Louis Farrakhan is the leader of the Nation of Islam, an organization he helped reconstitute in 1977. He has been praised by his supporters as an influential and eloquent leader who has used his position of authority to foster a stronger sense of self among African Americans, such as in his organization of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Farrakhan’s detractors, however, have decried him as a racist who traffics in divisive and antagonistic rhetoric.
His espousal of many specific conspiracy theories as well as his tendency to speak generally of “the enemy” and “ them” has led critics to label him a purveyor of paranoia.
Born Louis Eugene Walcott in New York City, Farrakhan was raised in Boston by his mother. He never knew his father (who died when Farrakhan was three years old), but his mother was a strong disciplinarian and devout Episcopalian who had a strong influence on his life.
As a young man, he went into show business, becoming a well-known singer, musician, and dancer under the stage name of “Calypso Gene.” Persuaded by Malcolm X to attend a speech given by Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan became a member of the Nation of Islam in 1955. He changed his name first to Louis X, then to Louis Haleem Abdul Farrakhan in 1965.
Farrakhan rose to prominence in the Nation of Islam, replacing Malcolm X as leader of the Temple in New York City after his assassination in 1965. After the death of the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, in 1975, the leadership of the Black Muslims passed to Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Muhammad.
The younger Muhammad soon abandoned many of the tenets of his father and changed the name of the group several times. Farrakhan led a movement to reestablish the traditions of Elijah Muhammad, and in 1977, he became the leader of a reconstituted Nation of Islam.
Farrakhan’s powerful and often divisive rhetoric has won him both staunch support and strong animosity in and out of the Black Muslim movement. After Malcolm X broke with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in 1964, Farrakhan wrote in the Nation, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam, that such people were “worthy of death.” The fact that these words were published shortly before the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 fueled speculation that Farrakhan was involved in a conspiracy to kill his rival.
The nature of the relationship between Farrakhan and Malcolm X has continued to be a source of controversy. In 1995, Qubilah Shabazz, one of the daughters of Malcolm X, was arrested on suspicion of plotting Farrakhan’s assassination in retaliation for her father’s murder.
The case was suspended, however, and Qubilah was sent to a psychiatric care center in Texas. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, reconciled with Farrakhan and Farrakhan stated that both he and Shabazz were victims of a “larger conspiracy.”
Farrakhan often uses language and imagery that suggest he himself is a target of persecution and conspiracy. He has often hinted that drugs, crack cocaine in particular, were brought into black communities by the federal government as a way of destroying them, and that this was in part a response to his own growing influence during the 1980s.
Farrakhan has been denounced as an antisemite, largely because of statements in which he has suggested Jews played a dominant role in the slave trade. He has also suggested that Jews created AIDS and intentionally infected black children with it. A number of Farrakhan’s assistants have also caused controversy by making antisemitic remarks.
He has also been accused of more general racism toward white people for his adherence to many of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad that describe white people as “blue-eyed devils” who have conspired to rob blacks of their rightful place in society. A firm proponent of race separatism, Farrakhan has preached the evils of blacks marrying nonblacks (and whites in particular).
Farrakhan also invokes well-worn images of conspiracy in his rhetoric, including references to Masonic orders, multinational bankers, and numerology.
Supporters counter that he is simply carrying on the call for self-reliance that has been at the heart of the Black Muslim movement since its inception. This self-reliance, they argue, necessitates a separation from white culture, but it should not be equated with racism.
Farrakhan has also been condemned for his role on the international stage, particularly his trips to Libya, Syria, and Iraq. For several years, he was banned from entering Great Britain.
Yet Farrakhan has often turned his condemnation by others into a political asset, suggesting that he is criticized because he represents a real threat to the political and economic systems that still enslave African Americans. He has often suggested that he is the subject of numerous assassination plots by those who fear his message of black empowerment.
In recent years, however, Farrakhan has taken some steps to broaden his appeal. In 1995, Farrakhan led the organization of the Million Man March, a gathering of African American men in Washington, D.C., for a “day of atonement.” While Farrakhan’s involvement caused controversy, even some of his critics conceded that the march had the potential to be a catalyst for positive change.
Farrakhan also moved the Nation of Islam closer in its belief systems to traditional Islam, which helped reconcile him with Warith Mohammad. Although they still maintained leadership of two separate groups, Farrakhan and Mohammad announced their unity at the second International Islamic Conference in Chicago in February 2000.