LOUIS FARRAKHAN, the bow-tie sporting leader of the black nationalist Nation of Islam and the man behind the Million Man March, could hardly be a more controversial figure.
Critics cast him as a bigot, militant separatist, and hate-monger who thrives on black resentment and preaches about how the white race was created 6,000 years ago by a troubled black scientist named Yakub.
Supporters see Mr. Farrakhan as a deeply pious, disciplined, family man who plays the violin, works out daily, and routinely rises at 5 a.m. at his mansion on Chicago's South Side to pray.
"He's one of the most gracious people I know," says the Rev. Michel Pfleger, a white Roman Catholic priest in Chicago who has known him for more than 10 years.
For most blacks, the truth about Farrakhan lies somewhere in between. But one thing is certain, analysts say: If the rally in Washington attracts even 100,000 black men, Farrakhan will walk away from it as an American political force to be reckoned with.
Louis Farrakhan Strides to the Political Front Line
"If this march is in any way successful, Louis Farrakhan will have to be incorporated among the mainstream black leaders as one of them," says Curtis Stokes, assistant director of African-American studies at Columbia University.
"He will have done something that none of them could do: get black America to listen to his program, and follow through."
Farrakhan seeks to use his leverage to promote a new, independent black political movement in the run-up to the 1996 elections, pundits say. Organizers hope today's march will provide the critical mass for such a movement, which could shake up voting coalitions and could hurt Democratic candidates, both black and white, who have traditionally drawn more black voters than Republicans.
"There is a tremendous dissatisfaction among black people with the existing parties," says Ron Daniels, chairman of the independent black group Campaign for a New Tomorrow and a former campaign manager for Jesse Jackson. "A lot of leaders have become part of the system. They play by the rules and are disconnected from the agony of the masses of black people."
The threat of a maverick black political movement has led some established black elected officials, civil rights activists, and religious leaders to hedge their bets and back the march despite misgivings about Farrakhan, analysts say.
"The traditional black leadership class is running scared," says Professor Stokes. "These people don't want to get left behind a fast-moving train."
But while publicity for today's march has already boosted Farrakhan's prominence, observers differ sharply over how much credit he can claim for the rally's broad appeal in the black community.
Some argue that Farrakhan's charismatic and fiery black nationalism, combined with the Nation of Islam's tradition of grass-roots organizing, has earned him a loyal following, especially in poor and working-class black neighborhoods.
"The Nation of Islam has some respect," says Reginald Wilhight, a Chicago mail clerk who grew up in a tough, gang-torn section of the city's West Side. "They are the only ones who come into the worst neighborhoods" to persuade youths to turn around their lives, he says.
Unlike any other African-American figure today, Farrakhan routinely draws audiences ranging from several thousand to up to 50,000 people. Many who attend are not members of his relatively small Nation of Islam, which has from 50,000 to 100,000 members out of an estimated 1.5 million black Muslims in the United States.
Farrakhan has advocated self-sufficiency, conservative morals, and grass-roots capitalism for the black community since he was recruited to the Nation during its heyday in the 1950s. Today, he is pushing an ambitious economic program to raise $10 million to expand Nation-owned publications, transport and security firms, restaurants, and farm land.
More than 50 percent of blacks believe Farrakhan "speaks the truth" and has been "good" for the African-American community and a positive influence on black youths, according to a poll last year by the Boston-based firm Marttila and Kiley.
Many analysts, however, stress that today's marchers are inspired less by Farrakhan than by the message of self-reliance and responsibility he has articulated - a timely message because of despair over the state of black America and frustration with the conservative agenda of the Republican Congress.
"The march transcends a personality," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta and a key march supporter.
Dire problems of unemployment, criminalization, and social alienation are leading black men to join the march despite any dislike of Farrakhan, says C. Eric Lincoln, professor emeritus at Duke University and an expert on black Muslims in America.
"You don't have to like oysters to appreciate the value of pearls," he says.