Farrakhan, Louis,

Farrakhan, 1995
Ron Thomas--Reuters/Copyright Archive Photos

in full LOUIS ABDUL FARRAKHAN, original name LOUIS EUGENE WALCOTT (b. May 11, 1933, Bronx, New York, N.Y., U.S.), African-American leader, from 1978, of the black separatist organization Nation of Islam. A compelling orator whose rhetoric often fell into overt racism and anti-Semitism, Farrakhan was nonetheless effective in encouraging African-American self-reliance and unity.

Farrakhan grew up amid racial tensions in a Boston neighborhood where African-Americans were replacing Jews moving to the suburbs. An honor student and gifted musician, he attended Winston-Salem Teachers College for two years and afterward found work as a calypso guitarist-singer. In 1955 he converted from the Episcopal Church to the Nation of Islam, also called Black Muslims, the unorthodox form of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad.

He rose quickly in the movement, recording an original song "A White Man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell," and writing two plays that were performed in mosques. He assisted Malcolm X at his mosque in Boston, became minister there when Malcolm moved to New York City, and, when Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, Farrakhan denounced and replaced him as minister of Mosque Number Seven in Harlem, New York City. Farrakhan later expressed regret at having contributed to the climate of antagonism toward Malcolm that preceded the assassination.

After Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son W. Deen Muhammad succeeded him as the principal imam, or leader, of the Nation of Islam and altered the organization's course by gradually integrating the estimated 50,000-member Nation into the orthodox Muslim community. In 1978, however, Farrakhan formed his own sect, which he again called the Nation of Islam and which continued or revived features of its predecessor. His followers often were recruited from the poor and alienated; they abstained from pork, intoxicants, and sexual promiscuity and wore distinctive, austere clothing. Farrakhan emphasized the importance of the family and the need for blacks to develop their own economic resources. He preached the inherent wickedness of whites, particularly Jews.

Though the separatism Farrakhan preached had encouraged nonparticipation in the political process, in 1983 he registered to vote and campaigned for Reverend Jesse Jackson's candidacy for U.S. president. Farrakhan withdrew his support after Jewish voters protested his praise of Adolf Hitler. In later speeches he blamed the U.S. government for what he claimed was a conspiracy to destroy black people with AIDS and addictive drugs. Beginning in the late 1980s he cultivated a relationship with the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.

When Qubilah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, was accused in 1995 of plotting to murder Farrakhan, the minister came to her support, winning him reconciliation with Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow. Later that year, Farrakhan rose to the height of his influence as the most prominent organizer of the  "Million Man March" of African-American men in Washington, D.C. At the gathering, several hundred thousand participants affirmed African-American unity and pledged dedication to family values.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

Arthur J. Magida, Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation (1996).