Minister Louis Farrakhan, the ``National Representative of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,'' the ``last messenger,'' the leader of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam -- is he a black civil rights and religious leader, or is he a spewer of black racism and anti-Jewish rhetoric? Many black establishment leaders privately criticize him, but he continues to generate considerable interest among blacks.
Blacks who ask not to be quoted by name, say they accept him as a spokesman for economic progress for black people suffering high unemployment in America's urban communities. They accept him as a strong voice against what they see as Jewish exploitation of blacks, and as a black man ``who can speak words we dare not say in public.''
But many also see him as a Muslim who expounds a philosophy that opposes their Christian principles, although he is a family man who neither smokes nor drinks. Many fear that he is ``too outspoken,'' a man who can ``get us into a lot of trouble we don't need,'' as one prominent black leader put it.
Black Muslims are split over his leadership. His Nation of Islam is an offshoot from the original black Muslims, later called the American Muslim Mission, led by Imam (minister) Warith Deen Muhammad, son of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Imam Muhammad calls Minister Farrakhan's movement a ``small, splinter group.''
Some who have heard him speak before say, ``Farrakhan's been talking that same talk for 30 years. I've heard it all.''
One well-known civil rights leader commented: ``He's a great orator. He tells black people what they want to hear, but we know his message. Now that he's a media personality he gets media publicity. If our politicians and the media had not spoken so loudly against him, he would not have drawn the crowd he did Monday night.''
Farrakhan delivered his swan song as a lecturer at New York's Madison Square Garden Monday. He had advertised that his message would deal with POWER (People Organized and Working for Economic Rebirth), his new economic thrust for black people, financed by a $5 million loan from Syria last spring.
On the eve of his scheduled address, three New York politicians -- Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, Mayor Edward I. Koch, and City Clerk David Dinkins -- openly criticized him as a racist who would preach anti-Semitism, racial hatred, and divisiveness. They advised people to boycott the appearance.
But 25,000 people, including 5,000 by closed-circuit television, turned out to see him. They subjected themselves to personal searches for weapons and waited nearly three hours beyond the advertised starting time (7 p.m.) before he appeared.
Born in the Bronx and reared in Boston, Farrakhan was converted to black Muslim by Malcolm X in 1955. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, Farrakhan remained national spokesman for Al-Islam, the new name for black Muslims under the leadership of Walli D. Muhammad, the deceased leader's son.
Minister Farrakhan quit the movement in 1977 and resurfaced as a national personality in 1984 when he announced his support for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, then a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States. When Mr. Jackson was harshly criticized for an ``off the record'' anti-Jewish remark, Farrakhan offered his FOI (Fruit of Islam) security force to protect the ``country preacher.''
In a recent interview, Minister Farrakhan reacted to the mixed response to his fiery oratory by saying, ``Allah is blessing our efforts. We started out with two followers in 1977. Now we are in more than 71 cities.''
He broadcasts nationwide once a week on radio. The movement produces a bimonthly newspaper, the Final Call, which quotes his speeches, lists what Muslims want and believe, and advertises his 119 albums (of his addresses) selling for $8 or $10 each.
Speaking of accepting funds from Syria, he said, ``I'll take aid whereever I can get it as long as no strings are attached.'' The $5 million loan is interest free, he says.
Minister Farrakhan also talks about building bridges of friendship, but he still calls white people ``devils'' because Elijah Muhammad wanted ``to strike the heart of this nation of wicked people so they could see the scope of evil and change.''
He told the New York throng, ``I'm made to look like a wicked man. What will happen to America if anything happens to me?'' The sympathetic crowd responded, ``War! War! War!''
He said of Jews, they are not the ``chosen people.'' Black people are the ``new chosen people. And I say there is no difference between people, no matter what the color.'' At another time he said, ``I don't bend my knees to Jews,'' as he warned black people not to bow to pressures to speak against him.
His business is to rebuild the ``Nation of Islam destroyed by people who hated my people,'' Minister Farrakhan said. ``God sent me to raise up my people economically, mentally, and righteously.''
POWER, he says, is Phase 2 of his plan for black progress, a period when he will stop talking and start building black economic power in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. He proposes an alliance with American Indians. ``They have the land and we have the money.''
Minister Farrakhan has a right to speak out, says Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
``Our business is to fight bigotry in any form whenever it manifests itself,'' he said. ``Mr. Farrakhan's rights should not be denied although we have already denounced his anti-Semitic statements. But his program for black economical development is a message that can benefit many.'' History of black Muslim movement
The black Muslim movement was founded in July 1930 in Detroit by Allah (God) who ``appeared in the person of Master W. Fard Muhammad,'' according to The Final Call, the Nation of Islam newspaper.
Key Muslim goals include full and complete freedom, equal justice under the law, equality of opportunity, a separate state for descendants of American slaves, equal education (but separate for boys and girls), and prohibition of intermarriage or racial mixing.
The original Nation of Islam became Al-Islam. Later it was renamed the American Muslim Movement under Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, son of the late Elijah Muhammad. Earlier this year Imam Muhammad disbanded the American Muslim Movement, calling for the integration of the movement within the worldwide Islamic religion. He still publishes a weekly newspaper, Muslim Journal, and broadcasts weekly on radio.
``There is too much black fixation in the Nation of Islam,'' Imam Muhammad said in an interview. ``Farrakhan is wrong.'' The imam stresses education, and has set up a library and school in Chicago, as well as schools in other communities. Imam Muhammad also has dropped the tight security originally set up by his father and still maintained by Minister Farrakhan.