A PLAN by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to lead a ``1-million-man'' march on Washington next year has intensified a debate over how closely mainstream black organizations should work with the charismatic but controversial black leader.
The premier civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus have made overtures toward Minister Farrakhan in an attempt to work with him, to the dismay of those longtime NAACP allies who see him as divisive.
Farrakhan has become immensely popular among low-income blacks, drawing large crowds and hefty speaking fees that far exceed those of traditional black leaders, who increasingly represent a rising black middle class.
For a second time, Farrakhan has been invited by the NAACP to an African-American summit, this one on Aug. 21 in Baltimore, which follows one last June.
His style of confronting bigotry with bigotry appeals to many blacks, but makes many whites cringe. And Jews and many others are unforgiving of his anti-Semitic rhetoric - although he has softened such talk since last year. Some Jewish rabbis in southern Florida even concede that Farrakhan helps many blacks through his community efforts.
Farrakhan addresses concerns that are critical to blacks, but which no one else is addressing, said George Curry, editor in chief of Emerge magazine in Arlington, Va., who has covered Farrakhan for more than a decade.
While the black middle class continues to grow, a good number of blacks are still trapped in poverty, overwhelmed by drugs and crime, and a Farrakhan-led march in Washington would dramatize their situation. About 19.9 percent of blacks live in poverty in inner cities, according to the US Census.
Black leaders are trying to figure out how to address the concerns of this group as effectively as Farrakhan does. Farrakhan has a message of black economic self-reliance, self-discipline, and the importance of family - and he also gets results.
In cities such as Chicago, Washington, and Detroit, members of the Nation of Islam have reclaimed drug-infested housing projects that police had all but given up on, turning them into livable communities. The organization has recruited prison inmates, drug addicts, and inner- city gang members and turned many into law-abiding, self-supporting citizens.
The purpose of the proposed march, Farrakhan said in announcing it July 31, will be to ``make demands on our government, and on ourselves.'' Many analysts doubt, however, that a march on Washington led by Farrakhan will achieve anything of significance. When Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, he drew half a million people. The march galvanized the country and led to the passage of civil rights laws that broke down barriers that had kept blacks on the margins of society.
Today, though, the kind of public-policy issues that sustained the 1963 march are not on the table, these analysts say. What has changed today is that there is now a diversity of interests among blacks, and the traditional black leadership is having a hard time adequately addressing them all. The common interest that was once forged among blacks by racism no longer holds, some analysts say.
``Black professionals and educators and entrepreneurs do not have the same interests as welfare mothers, the unemployed, and the homeless,'' says Manning Marable, director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African American Studies in New York.
The black middle class has grown from about 5 percent of the black community before the civil rights laws were passed to about 25 percent. Blacks are no longer restrained by racial segregation laws, and as they enter the middle class, their concerns run parallel to those of most whites: property values, taxes, and PTA meetings.
But with 23 percent of young black males nationwide either in jail, on probation, or under some kind of court-ordered supervision, ``the black male feels like a war has been waged on him, and only Farrakhan is legitimizing black males,'' says Ronald Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University in Washington.
Last year, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, announced that the caucus will enter a ``sacred covenant'' to work with the Nation of Islam. And the NAACP plans to work with Farrakhan to find solutions to problems confronting blacks.
``They [the black leadership] are saying, `We may be different in a lot of ways, but we can all sit at the table,' '' Mr. Curry says.
Mr. Walters says a Farrakhan-led march on Washington ``will be a consummation ... that he is a bona fide African American leader... but lacks the ability to be well-received in the press and in the councils of public policy.''