There are those—like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.—taken from us too soon. Then there are those who live on into historical obsolescence. And so it is that Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan who turns 80 this month.
Had Farrakhan’s battle with prostate cancer ended soon after 1996’s Million Man March on Washington, his legacy would have been quite different than now. Then, he staged a political triumph by attracting some 700,000 African Americans around such goals as reducing drug abuse and gang crime. Despite his bizarre three-hour speech at the event—free of anti-Semitism but replete with conspiracy theories right out of the UFO and anti-Masonic playbooks—he would have been lauded for the climax of his controversial career in a remarkable feat of African American cultural renewal.
Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper and I have continued to track Farrakhan in hopes of a change of mind and heart that would open the door to a productive dialogue with the Jewish community. No such luck. What we’ve got instead are calculated teases when Farrakhan promises to meet with rabbis, combined with self-justifying declarations that he’s “only told the truth” about Jews—whom hearing “the truth hurts”—followed by renewed outbursts of anti-Semitism. In 1978, after Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Muhammed, moved in the direction of authentic Islam, Farrakhan broke with him and reconstituted the NOI. He became notorious in the 1980s for calling Judaism a “gutter” or “dirty” religion and Hitler “a great man”—statements his apologists continue to try to explain away.
Born Louis Eugene Wolcott in the Bronx in 1933, he first tried a career as a pop singer, billed “Calypso Gene” or “The Charmer,” before emerging into prominence under the name Minister Louis X (later changed to Farrakhan), as a disciple of Malcolm X in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Farrakhan’s NOI career had elements of a Shakespearean tragedy with him self-cast as the betrayer of his mentor, Malcolm X, whom Ossie Davis eulogized as “our own black shining prince!”