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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 17:56 GMT
Louis Farrakhan: Prophet or bigot?
Controversial and charismatic: Is Louis Farrakhan set to visit Britain?
Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit looks at the charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam

Black supremacist, Fascist sympathiser, anti-Semite...or a legitimate spiritual and political voice of the African-American community?

The arguments aired in The Court of Appeal in London over the Muslim black activist, Louis Farrakhan, have provided just a hint of the controversy surrounding the man intent on spreading his message to Britain.

While his organisation has existed for many years, The Nation of Islam (NoI) thrust itself into the unwitting consciousness of most of Britain in 1998 when its followers, wearing uniforms of dark suits, red bow ties and cropped hair, were involved in scuffles as they tried to enter the London inquiry into the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Nation of Islam activists at the Lawrence Inquiry
Nation of Islam activists at the Lawrence Inquiry
By then their leader, Louis Farrakhan, had already been banned for 12 years from visiting Britain by successive Home Secretaries because of fears engendered by his many inflammatory remarks.

This was the man who had described Judaism as "a gutter religion", characterised Christianity as an oppressive faith linked to the slavery of black people and called Adolf Hitler "great", although he said later that he had meant "wickedly great".

The importance of his organisation was demonstrated by the Million Man March in October, 1995, when the centre of Washington DC, was brought to a standstill by black men engaged in "a holy day of atonement and reconciliation".

Precocious scholar

Farrakhan was born Louis Walcott in Massachusetts, in 1933. His father died when he was three years old and he was raised by his mother, who took him to Boston.

An outstanding and precocious scholar, he was an accomplished violinist by the age of 13, playing with the Boston Civic Symphony orchestra.

But he dropped out of college to support his family and carved out a career as a calypso singer in Chicago's nightclubs.

It was while he was starring in a show in 1955 that he attended a meeting of the Nation of Islam and was recruited by Malcolm X.

The young Farrakhan in Nation of Islam uniform
The young Farrakhan in Nation of Islam uniform
"I adored him", said Farrakhan. But while the group gained its most high-profile member in Muhammad Ali, it lost Malcolm X when he left to pursue his own brand of radical black politics.

Farrakhan denounced his former friend. When Malcolm X was subsequently murdered in 1965, it led to years of acrimony between his family and Louis Farrakhan, largely blamed by them for the death.

To this day, Farrakhan denies that his comments provided a de facto green light to the killers.

But in 2000, he achieved a concilliation with Malcom X's family, partly through a television interview in which he apologised for some of the things he had said.

When the NoI's leader died in 1975, the group split in two with one faction adopting milder views. The other much smaller group was led by Farrakhan who by now was a minister in Harlem, New York City.

Electrifying Orator

An electrifying orator, Louis Farrakhan proceeded to make a name for himself on the national stage, supporting the Reverend Jesse Jackson's bid for the White House in 1984 and rivalling him in popularity among black people.

However, in recent years, he has sounded a more conciliatory tone. At Christmas in 1999 he said he was a "changed man" after a "near-death experience" caused by prostate cancer.

Standing with Catholic priests and rabbis at a gathering in Chicago, he called on all peoples of the world to "end the cycle of hatred".

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali: Nation of Islam's most famous convert
Farrakhan added that Christmas should not be observed with "drunkenness, frivolity, filth and foolishness, mocking the name of Jesus Christ".

Farrakhan seeks to lead by example. Although he has a home of relative luxury in Chicago, his lifestyle is one of moral restraint. He eats only one meal a day, drinks no alcohol, never smokes and has been married for 43 years.

A consummate politician who demands attention in Washington, Farrakhan's essential genius has been his ability to channel anger and resentment into a creative alternative.


In the US, NoI-owned bakeries and laundrettes proliferate. Black parents in Chicago clamour to get their children into a Nation of Islam school because of its tight discipline.

The chief aim of the organisation is to instil self-respect by overcoming drug abuse, street gangs, poverty and family disintegration. Farrakhan's speeches to young black men are often uncompromising. He tells them: "You have become your own worst enemy".

Louis Farrakhan preaching wearing a green robe
The preacher in full flight
There are probably no more than 2000 British members of the Nation of Islam. It has two centres in poor, racially-mixed areas of London, Brixton and Stoke Newington, and a branch in Birmingham.

But at a time of growing alarm over street crime, much of it black-on-black, the group's UK spokesman, Hilary Muhammad, says a visit to Britain by Louis Farrakhan would reduce the "inordinate amount" of such offences.

See also:

15 May 00 | Americas
31 Jul 01 | UK
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