directed against Jews and others. It used to be fashionable in Harlem and presumably in some other inner cities of the North to target Jewish landlords and business people who exploited African Americans. Such prejudices can be flamed and I am sorry to hear the Wright could praise Farrakan for his good works. Perhaps some there are, but what Wright has manifested this past week is that he more likely shares his hatreds with Farrakhan than his respect for good works. Racism blinds all of us to our own particular prejudices.

And so it goes.

Websites for Farrrakhan and Malcolm:

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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