The controversial leader of the Nation of Islam has stepped aside due to illness, removing the voice of black nationalism from the political discourse in the US.
Louis Farrakhan, who leads the religious group which rose to national prominence under Malcolm X during the civil rights movement, said in a letter to his members that he is stepping aside due to a painful ulcer and infection that has plagued him since March.
The letter, dated Sept. 11, was published in this week's edition of the Final Call newspaper, which Farrakhan founded.
Farrakhan, 73, is one of the most influential black leaders in the US, although he is rarely far from controversy due to his frequent incendiary comments.
He has been accused of being anti-Semitic and made headlines with his accusations that the government deliberately blew up levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in an attempt to wipe out the city's black population.
kernel of truth
But while his proclamations are often extreme, they also often contain a kernel of truth and give voice to the very real feelings of alienation and anger that other black leaders are unable or unwilling to address, said Frank Gilliam, a professor of political science at UCLA.
"There's a lot in his message that speaks to the African American experience that isn't politically correct enough to speak about in mainstream political life but is nonetheless voiced on the street," Gilliam said.
"It's important someone is saying that," he added.
"The fact that the American public was surprised by what happened in Katrina tells you people have no idea of the isolation and alienation that exists in many African American communities," he said.
Once a leader who slung phrases like "white devils" and referred to Jews, Arabs and Asians as "bloodsuckers," Farrakhan began reaching out to other religions and groups after a bout with prostrate cancer. But while he now preaches a message of unity, he continues to rail against the mistreatment of African Americans.
"He still represents that old style of charismatic, critical leadership that says what people feel but are afraid to say," said Scot Brown, a professor of history and African American studies at UCLA.
"Part of the reason that he's important is because he is not constrained by allegiance to a political party or institution," Brown said.
"It's representing a radical voice that is not always what the mainstream wants to hear but it's an important part of the debate on race and justice," he said.
The Nation of Islam was born in Detroit in the 1930's as a religious and nationalistic movement. Its membership swelled in the 1950s under the leadership of Malcolm X, who promoted a strict code of discipline and advocated black pride, self-dependence and the use of violence, if needed, for self-protection.
Internal strife and FBI repression weakened the movement in 1970s, but Farrakhan's message of self-help and empowerment regained popularity in the 1980s, Brown said.
Farrakhan led about 835,000 black men in the Million Man March on Washington in 1995 with the aim of empowering the black community and encouraging civic participation.
`save the race'
Farrakhan urged the crowd to "save the race" from crime and drugs and his message of personal responsibility proved popular.
The Nation of Islam is reported to have about 30,000 to 70,000 members, just a fraction of the estimated 2.5 million black Muslims in the US.
But its rich history and Farrakhan's charisma have kept it firmly planted on the national stage. Whether it can maintain that presence without Farrakhan's leadership remains to be seen.
Farrakhan said he will be available to offer guidance should any major problems arise.
"In this period of testing, you can prove to the world that the Nation of Islam is more than the charisma, eloquence and personality of Louis Farrakhan," he said in the letter to his members.
Farrakhan, who visited Cuba in March, likened his illness to that of Cuban President Fidel Castro and said that just as Cuba did not fall apart without its long-term leader, neither would the Nation of Islam.
He also said he hoped to be able to "continue to serve because I do not believe that my earthly work is done."
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