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Revisiting Louis Farrakhan's Influence Amid Celebrities' Anti-Semitic Comments

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention to a man whose significance and role is being discussed once again. We're talking about Minister Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. He might be best known for his leadership of the Million Man March that brought hundreds of thousands of Black men and boys to Washington, D.C., in 1995 for a daylong convocation around self-help, voter participation and against gun violence. But the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the Nation of Islam a hate group. And the Anti-Defamation League has called Minister Farrakhan America's leading anti-Semite. Farrakhan has been in the public eye for years. But recently, a number of Black celebrities and athletes have praised his philosophies and have faced harsh criticism as a result.

We wanted more perspective on this, so we've called Peniel Joseph. He is a professor of history and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He's written widely about the civil rights and Black Power movements. And he is with us now. Professor Joseph, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, as briefly as you can, given somebody who's had such a long life and career, can you just describe briefly who minister Louis Farrakhan is and why he's so polarizing?

JOSEPH: Well, Louis Farrakhan is one of the leading lights of the Nation of Islam. He was a disciple of both the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. He was a very talented singer who joined the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and quickly rose as Louis X into the upper ranks of the organization, and throughout the 1960s and '70s, really became sort of this charismatic speaker who many considered sort of the heir apparent to Malcolm X. So after the Nation of Islam is reorganized under Louis Farrakhan in the 1980s, he really becomes this grassroots political leader who in many quarters is seen as the boldest critic of white supremacy during the Reagan era.

MARTIN: So what is it about him that causes so much criticism and response? I mentioned the Million Man March in 1995. This was a very - it wound up being an extremely successful event. It is credited with registering, you know, large numbers of people who are said to have had an effect on the 1996 elections. On the other hand, it was a very challenging event for a lot of establishment political figures who had some real questions about whether they should participate or not. Why is that?

JOSEPH: Well, paralleling Louis Farrakhan's really, at times, very, very effective work in terms of organizing and calls for Black political self-determination has been speeches where anti-Semitic references and conspiracies prevail. So on one hand, you've got the Louis Farrakhan who's preaching Black pride and dignity and self-determination. And on the other hand, you have a version that is preaching at times anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, numerology, just different theories that some Black leaders feel unbelievably uncomfortable with, refused to participate in while others feel comfortable enough because of his real importance among the Black grassroots to participate in events like the Million Man March or just even be seen with Farrakhan, taking a picture.

MARTIN: So as we mentioned, a number of stars - athletes, other celebrities - have quoted him recently or who have spoken of him recently and received a lot of criticism for it. I mean, the actor and personality Nick Cannon was fired from a position at Viacom for speaking about Farrakhan and making similar comments on his podcast. Why do you think these particular celebrities and athletes are attracted to Minister Farrakhan? Is it something about his reputation as sort of uncompromising that is attractive to them?

JOSEPH: For some Generation Xers, Farrakhan was their first taste into Black pride and Black dignity, and they've never forgotten. Some of them have shared that with other people. So I think that for people like Nick Cannon, the first time they ever encountered a Black figure who was talking about Blackness with pride and dignity but he also was being criticized for doing that - and not just because of anti-Semitism, just being criticized for doing that - was Louis Farrakhan.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I just wanted to ask, what do you as an historian of these movements - what do you hope people keep in mind as the story - if this story keeps coming up, as it seems to every couple of years?

JOSEPH: Well, I think - I hope we keep in mind that we're at this watershed period in American history. We have so much more commonalities when we think about Blacks and Jews who are interested in human rights and civil rights for all people, including in Palestine, than we do differences and divergences. And so I think that this is a blip. This is not the main story. We should be fighting against anti-Semitism, fighting against anti-Black racism and systemic racism and white supremacy. And I think we're moving forward because of this watershed year that we've all experienced in that battle.

MARTIN: That was Peniel Joseph, professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas. His latest book, "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr.," is out now. Professor Peniel Joseph, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

JOSEPH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.