12/25/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
The agonized debate over race relations that followed the O.J. Simpson verdict was still rattling the national psyche when the Million Man March descended on Washington last Oct. 16. At the largest black civil rights gathering in U.S. history, more than 400,000 black men spent a peaceful day of "atonement and reconciliation," as organizers put it, dedicating themselves to "moral and spiritual renewal" and to practicing self-help. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the march, though, was not its size nor its message but its leader: Louis Farrakhan. The 62-year-old patriarch of the Nation of Islam, widely perceived as a publicity-hungry, hate-spouting extremist, had somehow managed to mobilize black America when more moderate leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson could not. In his 18-year rule of the Nation, Farrakhan has excoriated homosexuals, called Jews "bloodsuckers" and demonized whites, Asians and Arabs. So it was no wonder that many leaders across the racial and political spectrum decried the convocation. Colin Powell, for one, compared Farrakhan's racism to that of Mark Fuhrman. But Rev. Benjamin Chavis, former head of the NAACP, spoke for many blacks when he said, "There is a racial divide in our country, and this march can help heal it."
For his part, Farrakhan, who shares a Chicago home with Khadijah, his wife of 41 years, and their nine children, does appear to be swerving, calculatedly, into the center lane. He has recently spoken of the importance of registering black voters instead of boycotting elections and has backed away from his avowed dream of a separate black nation. But he has miles to go to overcome his explosive legacy. As Nation founder Elijah Muhammad's fiery aide, Farrakhan was thought by many to be involved in the 1965 murder of former associate Malcolm X. (Malcolm's daughter Qubilah Shabazz was charged in January with hiring someone to kill Farrakhan; charges were dropped, and her mother, Betty, has recently made conciliatory remarks.) Yet violent partisans before him—consider Yasser Arafat—have risen to diplomacy. Whatever his future, there is now no denying Farrakhan's vision of himself: "I am a reality in America."