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What's Next for the Nation of Islam?

TONY COX, host:

As Farrakhan continues to step away from his role as the Nation of Islam's leader, the minister leaves behind a controversial legacy. Born Louis Walcott, Farrakhan joined the Nation of Islam in the 1950s, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. He and many others were attracted to the NOI's message of black empowerment. The group also spread controversial ideas of racial separation.

After Farrakhan rebuilt the NOI in the 1970s, he emerged as an influential black public figure whom many critics have called an anti-Semite and a racist. In his later years as head of the Nation of Islam, now based in Chicago, Farrakhan has pushed for reconciliation.

Joining me now to talk about Minister Louis Farrakhan as a leader, is Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. We are also joined by Clarence Page, nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Thank you both for coming on.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you, Tony.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Politics and African American Studies, Princeton University): Yes, good morning.

COX: Let's start with this. Farrakhan's name has been associated quite often with controversy. His public statements and rhetoric have angered Jewish people, they've have angered whites, and they've angered some blacks, as well.

Now, we know how Farrakhan became such a controversial figure. But my question - I'll direct it to you first, Melissa - is as he has gotten older, how has he moved to resolve some of those past remarks, or has he?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I would say that there's really a sort of a two-stage process going on. On the one hand, the Nation of Islam has increasingly embraced connection with typical electoral politics and world politics. So as they moved into the '80s, and particularly into the '90s - certainly the height of 1995 - The Million Man March, there was a sense that the electoral strategy's participation in the American system became more a part of what Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam was teaching.

On the other hand, Farrakhan's authenticity as a black leader, his capacity to draw crowds, has largely been related to the belief that Farrakhan is unbought and unbossed - that he will say anything; that he is a brave leader who will stand up to the powers that be.

And so he's never wanted to get rid of that. Because that's really at the center of his powerbase among African Americans.

COX: Well, would you say, Clarence, that the Million Man March was the apex of the NOI's popularity, at least so far?

Mr. PAGE: I would. That was a significant event, nobody can take that away from him. It was a big risk for him to call for a million black men to show up on the mall in Washington. And he tapped into something that other people weren't detecting in the public mood in the black community at that time. And it was a magnificent event. My own disappointment came afterwards, as I have editorialized, that he didn't make more out of that event.

We have anecdotal evidence of some people going back home and starting some new projects and all. But Farrakhan, instead of building on black progress in American neighborhoods, became more involved in Sudan and other Middle East countries as he tried to extend his international influence. And I think the return from that has been a rather minimal.

COX: Melissa, let's step away from Farrakhan the person for a second, and talk about the Nation of Islam as a whole. Over time it seems to have switched back and forth between a religious movement and a political organization. Which is it mainly today?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, one might claim that all of the African American sacred or spiritual experience is always inherently political, in that for even slaves to have said to their masters in the period of enslavement, God loves me, is in fact a political statement at that moment. So in a way, I think, we could look at all the black spirituality, religious experiences as being connected to a political and social movement.

Now, that said, the Nation is clearly the most explicit. And what I would say is that for the followers, the religious followers of the Nation, it's a spiritual movement. But for those who are followers of Farrakhan, who have a respect for him as a leader but who may profess Christianity or no religious identity at all, it really is simply the racial, political, nationalism of the Nation of Islam which makes it so powerful.

COX: Clarence, would you, and it's always dangerous when you apply tags to organizations or to people, but I would like to get your opinion with regard to whether the NOI should be considered as a fringe organization.

Mr. PAGE: Well, you know, Tom Wolf once said that a cult is a religion that does not have political clout. And that's largely true. Thus, in the black community, the Nation of Islam is a full-fledged religious organization, a very significant one in many of our lives. For mainstream white America, it's fringe, it's a sect off there in the corners with marginal influence.

I think this is an important thing to remember, I mean, I'm old enough to remember back in the '50s, when I was a kid, and the Nation of Islam was - the Fruit of Islam men selling fish and bean pies door-to-door. That was what most black folks knew about Islam. But Malcolm X changed that. I think that he opened up the world of Islam - the real world of Orthodox Islam.

And now, African-Americans see more choices. So we're seeing thousands of African-Americans turning to Orthodox Islam. Not that many turning to the Nation of Islam, although the Nation still has that respect. So I think over the years, it's gone through a lot of changes, reflecting who its leaders or prime spokesman have been.

COX: We got less than a minute. Melissa, I want to direct this towards you because I've noticed, to follow up what Clarence said, more of a presence on the streets than I've seen, say in the last five years, for members of the Nation. Can the group, which is now more than 70 years old, be as relevant and attractive as it was when it was created in a still heavily segregated America.

Ms. LACEWELL: Absolutely, it can be. And, in fact, particularly because the Nation has always had a strong message to African-American male urban youth, and that is a population, which remains woefully underserved by social organizations, political organizations, judicial civil rights organizations, and dare I say - the traditional African-American protestant church. And given that population still is deeply in need, I believe the Nation can continue to serve that population and therefore grow.

COX: Melissa Harris-Lacewell is a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. And Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Chicago Tribune. Thank you both very much for coming on.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you, Tony.

Ms. LACEWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.