Louis Farrakhan has become the most important black leader in America, if not the world. He has also become a quasi-mainstream figure, and brought to record levels black participation in political life. While Americans in general are less and less interested in politics—as seen in the 1996 elections—the opposite trend is at work within the black community. According to David A. Bositis in the Washington Post (December 8, 1996), “record numbers of black men and Hispanics” voted in the November election, a result of Farrakhan’s speech at the Million Man March, in which he urged blacks to atone for their past dissolution by, among other things, voting.

Whereas Farrakhan’s mentor Elijah Muhammad had scorned the institution of voting as a white sham, Farrakhan sees it as a tool that blacks should exploit. Before the election, Farrakhan called for the formation of a “Third Political Force” in America, comparing black supporters of the Democratic Party to slaves on a plantation and to a woman who will not dump an abusive husband. Pending the formation of an independent, or third, political movement, Farrakhan admitted to the Chicago Tribune that most blacks will vote for Bill Clinton, even though “Mr. Clinton has smacked [them] all around all year.”

Farrakhan’s skill at unifying blacks against a common enemy has been especially evident in recent months. He has brought leaders in the Chicago gang wars to the bargaining table and been a godsend to former congressman Mel Reynolds, who is now on trial on charges of having lied to get bank loans and embezzled campaign contributions. Although Reynolds lashed out at Farrakhan during his campaign to unseat Congressman Gus Savage, and although Reynolds’s enemies say that his campaign enjoyed the financial backing of wealthy Jews in the Chicago suburbs, Farrakhan has come to Reynolds’s defense, making a controversial appearance at the trial and characterizing the former congressman as the victim of an overly zealous federal government. To Farrakhan and his followers, Reynolds is being singled out by the same government that was responsible for funding the Central American groups smuggling drugs into poor black neighborhoods in Los Angeles, a rumor that might form the basis for a class-action lawsuit against the federal government.

Farrakhan has also had a role in the East Coast-West Coast rap war, which broke into the news with the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, a/k/a the Notorious B.I.G. In the ensuing gang/rap war, 13 people were shot, all connected in some way with either the gangs or their rap labels. As the magazine Vibe editorialized in the wake of the bloodshed, “All of us . . . must now come together and take responsibility for ourselves and each other.”

Enter Louis Farrakhan. To Farrakhan the feuding rappers were like South African tribes whose combined political power could be immense if only they would stop their civil war. He persuaded many of the rap leaders to attend a summit on April 3, where he successfully encouraged them to set aside their differences, plan a joint tour, and collaborate on an album dedicated to the memory of the slain rappers.

But the Nation of Islam had more to offer than just charisma: the protection of its security force, the Fruit of Islam. In other words, having made peace under the guidance of Louis Farrakhan, rappers will once again be able to tour the country without fear of being gunned down. But this “atonement project” will also involve political activism, supported by the vast proceeds that rappers rake in. According to “Monster,” a producer and radio personality in Atlanta, Snoop Doggie Dog has sold 10 million records. Ice Cube over 15 million. Chuck D over 10 million. Bone over 8.5 million, and Too Short over 7.5 million. As Monster told the NOI newspaper The Final Call, “You take all of these units sold and translate them into votes, marches, organizations, and combine them with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, and we can change the country overnight.”

When Philadelphia’s mayor, Ed Rendell, invited Farrakhan to speak at a summit following the beating of a black woman and two black men by a group of white Catholics in the Grays Ferry neighborhood in April, he drew a lot of heat from Catholic and Jewish leaders, some of whom refused to come to the meeting. (As columnist Dave Barry wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News, “If Rendell is running for governor, he may well see that picture of himself holding Farrakhan’s hand again. And again, and again.”) But Rendell knew that Farrakhan commands more respect than any other black leader today. One can revere, admire, fear, or despise Louis Farrakhan, but it is no longer possible to ignore him.

While many liberals write Farrakhan off either as an anti-Semite or as an inevitable byproduct of racism and black despair, conservatives are divided. As National Review recently noted, Farrakhan “is enjoying the Strangest New Respect of all—and from conservatives, no less. Robert Novak has devoted two columns to his defense. . . . [Jude] Wanniski says that Rirrakhan is ‘close to being recognized as the most important black man in the world.'” Then there’s Jack Kemp, who a few weeks before the election got into trouble for praising Farrakhan’s emphasis on strong families and self-reliance. “I think it’s interesting,” Kemp told the Boston Globe, that “in the black community, more and more church leaders are telling their men to be responsible fathers and to be respectful to their wives and women.” Not surprisingly, Kemp then met with American Jewish leaders, assuring them he was not excusing Farrakhan’s bigotry.

In one respect, Jack Kemp is right: Farrakhan does offer a concrete program based on strong families and self-reliance. In A Torchlight for America, Farrakhan praises the vast spending power of black America as a whole—$300 billion a year—but laments how this money is spent: on sneakers, records, jewelry all produced by companies owned by non-blacks. Appealing to “black scholars, professionals, organizations and the wealthy among us” to pool their resources to build and promote black business, Farrakhan calls on blacks in general to redirect their spending to black enterprises. Proceeds from the Nation of Islam’s “3-Year Economic Plan”—which involves frugality in one’s personal life—will also go toward black economic development. Farrakhan also demands “the equitable distribution of business, financial assets and land ownership” to make up for the imbalance caused by slavery. Whether this “distribution” and “compensation” would mean reparation payments or a massive redistribution of property, Farrakhan does not say.

“We are the ones who can destroy the mentality of white supremacy,” says Farrakhan, “by what we accomplish m the way of building and doing for self.” If Farrakhan does embrace “victim politics,” it is only in decrying how blacks continue to be cast in the role of helpless victims in need of paternalism. (A typical cartoon in the Final Call shows a well-dressed black woman pitching a story idea to a white publisher. Her idea is for a novel about “a together young black woman who nurtures and guides her children.” The publisher replies, “I’m afraid we simply aren’t in the market for fiction such as that.” When the woman mentions her character’s “abusive relationships with a broken shell of a father and an irresponsible string of unemployable or drug-crazed boyfriends,” the publisher leans forward and says, “How soon can you have that on my desk? Let’s talk movie options, here!”)

In the end, it does not matter to Farrakhan what whites think about blacks, for his vision of unity and independence recognizes racial, not national, boundaries. He sees the current struggles of African-Americans as only a prelude to their independent existence in a black homeland, which according to Elijah Muhammad’s manifesto the United States should subsidize in its early years. Regardless of whether one likes Farrakhan’s vision of black self-reliance, it remains a real alternative to the failed policies of the welfare state.