The recent 5-4 US Supreme Court decision that declared that certain provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act are no longer needed had two important Alabama connections. Well-known is the fact that the suit was brought by Alabama’s Shelby County; less known is an incident in our state involving anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.
To call attention to the then-pending case, a group of black officials brought the Jew-hating, race-baiting Farrakhan to Alabama to speak at rallies in Birmingham, adjacent Shelby County, Selma and Montgomery. In Birmingham, Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, spoke at Kelly Ingram Park.
The park is one of the nation’s most sacred civil rights sites. At this park 50 years ago, courageous African-Americans braved police dogs and fire hoses, because they believed blacks should have the same rights as other Americans.
Watching Farrakhan speak to the almost totally African-American crowd was chilling. It was easy to imagine Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shaking his head in sadness over some of today’s civil rights leaders turning to a venomous figure like Farrakhan, who compares Jews to Satan, to help lead their cause.
Sharing the stage with Farrakhan was Charles Steele, CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization once led by Dr. King. Steele was effusive in his praise of Farrakhan, thanking him, in particular, for coming to the financial rescue of the SCLC.
Leading up to Farrakhan’s arrival, the Birmingham Jewish Federation let the Alabama news media and public know about Farrakhan’s well-documented hostility toward Jews. Through this effort, the Federation shared details of Farrakhan’s recent appearance at Fellowship Chapel in Detroit. Farrakhan, according to the Detroit Free Press, railed against “Satanic Jews.” He also alleged that President Obama has “surrounded himself with Satan…members of the Jewish community.”
One black leader who was at the Detroit speech condemned Farrakhan’s remarks. “Farrakhan made unacceptable racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic statements,” said Detroit Congressman John Conyers. “The fact that Minister Farrakhan has engaged in important charitable work aimed at expanding economic opportunities for underserved communities does not excuse these statements.”
Farrakhan began his Birmingham talk in a low-key, almost hypnotic style. Then, like a teapot starting to boil, he took an angry shot at the Jews. “You cannot find one synagogue harmed or one Jewish person harmed,” he said. “However, I won’t be silent when I know the truth.” The crowd cheered. There likely would have been more singling out of Jews had Farrakhan not needed to get to his next stop.
In his last speech of the day, in Montgomery, Farrakhan boiled over. He launched a blistering attack on Jews, the Birmingham Jewish Federation, and me as its executive director. Referring to a piece I had written on Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism that was posted on one of Alabama’s major news sites, Farrakhan said I had “put a sin on someone who is innocent.” He also said that because I live in Alabama, where harsh segregation laws once prevailed, I had no right to criticize him.
It was clear from his visit to Alabama, that Farrakhan provides his frustrated followers with two things they need: a savior and a scapegoat.
One woman waiting to hear Farrakhan speak in Birmingham told the Alabama news site al.com, “I think all so-called religions and knowledgeable people are looking for the Jesus….Today they will be able to see him.” A black lawyer, who, along with her husband, a prominent African-American state senator, helped organize the rallies, called Farrakhan “one of the greatest leaders of our generation,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser. “I don’t care what the Jews say,” she added for emphasis.
Frustrating were efforts to get prominent black officials to dissociate themselves publicly from Farrakhan. One said, “I have no plans to publicly appear at any activities surrounding Mr. Farrakhan’s visit. I have never attended an event that he was associated with and that will not change.”
However, he added, “I will not, reluctantly, denounce his visit, but know that I’m against anyone who shows hatred towards any group of people or individual. I will remain publicly silent regarding his visit. If you get other Birmingham African-American leaders/elected officials to make statements opposed to his visit, I will rethink my position of not getting publicly involved.”
Some black leaders did speak out. The group that brought Farrakhan to Birmingham originally announced he would be speaking at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four young black girls were killed in a 1963 racial bombing. Church leaders quickly made it clear that no such arrangements had been made and Farrakhan would not be speaking at the church. “There is no way Farrakhan is going to speak at our church,” a church leader said privately.
African-American concerns over the Supreme Court’s decision are legitimate. Still, having the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader appear in our city was jarring, particularly as Birmingham celebrates the 50th anniversary of 1963, a pivotal year in the Civil Rights movement and our city’s history.
For those of us who live in Birmingham, this 50th anniversary year has been a year of introspection, reconciliation and renewal. Farrakhan at Kelly Ingram Park was an insult to the legacy of those who risked their lives for a world free of bigotry and hatred.