A coalition of Jackson-area religious leaders, including representatives of Beth Israel Congregation and the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, criticized the March 25 address of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement annual conference.
Beth Israel Rabbi Valerie Cohen, Institute Rabbi Marshal Klaven, Rabbi Debra Kassoff, Macy Hart and Bea Gotthelf were among two dozen signatories to the statement.
Over 3,000 attended Farrakhan’s address at Jackson State University, where he called for change in education and criticized U.S. involvement against his friend, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He also stated that Jews control the mainstream civil rights movement.
Also speaking at the four-day conference were former Washington Mayor Marion Barry, former Agriculture Department director Shirley Sherrod, and Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams.
Farrakhan has drawn controversy for decades, with inflammatory rhetoric aimed at whites, Catholics, Jews and homosexuals. He has referred to Judaism as a “gutter religion,” and his organization claims Jews controlled the slave trade. Last year, the Nation of Islam published two books about the “anti-black behavior” of Jews.
The religious leaders’ statement said Farrakhan’s selection as keynote speaker “at a convention commemorating the Civil Rights Movement and honoring one of its many enduring messages — “Respect for All” — is not only perplexing, it is downright offensive.”
Instead of calling for “silence,” the signatories called on delegates to the conference to inform themselves of Farrakhan’s history and not allow “potentially hate-filled or divisive rhetoric to divide our ever-improving community.”
To that end, the statement urged attendance at two other programs, “more in tune with the Civil Rights Movement and the lessons it offers.” Hank Thomas spoke of his experiences as a Freedom Rider in 1961 as part of the Rabbi Perry Nussbaum Lecture Series at Millsaps College.
That evening, Beth Israel hosted a Shabbat service with Bishop Ronnie Crudup, Regional Bishop for the Mid-South Diocese of the Fellowship of International Churches and Senior Pastor of New Horizon Church International. The service was entitled “Civil Rights and Tolerance in a Diverse Community.”
Cohen said, “It is quite special when two religious leaders are able to unite in this way, so I hope this service will lead to more in the future.”
Hollis Watkins told WAPT-TV that the group selected Farrakhan to speak because “The minister is one, and he may be the only one, who is not afraid to speak up and tell the truth about that which he knows, and that is one of the reasons he has some enemies.”
Jackson City Councilman Chokwe Lumumba, at a news conference, called Farrakhan a great spiritual leader and humanitarian.