As the leader of the black separatist Nation of Islam, Minister Louis Farrakhan has long been a disturber of the political peace. During Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, Farrakhan publicly threatened black Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman for disclosing that Jackson had referred to New York City as "Hymietown." "One day soon," promised Farrakhan, "we will punish you with death. "Farrakhan himself in 1984 called Judaism "a gutter religion "and described Adolf Hitler as "wickedly great." Since then the fiery orator has suggested that whites conspired to launch the AIDS epidemic and the plague of drugs and violence as ways of wiping out blacks. An implacable enemy of middle-of-the-road political leaders, he is a friend of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who in turn has supported Farrakhan's church financially. Farrakhan is perceived by many Americans as a racist demagogue—and Jesse Jackson's reluctance to renounce Farrakhan plagued his 1988 presidential campaign. Still, more than a few admire Farrakhan as an audacious leader unintimidated by the white power structure. And even his critics concede his accomplishments in inspiring black self-reliance and in fighting Washington, D.C., drug dealers with his highly disciplined guard, the Fruit of Islam. Recently, Farrakhan, 57, has begun speaking in more measured tones to major media, perhaps in hopes of expanding his influence. Once an uninhibited debater of Middle Eastern politics, he recently declined to comment on America's current military involvement in the Persian Gulf.

This latest is not the first self-transformation in Farrakhan's saga. Born in Boston in 1933 to a domestic-worker mother and a schoolteacher father who died when Farrakhan was 3, he grew up as Louis Eugene Walcott. In 1955, Walcott, an accomplished violinist, was working as a calypso singer called the Charmer. One evening, after a performance in a Chicago nightclub, he was invited by the famed black leader Malcolm X to visit the South Side mosque of the Nation of Islam. Moved by the black nationalist organization's founder, Elijah Muhammad, Walcott soon abandoned his musical ambitions and rose to Muslim leadership as Minister Louis Farrakhan. When Malcolm X, who was murdered the next year, renounced Elijah Muhammad in 1964, Farrakhan took over his job as the Nation of Islam's chief spokesman. Twelve years later he broke with the group, which had rejected Elijah Muhammad's idiosyncratic teachings in favor of orthodox Islam. Today, Farrakhan's faction reportedly has about 10,000 members.

In the opulent mansion of marble and limestone in Chicago's racially mixed, middle-class Hyde Park section, where he lives with Khadijah, his wife of 36 years and the mother of his nine children (who have given them 22 grandchildren), Farrakhan presents himself as the soul of quiet courtesy. Surrounded by family members and his ever-present security guards, he talked to correspondent Barbara Kleban Mills.

You have been unusually open with the press recently. Why?

I came into the light of the media as a helper of Rev. Jesse Jackson in his bid to become the nominee of the Democratic Party in 1984 and 1988. Unfortunately, that was a very, very negative coming, primarily because, in my judgment, many Jews feared Rev. Jackson's growing prominence because of his evenhanded policy toward Israel and her Arab neighbors. And some of these Jewish organizations, having connections in the media, used words that I spoke during the Jackson campaign out of context. And so I was lambasted by the press, but I have weathered all of the storms and by the grace of God have come out on top.

Black folk are listening to me more than any black leader on the scene today. I am not the same man that I was four years ago. I have matured as a leader, and my appeal is being taken much more seriously by people concerned with the future of all black people. So it is time now that you know me better than you have known me.

Do you think the condition of blacks in the U.S. is improving?

The masses of black people, in terms of median income, crime, youth unemployment, are going backwards. Even though we don't have the violent riots that we had in the '60s, there are quiet riots of unemployment, poverty, disease, hopelessness and crime.

But doesn't the growing number of black mayors of major cities—most recently David Dinkins in New York City—and the election of Gov. Douglas Wilder in Virginia suggest some kind of progress?

We cannot equate election to a high political office with a panacea for the ills of our people. Such victories are being used to tell the lie that America works. "Look at Governor Wilder! Look at Mayor Dinkins !" But if society does not work for the least black in rural Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia or Illinois or for the poor white in Appalachia. it is not working for the nation's political leaders either.

You believe in a separate nation for black people, in Africa?

Blacks are already separate. If America does not have the will to bring about a change within a permanent underclass, then—just as the Germans are paying reparations to the Jews and as the United States government has agreed to pay reparations to Japanese-Americans [placed in internment camps during WWII]—what is the labor and the lives of black people worth? What does America owe us? Reparations must include the freeing of all blacks from state and federal penitentiaries. Then let us ask our brothers and sisters in Africa to set aside a separate territory for us, and let us take the money that America is spending to maintain these convicts and [invest it in] a new reality on the African continent.

Would you release all blacks in prison? Even dangerous criminals?

The criminal justice system is not a place for rehabilitation, but no, I wouldn't recommend freeing those criminals who are viewed as hopeless. Still, it's been our experience that most criminals have a good chance of being redeemed.

What African nation do you think would cede territory for a black American separatist nation?

We would have to discuss that with our African brothers and sisters. What contribution could we make to that great continent [Africa] after 400 years of living in the United States, having been blessed to graduate some of our people from the finest institutions of learning in this nation and having in our number the most educated group of black people anywhere on earth? Africa needs development. Africa needs infrastructure. Africa needs to come forcibly into the 21st century.

Would these well-educated blacks be willing to resettle in Africa?

Yes, many hundreds of middle-class blacks would go. Many blacks serving abroad in the military, for example, choose to stay rather than return to the U.S., where they would find only limited opportunities to employ their newly gained skills.

You denounce the establishment of Israel on Palestinian land as "imperialist." How canyon suggest that the process be repeated for black Americans in Africa?

If our African brothers could be prevailed upon to give us territory on which we could establish a new and independent nation, that would not be imperialism. That would be coming home to our own native land and people. You must remember that Africans helped sell us into slavery. And so Africa should bear some responsibility in helping us to get out of the condition that we are in.

You have told black youth that "they are drugging you." Who are "they"?

I have noticed that since my coming to tremendous popularity, crack has come to prominence in the various metropolitan centers of this nation. I don't think this is accidental. I do believe with all my heart that there is a purposeful destruction of the black community.

Do you have hard evidence to support this observation?

Statistics on drug usage will bear me out.

What is your hope for black people in America?

We are passionately concerned for the future of black people and for the future of America. The Titanic was a great ship, but it was captained by one depicted as being arrogant, and warnings of an iceberg were not heeded. America is like that great ship. Unfortunately, at the helm may be a proud captain. And [the condition of] black people could become the iceberg that causes the sinking of this great ship called the United States of America. We appeal to the President and to those who are at the helm to pay heed to the sickening conditions of blacks and the worsening relationships of black and white. We appeal to America's leaders to move with dispatch to solve these problems so that this great ship of state, with all its finery, may sail on to a greater destiny.