Will Detroit Speech Be Farrakhan's Farewell?

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At Detroit's Ford Field, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan delivers what is likely to be his last major public address. The 73-year-old minister is battling cancer. Farrakhan called for religious unity in a world where he said various faiths are at war.

TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'M Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan delivered yesterday, with many are reporting to be, his last major public address. The 73-year-old minister has been in poor health lately as he battles cancer. Still, Farrakhan had the strength to address thousands at Ford Field Football Stadium in Detroit, the city where the Nation of Islam was founded more than 75 years ago.

Celebrities and church bigwigs looked on as Minister Farrakhan said that his time heading the Nation of Islam is coming to a close. He called for religious unity in a world where, he said, various faiths are at war with one another.

Here to tell us more about Farrakhan's speech yesterday is NPR's Rachel Martin who is in Detroit. Hello, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN: Hi, Tony.

COX: Set the scene for us, will you please? Who was there?

MARTIN: Well, Ford Field was full. There tens of thousands of people. There were political dignitaries, community leaders, national black leaders, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Members of the Nation of Islam were dressed in traditional Nation uniforms, navy blue and red for the young men; the women were clad in white gowns and white hijab or head coverings. And they were all there to mark what they saw is a very significant event.

The location itself was very significant. This is Ford Field in what used to be known as Black Bottom Detroit. And this is where Fard Muhammad, 77 years ago, established the Nation of Islam.

COX: Talk about the main things of Farrakhan's speech. For example, was it a speech of conciliation, or confrontation, or perhaps both?

MARTIN: Well, a little bit of both. The speech was billed and titled, One Nation Under God. And that was definitely a theme that Farrakhan returned to. He started out calling for more unity among people of all faiths, and specifically calling out for an end to Sunni and Shia violence in Iraq. And explicitly calling for more cooperation between Christians and Muslims as he does in this clip here.

(Soundbite of speech)

Minister LOUIS FARRAKHAN (Leader, Nation of Islam): If Moses and the prophets and Abraham, the father, would be on this podium with all the prophets they would embrace each other. How can we who are people of God cannot embrace each other in the love of God and the love of the prophets that we claim?

(Soundbite of applause)

COX: Rachel, what else did he talk about?

MARTIN: Well, Farrakhan spoke for well over an hour. And the bulk of that message was really about U.S. foreign policy. It was a very political message. He denounced the Bush administration and specifically the war in Iraq, calling it unholy and unjustified. Even going so far as to tell his audience to turn their back on the war and to reject military recruiting efforts.

COX: Did he leave the audience with any sense about his future, or the future of the Nation of Islam?

MARTIN: Well, Minister Farrakhan has already acknowledged that he is stepping back from his leadership position of the Nation of Islam. Last year, he appointed an executive committee to oversee the day-to-day operations of the organization. And in this speech, he made it very clear that he's moving on. Here's a little of what he said.

Minister FARRAKHAN: My time is up. The final call can't last forever.

COX: What was your sense of what his speech and his appearance meant to the people who came to see him?

MARTIN: Well, I talked with several people who said that the minister's presence at this event was very profound for them, and they had been praying for him to recover from his health problems, and just to see him standing there being to deliver a very significant lengthy address was a real joy for them to see.

And even though this has been hailed as a goodbye, many people are reticent to call it that. So even though he maybe stepping down in an official capacity, many people consider him their spiritual leader. And will do so as long as he remains healthy.

COX: NPR's Rachel Martin. Rachel, thank you.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

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Ailing Farrakhan Bids Adieu to Public Role

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In a speech billed as his last major public address, Minister Louis Farrakhan, ailing leader of the Nation of Islam, lambasted the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Farrakhan was speaking Sunday night to tens of thousands of Nation of Islam members in Detroit, where the movement began.

"God is angry because of the ideas of neoconservatives," Farrakhan said. "Many so-called Jews and Christians have accepted the philosophy of an imperialist America, even without any aggression or provocation."

With all the drama and rhetorical flair his audiences have come to expect from him, Farrakhan told the crowd to turn its back on the war in Iraq and what he called the false promises of military recruiters.

Farrakhan recently underwent surgery for complications from prostate cancer. And even though many within the Nation were hesitant to call this a good-bye speech, Farrakhan himself, his voice quivering, said it was just that.

"My time is up. The final call can't last forever."

That's a difficult message for some loyal followers to hear. Minister Jeffrey Muhammad has been a member of the Nation for 17 years and works in the group's Chicago offices. For him, and many people at the speech, Farrakhan represents much more than a spiritual leader.

"Minister Farrakhan is a living example for me of how to be a father, of how to be a brother, of how to be a man, of how to be a man striving to life his life right," Muhammad said.

Muhammad said the message keeps attracting followers. It's hard to gauge membership in the group, which insiders describe as a religious movement with a political and economic agenda to improve the condition of blacks in America.

But many credit Farrakhan with breathing new life into the Nation of Islam in the early 1980s. His greatest public success was the Million Man March in 1995, when hundreds of thousands of African-American men flooded Washington, D.C., in a powerful act of solidarity. That never could have happened without Louis Farrakhan, says one of his biographers, Arthur Magida.

The Nation of Islam "has thrived, ever since its founding in the 1930s by Elijah Muhammad, on a single charismatic authority and someone whose enunciations and edicts you don't breach," Magida said. "There's nobody right now within the nation who can muster that same kind of aura that Louis Farrakhan does. Nobody comes close."

So a big question remains: What happens to the Nation of Islam now that Farrakhan is stepping away?

"If the principles that he taught us from the Hon. Elijah Muhammad have been internalized by the brothers and sisters who make up the Nation of Islam, then when God takes [Farrakhan], this struggle will go on," said Akbar Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's head of international affairs.

A successor to Farrakhan hasn't been named yet. But as he spoke for more than an hour, on his feet, the 73-year-old appeared vigorous. In his final remarks he said he doesn't see expiration in his future, but rather exultation.

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