African Americans and American Jews: A Tale of Two Messengers

05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Juxtapose these two recent events that occurred on the same day a half a continent away and an ideological world apart.

First, a high-profile event at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance (MOT) where the 101 year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) strengthened its partnership with the Jewish Community, while at the same time it powerfully reaffirmed its commitment to self-renewal. Some three hundred delegates from across America, included descendants of Frederick Douglass-the runaway slave and unmatched abolitionist orator--and pioneering African American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, witnessed a ceremony attended by national NAACP leaders including 37 year-old President and CEO Ben Jealous and retiring NAACP Board Chair Julian Bond.

Passing the leadership torch to a new generation, Julian Bond introduced his successor as NAACP Board Chair, Roslyn M. Brock: only a preschooler when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and the youngest African American woman elected NAACP Chairperson. Brock promised forward-looking leadership that will connect with members of today's African American "Millennial Generation." Born in Florida to a single mother and "from a long line of Baptist preachers," Brock stood by as Reverend Cecil House delivered an invocation on the day that the Hebrew Calendar marks The Fast of Esther. Alluding to the Jewish holiday of Purim, he told Roslyn Brock: "you are our Esther." (Esther was the young woman in the Bible who saved the Jewish People from a threatened Genocide in ancient Persia). Julian Bond-a great civil rights leader in his own right-also emphasized the need to renew the Black-Jewish civil rights alliance: an historic partnership that must take up the challenges of present and future.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago: Celebrating the Nation of Islam's annual "Saviours' Day," the NOI's supreme leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, delivered a speech lasting three and a half hours-about the same length as his nonstop lecture at 1995's Million Man March in Washington when he explained how the Freemasons, aided and abetted by Extraterrestrials, built our national capitol. This time, Farrakhan spiced up his conspiratorial Golden Oldies with some new wrinkles. For example, the NOI blamed "Zionists" for "the whole in the ozone layer." Now, Farrakhan hints they may be behind the Chilean Earthquake.

Of course, Farrakhan ticked off the names of Jews holding high positions in the White House-those "bloodsuckers of the poor" Larry Summers, Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner-as he held them responsible for America's current economic malaise. (For the record: Paulson is a Christian Scientist and Geithner is an Episcopalian.) And then there is the Zionist-controlled Congress that according to Farrakhan is still in Israel's pocket. Farrakhan even gave a fly-on-the-wall account of when President Barack Obama's slide in the polls began: He traces the president's problems to last August, when he charges that Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu-current Chairman of the Board of the 'Elders of Zion'-ordered Obama to bow down to Israel. When President Obama refused, according to Farrakhan, the all-powerful Jews left the White House in a huff-and "Obama's problems began."

In an age when the 9/11 Truthers (Farrakhan is himself a true believer) and anti-Obama Birthers permeate the Internet, The Nation of Islam, it seems, is reduced to repackaging the archaic anti-Semitism of Henry Ford and Adolf Hitler. Fifteen years ago, close to a million people answered the Triple M call to come to Washington and lift up African America. What a wonderful opportunity Farrakhan had then to repudiate his own history of hatred in order to challenge America to address the problems of inner city decay, substandard schools, gun and drug violence, and broken families that still plague our society! Instead, what Farrakhan did then and since was, essentially, nothing except to use his high-profile visibility to promote more crackpot theories and denounce America.

Rev. King accomplished so much in just the 39 year given him. In almost twice that span, the 77 year-old Louis Farrakhan has done little except to promote bigotry and aggrandize the NOI, which he shaped in his own image.

What a contrast with the positive, clear-eyed, forward-looking exercise in self-renewal by the NAACP meeting at the Museum of Tolerance. New generations of Americans-black and white-have to choose between the dead-end conspiracy theories of Minister Louis Farrakhan or the inspired leadership of the NAACP's Roslyn M. Brock. Will Farrakhan succeed in his lifelong project to rewrite the role of Jews from allies to enemies in African American history? Or will African Americans, Jews, and all decent people follow in the path of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., that "drum major for justice," and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a refugee from Hitler, as they walked arm-in-arm toward Selma on the road to freedom, dignity and equality?

Historian Dr. Harold Brackman, a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, contributed to this essay