The fate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act stirred the rally into being, and near the end of a discursive, nearly-hour long speech Friday, Louis Farrakhan gave his reason for defending it.
Without the act, the Nation of Islam leader told hundreds of people gathered at the foot of the State Capitol steps Friday afternoon, “the majority of white people will slip back to the way things were,” he said. “Because they’re not happy with the rise of our people in America.”
The speech preceding that comment, delivered under a hot afternoon sun before a mostly-black audience, was a Wikipedia of topics, some connected to the Voting Rights Act, most not. During one stretch, Farrakhan moved from the study of linguistics to the 13th Amendment to citizenship tests for immigrants; the speech also touched on government debt, the end of Reconstruction, birth rates, Alabama’s casino industry and the song ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’
Farrakhan had other issues on his mind, too. The Nation of Islam, an offshoot of mainstream Islam, is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which cites anti-Semitic and anti-gay comments made by Farrakhan and other members of NOI.
While Farrakhan said at several points that he was not an anti-Semite, he frequently followed up those comments with statements invoking Jewish stereotypes. During one part of the speech, Farrakhan said Jews “know the value of money” and dominated professions like the law; at another, Farrakhan said he was not against Jews.
“I just don’t like the way they misuse their power,” he said. “And I have a right to say that without being labeled anti-Semitic.”
Farrakhan also criticized Richard Friedman, executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, who wrote in an Op-Ed published Thursday on al.com that called on “all in our region to dissociate themselves from Farrakhan.” Farrakhan suggested Friedman had “put a sin on someone who is innocent.”
“My detractors feel I’m a hater, and anti-Semitic, and homophobic, and I have no right to be with you, nor do you have any reason to invite me,” he said. “How arrogant that sounds from someone that lives in Alabama.”
The rally capped a lengthy day of rallies organized in support of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires areas with histories of voting discrimination to “preclear” any changes to their voting laws with the U.S. Department of Justice. Shelby County has challenged the provision, saying Alabama has moved away from its Jim Crow history and that preclearance is no longer needed.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last February. Supporters of the measure have expressed fears that losing Section 5 could gut the Voting Rights Act and bring back discriminatory voting practices.
Speakers who preceded Farrakhan did invoke concerns over the loss of Section 5. Barbara Howard of Tuskegee said she had taken part in the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, a catalyst for the Voting Rights Act, and invoked the names of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers in defending it.
“We’re here to tell Governor (Robert) Bentley and Attorney General Luther Strange and the Supreme Court of the United States that we’re fired up and we’re not going back,” she said. “Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is what Martin, Malcolm and Medgar died for.”
However, there were as many references to the closing of the state’s casinos. Several people at the rally held signs condemning the closing of VictoryLand and other gaming facilities in the state; no signs could be seen regarding the Voting Rights Act. With Tuskegee mayor Johnny Ford, an outspoken supporter of VictoryLand, standing nearby, Farrakhan said the closing of the casinos “may have been a blessing in disguise” that would focus attention on larger economic issues in the region.
Speakers at the rally had no shortage of praise for Farrakhan. Faya Toure, a Selma lawyer who helped organize the event, called Farrakhan “ one of the greatest leaders of our generation. I don’t care what the SPLC says, I don’t care what the Jews say.”
Asked about her comments following the rally, Toure, who is married to Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said “we can not allow people to define who our leaders are,” and accused Farrakhan’s critics of ignoring bills passed by the Alabama Legislature, which she called “anti-black” and “anti-poor.”
– posted by Brian Lyman