By JONATHAN TILOVE
October 18, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Tim Russert confronted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with fresh evidence from a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of President Bush’s abysmal standing with black Americans.
“How troubling is that to you, that only 2 percent of African-Americans say that George Bush is doing a good job as president?” Russert asked.
A day earlier, a broad cross-section of black Americans and their political and organizational leadership had gathered on the National Mall, beckoned by Minister Louis Farrakhan who declared that the Bush administration ought to be charged with “criminal neglect,” at the very least, in the deaths of black victims of Hurricane Katrina.
It has been 140 years since the end of the Civil War; 40 years since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. But it was never more plain than this past weekend just how different black America’s terrain is from the rest of the nation’s, how distinct and distant is its center of gravity. Any fig leaf of doubt about that was blown away by Katrina, and the racial reckoning that has followed.
Gone with the wind was whatever ground that the Bush administration _ which,as Rice reminded Russert, named both the first and second black secretaries of state in U.S. history _ had gained with blacks.
The occasion Saturday was the Millions More Movement, a 10th anniversary commemoration of the Million Man March, the Farrakhan master stroke that became the largest mass gathering of blacks in American history.
Farrakhan remains an eccentric figure. According to a chronology contained in a special edition of the Final Call, the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam, sold at this year’s gathering, his inspiration for the Million Man March can be traced back to instructions he received aboard a spaceship in Mexico in 1985.
Even in the aftermath of that march’s success, Farrakhan remained a figure about whom the black community split down the middle, according to surveys in 1996 and 1997 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
On the day of the Million Man March, a group of Howard University researchers surveyed some 1,200 attendees. According to political scientist Joseph P. McCormick II, who has since moved form Howard to Penn State’s York campus, most said they were drawn to the march not by Farrakhan but by the desire to express and celebrate their unity. McCormick, who was on the National Mall again this time, said he believes that motivation remains much the same.
It is also possible, said Michael Fauntroy, a political scientist at George Mason University who also attended both marches, to be inspired by Farrakhan’s black nationalist program without considering it practical.
Standing before the U.S. Capitol, Farrakhan called on black America to seize its own destiny, creating its own ministries of health and education, of agriculture, science and industry, of information and the arts, of the spirit and of defense. Along the way, Farrakhan extolled the virtues of Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro.
More so than 10 years ago, Farrakhan this time could claim that “our whole spectrum of black thought was represented here on the stage.”
Marc Morial, head of the Urban League, spoke, as did U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., a cautious politician who now heads the Congressional Black Caucus. Jesse Jackson and Dorothy Height were back again. Julianne Malveaux, an economist and commentator who criticized the Million Man March for excluding women, emceed much of this year’s program.
“I would like to thank Brother Minister Louis Farrakhan for having the vision and determination to bring us together,” said Cornel West, a professor of religion at Princeton University and one of the nation’s most noted thinkers on race.
Clearly, racial solidarity, a sense of shared pride and pain, trumped ideological or political differences, and those who would choose to stay away were portrayed as weak and disloyal.
“This is no time for bowing and scraping,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “This is no time for buck dancing and genuflecting. Our people are dying in Iraq, are being drowned in New Orleans, and you’re going to sit around scared?”
Katrina certainly heightened the existing sense of a community in crisis, unloved by the nation’s powers that be.
“I firmly believe that if the people on those rooftops had blond hair and blue eyes and pale skin, something would have been done in a more timely manner,” Farrakhan said. According to polls, most African-Americans agree. But Farrakhan has gone further, questioning whether levees in New Orleans were intentionally blown up to wipe out black neighborhoods.
When he raised that possibility two days before the march at the National Press Club, a white reporter from the conservative Weekly Standard asked him, “Are you afraid people might think you’re nuts for putting this out there?”
“Well no,” Farrakhan replied. “No, there’s too many people who think just like me and they’re not nuts.”
“He says things many black people think,” McCormick said. “Therein lies, not his credibility, but his popularity.”
Farrakhan’s emergence as a galvanizing figure has also coincided with a fallow period of black leadership. All the black members of Congress are Democrats, stuck for years in minority status. Bush is in his second term.
The small sample size of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll means a large margin of error for the finding that Bush had only 2 percent support among blacks; another new survey, by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, found 12 percent of blacks rating Bush positively.
Either way, no group of Americans feels so estranged from the nation’s leadership.
And, tellingly, even the large gathering on the National Mall was given only cursory coverage by much of the mainstream press. Consider that after Farrakhan heaped praise on Castro’s Cuba _ still regarded by the U.S. government as a terrorist state _ the giant video screens arrayed along the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument offered the assemblage recorded words of greeting and support from Ricardo Alarcon, the head of the Cuban National Assembly, all with barely a murmur of controversy or journalistic comment.
It was as if this were happening not at the very epicenter of the nation’s civic space, but in some faraway placed called black America.