Political Corner: Nation of Islam
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Some wags in Los Angeles call Washington, Hollywood for Ugly People. But perhaps it's more accurate that Washington is filled with ugly and noble acts that impact us on a grand scale.
NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams and political strategists join us to shed some light on what's going on in Washington on Political Corner. Juan?
JUAN WILLIAMS: Thanks, Farai.
We're joined now by two of our regulars, Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. The professor's latest book is called Freedom is Not Enough. Also with us, Reverend Joseph Watkins. He's a member of a government relations firm at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney. Professor Walters was with Jesse Jackson during his two presidential campaigns. Reverend Watkins was in the first President Bush's White House.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining us on the Political Corner.
Reverend JOSEPH WATKINS (Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney): Thanks, Juan.
Professor RON WALTERS (Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland): Good to be with you, Juan.
WILLIAMS: There is much talk about the Reverend Louis Farrakhan. Apparently he is in bad health, possibly near death at age 73. He wrote in a letter to his supporters in the Nation of Islam that he was anemic and 20 pounds lighter, suffering from complications from an ulcer; he had surgery going back in 2000 for prostate cancer.
Let me start with you, Professor, and ask if you think Louis Farrakhan leaves a legacy of much political impact in the United States.
Professor WALTERS: Well, I think it - the term political, Juan, I think it's a very difficult one to dissect, because his work has been essentially among the grassroots in the United States and among the poor and the people in prisons and so forth. That's a population that it is - that's not sort of very visible. And so much of what he has done positive in nature has flown under the radar screen.
And so the political impact when it has come around, for example in 1984 when Reverend Jackson of course needed the support of that element, he was there. He came into electoral politics for the first time, urged his supporters to support Reverend Jackson. That was a clear political impact. And I would say the second point would be at 1995, when he led the Million Man March and which turned out nearly 2 million black males.
When you look at the 1996 presidential election, there was an increase of 2 million more black males over the previous cycle. And the only way people can account for that was by the urging, his urging and the urging of those people who were there, to go and vote.
WILLIAMS: And, Joe Watkins, when you look at those two incidents that were cited by Professor Walters, going back first of all to the 1984 Jackson campaign. Farrakhan became quite a controversial figure during that campaign, saying that he was going to defend Jesse Jackson after Jackson got caught up in a bit of a controversy for referring to New York as hymie town, and Farrakhan said he would defend Jackson against Jewish critics.
Did this in any way hurt Jackson's campaign in your mind? Looking at it from the Republican side.
Rev. WATKINS: Well, certainly it had an impact on the Jackson campaign. It was a blip really in the campaign because he was able to rebound from that. And I don't think anybody today would accuse Jesse Jackson in the least of being anti-Semitic.
But it was more difficult I think for Farrakhan to shed that image. Because well into the late 1980's he was still combating the sense that he was anti-Semitic because of some of the remarks and sentiments that he had shared in some of his speeches. He's a very talented speaker, as we all know. And the Million Man March, which he led, organized and led, was hugely successful. And he really is responsible for so many African-American men becoming aware of their own need to be personally responsible for their actions. So those are two events that stick out in my mind as well.
WILLIAMS: Well, when you look at the second incident that the professor, Professor Walters cited, the march, the Million Man March, that has not been able to be replicated. It was a one-time event. Why do you think that it was a one-time event and not something that the nation and Farrakhan were able to build upon?
Prof. WALTERS: If you ask me, I would guess that part of it has to do with the fact that communications now is changing in America, well in the world really. In the 1980s, we didn't have - and the early 1990s - Even in the 1990, '89, '90 and '91, when I was working at the White House, we didn't have e-mail, very few people had cell phones. We didn't have all the stuff that we have today. And so people communicated a lot differently than they did even 15 years ago, 16 years ago. And I just think it's the result that it's harder to get people together to march. People can communicate instantly with folks halfway around the world by virtue of the Internet and television and radio and other means, and so marches have become more difficult to organize.
WILLIAMS: All right. Reverend Joe Watkins is a member of a government relations firm at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney and served in the first President Bush's administration. Ron Walters is the professor of political science at the University of Maryland and a key adviser during Jesse Jackson's two campaigns for president. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us this week on Political Corner.
Rev. WATKINS: Thanks a lot for having me.
Prof. Walters: Thanks for having me.
WILLIAMS: Back to you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Thanks, Juan. Join Juan Williams and our panel of political strategists every Thursday on Political Corner.
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