An appearance Friday by Louis Farrakhan at a rally against changes in the Voting Rights Act mobilized the Birmingham Jewish Federation to educate the public about the Nation of Islam leader’s record of anti-Semitism.
But press reports of the gathering suggest that Farrakhan limited his public comments to calling for the preservation of the Voting Rights Act and evoking the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In one speech Farrakhan answered critics of his appearance by saying "I did not deprive any Jewish person of the right to worship God in the manner that they choose, but to bomb a church is the epitome of hatred and total disrespect, so that did not come from Louis Farrakhan," he said, according to the Birmingham News. He was referruing to the 16th Street Baptrist Church in Birmingham, bombed by racists in 1963.
"You cannot find one synagogue I desecrated. You cannot find one Jewish person I have harmed, except I refuse to be silent when I know the truth."
Samantha Dubrinsky, a staff associate at the Jewish Federation told The Jewish Week Monday that the organization felt its efforts were validated. "It was an easy decision for us to speak out against Farrakhan given his extremely anti-Semitic beliefs. We at The BJF made it very clear that we were against Farrakhan and not the voting issues rally."
On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law requiring proof of citizenship for voting but did not rule on the Voting Rights Act measure.A decision may come next Monday, June 24.
The Federation's executive director, Richard Friedman, said in an email to The Jewish Week that the Federation takes no position on the Supreme Court case.
“Of course, we believe that all Americans are entitled to the right to vote," he said. "However, The Birmingham Jewish Federation has not taken a position on this particular legal case. The Federation only takes positions on issues where a clear consensus exists within the Jewish community and, regarding this particular case, there is a diversity of opinion in the Jewish community regarding the need for continued federal monitoring.”
In the earlier mass email the Federation had warned that “Friday morning, one of America's most vicious anti-Semites, Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, will be in Birmingham and then will journey to three other Alabama destinations." The email contained segments of a Farrakhan talk at Mosque Maryam in Chicago last July.
In that speech, as transcribed by the Anti-Defamation League, Farrakhan prodded the crowd to respond to his question of who is “at the top” of the medical, legal, banking and entertainment professions. In each case the crowd shouted “Jews.”
Friday’s rally was in response to an anticipated decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Shelby County's challenge of aspects of the Voting Rights Act, according to the Birmingham News.
At issue is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states and jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination, incuding Alabama, to submit all changes in voting procedures to the Department of Justice or the D.C. District Court for preclearance.
Shelby County holds that the measure is no longer necessary due to reduced discrimination. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Justice Department believe otherwise and want the section upheld.
The rally was previously planned for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham but shifted to a caravan with speeches at various sites. The Birmingham News website said the Farrakhan speech was planned for downtown Kelly Ingram Park .
The paper quoted a rally organizer, Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford, welcoming Farrakhan’s participation.
"The minister is not leading this caravan, he is joining with us,” Ford said. “We are all a part of this. What's significant about this, we are joining on one accord, and that is to fight for voting rights. This is not an issue dealing with many of those other issues we deal with, including the minister. This single issue has brought us together in that we are all fighting for the Voting Rights Act Section 5."
Dana Vickers Shelley, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery, Ala.,-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups and supports upholding Section 5, said the organization is concerned Farrakhan will detract attention from the rally's message.
"People have their right to participate," Shelley told The Jewish Week. "But we are just concerned about the Nation of Islam speaking out in a negative, hateful way about other Americans. I hope people won't ignore the importance of the Voting Rights Act and it doesn't get lost in [Farrakhan's] hateful history and pattern of hateful comments."
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