Day of Atonement
Jude Wanniski
October 15, 1997


Memo To: Jack Kemp
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: “Day of Atonement”

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the Million Man March which Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are celebrating with a “Day of Atonement.” On "Meet the Press" Sunday, Min. Farrakhan noted that it was patterned after the Jewish “Day of Atonement,” celebrated last week as Yom Kippur: “We believe the children of Israel are a sign or a prototype of the 400-year suffering of blacks in America. Since we are not quite slaves and not quite free, we are somewhat in the position as the children of Israel in the wilderness.” He has called on African-Americans to observe the day by refraining from work and devoting it to reflection and prayer. One of the aims is to demonstrate to white Americans how important blacks are in the work force and the life of the nation. I’m not sure how successful it will be, nor is he, but he is determined to push ahead in the spirit of Martin Luther King and passive resistance, which Martin Luther King explicitly borrowed from Gandhi. Gandhi more than a half century ago, finally got the attention of the British Raj by inviting the people of India to take the day off in protest against imperialism.

I spent five hours with Min. Farrakhan last Friday in his Washington, DC hotel room. (I teased him about his political ambitions when I found he was in the presidential suite.) I’d encouraged him to do "Meet the Press," as Tim Russert has made a genuine effort to understand what he is all about. Russert has come to suspect, as I concluded some time ago, that Farrakhan is really not the anti-Semitic bigot he has been painted. He may, in fact, turn out to be a positive force for reconciliation, here and in the Middle East -- a kind of sheep in wolf’s clothing.

I’ve had some comments from friends that the idea of asking blacks to take the day off is a negative request, kind of like a general strike, while the Million Man March was a positive event. My own assessment is that Farrakhan realizes the MMM did not have the impact that he had hoped, in getting the white community to fathom the depth of the despair among blacks. A whole generation of young black men has been “warehoused” in the prison system, during the economic breakdown of the past 30 years. The women they would have married and the children they should be parenting are being further crippled by the welfare system, the drug culture, and an education system that does not educate.    

I told Min. Farrakhan about all the criticism you get from the conservatives for discussing the race problem, bringing it up again and again in almost every speech you make. He understands that there are also blacks who are now well-to-do who don’t think about it, or try not to think about it, expecting it will eventually fix itself. With the stock market up and the unemployment rate down, people are finally able to catch their breaths and think maybe things are getting better -- and here is Farrakhan and Kemp reminding us of those left behind.

What does Farrakhan want? Reparations? A big bag of money? Double food stamps? None of that, which I think he made clear at the MMM. At our conference in Florida, he stood and applauded when Rep. John Kasich stated that “It is a sin for government to do for people what they can do for themselves.” He simply wants the nation’s attention, and hopes to get it in a peaceful way. Neither of the two political parties are really interested in doing anything more than warehousing the troublemakers in prison. Democrats throw some promises around at election time and President Clinton appoints a race commission that doesn’t know what it is supposed to do. Republicans promise their white constituents to be as tough on criminals as possible, to end welfare as we know it by throwing people off the rolls, by giving out school vouchers designed by country-club social engineers, and by celebrating the arrival of a “color-blind society.” Here are all these Republican “intellectuals” debating the future of conservatism and the future of the party, and not a word about the millions of black Americans crippled by what they have been put through these past 400 years.

It’s quite amazing to think of how difficult the white community has made it for Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam during the past 15 years, and how he has never wavered from his message of non-violence and self-help -- building a separate black community that is crime free, drug free, and devoted to keeping the statutes and commandments of the Creator. How can a man who has produced so much good out of so much despair be thought of as a Black Hitler, the term unjustly applied to him by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch?

The New York Post story on Monday may have been a turning point in Farrakhan’s relations with the Jewish community. It was a simple account of Farrakhan’s comments on "Meet the Press", but it is the first fair account of a Farrakhan event in the Post since 1984 and the “Black Hitler” headline. It could be that my exchange of letters with Ed Koch -- who has a column in the Post -- has done some good, especially when Koch acknowledged that the Anti-Defamation League had for years been mistakenly asserting that Farrakhan called the Pope an agent of the “anti-Christ.”`It also helped that Min. Farrakhan’s criticism of Muslim extremism and terrorism in the Middle East finally made it into print. Next, maybe The New York Times.

You should know that Farrakhan continues to appreciate your boldness in coming up to shake his hand before the Tyson/Holyfield fight began in Las Vegas. At the time, he was still considered more socially unacceptable than a barrel of lepers. He has advanced considerably, in part because you broke the ice. On the set of "Meet the Press," one of the other guests went out of her way to come over to Farrakhan to shake his hand and wish him well: Janet Reno! It meant a lot to him. He wished her good luck in her difficult situation -- the two of them living on thin ice.

Anyway, I think the day can be a success in moving the country another step ahead, toward atonement and reconciliation. To be a success, though, there has to be a breakthrough of understanding on the part of white America and its white leaders. This is quite different than the Promise Keepers event, which appealed to all men, as long as they are Christian, and is solely focused on starting fresh. The Nation of Islam’s ‘Day of Atonement’ and Million Man March is much tougher, because it is emphatic in arguing there can be no fresh start without a recognition by the whole of the American family -- Christians, Jews, Muslims and those with no religious beliefs -- that there is unfinished business that has to be cleaned up before we can pretend to be one nation, starting fresh.