The movement has been embroiled in controversy after a member of its leadership team attended a speech by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan.
Several of the original organizers of the Women’s March have found themselves at the center of a controversy revolving around Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Last week it was revealed that Women’s March organizer and co-president Tamika Mallory was present at a speech Farrakhan gave before the Nation of Islam in February. During the speech, Farrakhan made several anti-Semitic comments, including saying that “the powerful Jews are my enemy,” according to CNN. The Anti-Defamation League notes that Farrakhan also argued that Jewish people control the media and use that influence to increase the number of gay and transgender individuals in the US, said Jewish people control the US government, and claimed the FBI — under Jewish influence — pushed marijuana onto black men to “feminize” them, in addition to a number of other comments.
“White folks are going down,” Farrakhan said during the speech. “And Satan is going down. And Farrakhan, by God’s grace, has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew, and I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through.” At one point in the speech, Farrakhan gave Mallory a personal shoutout, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
In the days since her attendance was first noted, Mallory has sought to defend herself from accusations of anti-Semitism and pushed back on calls for her resignation.
Criticism has also spread to the broader Women’s March organization, prompting the group to issue a statement on Tuesday. “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity principles,” the group said. “The world Women’s March seeks to build is one free from anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, and all forms of social violence.” BuzzFeed reports that Women’s March leaders will meet with Jewish groups on Thursday to discuss the matter further.
Mallory’s attendance at the Chicago speech, as well as previous statements from Mallory and other members of the Women’s March leadership in support of Farrakhan, has spurred renewed attention on the Nation of Islam leader. But to some critics, the controversy also speaks to the broader challenge the Women’s March faces in building a truly intersectional feminist movement.
“The cohesiveness of the Women’s March has been tried before — it’s come under fire from women of color, anti-abortion activists, the NRA, anti-Muslim forces, and many other critics,” BuzzFeed’s Hannah Allam writes. “But the latest controversy seems serious even by the standards of its battle-tested leadership.”
Louis Farrakhan is no stranger to controversial statements
The Nation of Islam is a group rooted in what could be defined most easily as a form of religious black nationalism that has been combined with some tenets of Islam. The group strongly believes in black self-reliance and separatism from power structures dominated by whites, one of the factors that facilitated its higher profile during the civil rights era. Farrakhan has served as the leader of the Nation of Islam since the 1970s, spearheading a reforming of the organization after the death of its former leader Elijah Muhammad. While there are splinter groups of the organization, and many of its former members transitioned to a more mainstream practice of Islam, Farrakhan continues to lead many of the remaining members.
The Nation of Islam is perhaps best known by the general public for its historic connections to civil rights figure Malcolm X, who left the group prior to his 1965 assassination. Under Farrakhan, the group was a driving force behind the 1995 Million Man March, which brought thousands of black men to Washington, DC, in an effort to combat racial stereotypes and show black solidarity.
In addition to the aforementioned comments, Farrakhan used his most recent speech to praise comments made by recently deceased evangelist Billy Graham and President Richard Nixon. He specifically referred to a 1972 conversation between Nixon and Graham in which the evangelist said that the “stranglehold” that American Jews had in society “has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” to the president’s agreement. The remarks, which Graham later apologized for, have come to be seen as a stain on Graham’s career.
These aren’t new arguments for Farrakhan, who over the years has also claimed that Jewish people were behind the 9/11 attacks, in addition to making anti-LGBTQ remarks.
Farrakhan’s comments have kept the NOI a source of controversy and political debate. It has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center due to its support of black supremacy and the “deeply racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT rhetoric of its leaders.” Farrakhan has long contended with the group’s designation, arguing that his comments do not stem from anti-Semitism but are instead a rebuke of white supremacy.
“I know I have never hated Jews. I’m critical of aspects of Jewish behavior in relationship to Black people,” Farrakhan said during a 2001 press conference.
Still, his inflammatory comments — particularly about Judaism and Jewish people — continue to spark controversy and create trouble for other public figures who are in his orbit or have made supportive statements in reference to his work in the black community.
The most recent controversy points to some of the difficulties Women’s March organizers face in building a truly intersectional feminist movement
The controversy around Mallory’s appearance picked up shortly after CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted several clips from Farrakhan’s recent speech, also noting that Mallory was present after she posted from the event on Instagram.
Since her attendance was first noted, Mallory has faced calls to publicly disavow Farrakhan, whom she has previously posted about on social media. In response, she has maintained that she is not anti-Semitic and that she is being misjudged. Several prominent activists and political figures, including Women’s March co-president Bob Bland and political strategist Symone Sanders, have come to Mallory’s defense, arguing that Mallory is facing criticism that should be reserved for Farrakhan.
Contrary to others, I listen. I have been in deep reflection and trying to be as thoughtful as possible. I want my own work to speak for itself but I will reiterate my commitment to building this movement. I won’t go back, I won’t redraw the lines of division. I want a new way.
Mallory wrote about the matter in a column for NewsOne on Wednesday. She said she did not expect her attendance at Saviours’ Day to cause problems because she has attended the annual event for decades.
She also says that her work requires her to “go into difficult spaces” and work with figures from across the ideological spectrum, and argues that this should not be used to discount her work or the Women’s March. “I do not think it is fair to question anyone who works with me, who supports my work and who is a member of this movement because of the ways that I may have fallen short here or in any other instance,” she says.
This isn’t the first time that some of the Women’s March organizers have been confronted with questions about their connections to Farrakhan. In addition to Mallory, Women’s March organizersCarmen Perez and Linda Sarsour have also been linked to Farrakhan.
“In regards to Minister Farrakhan, I think that is a distraction,” Perez told Refinery29 when asked about the association earlier this year. “People need to understand the significant contributions that these individuals have made to Black and Brown people. There are no perfect leaders.” She urged critics to examine the issue with nuance, explaining that the Women’s March is focused on a nonviolent approach to social justice.
Sophie Ellman-Golan, the deputy head of communications for the Women’s March, told Refinery29 that she continues to engage in discussions about anti-Semitism with other members of the organization. “These are the gaps in understanding,” Ellman-Golan, who is Jewish, said. “As a white person, I have to unlearn anti-Blackness, and they have to understand where they have biases. I’m here doing that work, and so are they.”
It’s worth noting that the criticism of the organizers linked to Farrakhan has come from a number of directions. Some progressives have used the incidents to start a fuller conversation about anti-Semitism in progressive spaces and how that bias intersects with other forms of discrimination and racism, with some critics arguing that the controversy weakens the Women’s March’s efforts to be an intersectional movement. The Women’s March organizers counter that the controversy reflects the difficulties inherent in mobilizing and uniting different groups.
“It was just the beginning of a learning process we all had to go through,” Bland told BuzzFeed on Wednesday. “Women are not a monolith and a lot of the issues we’re dealing with are longstanding issues between communities that will not get solved today or tomorrow.”
It seems to be a balance that Mallory is also trying to strike. “I continue to grow and learn as both an activist and as a woman, I will continue to grapple with the complicated nature of working across ideological lines and the question of how to do so without causing harm to vulnerable people,” she wrote in the NewsOne column.
For the supporters of the march who want a complete disavowal of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, these remarks have been frustrating and threaten the movement’s cohesion. Farrakhan may be a fringe figure, they say, but his comments come shortly after a report from the ADL released last month said the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported to the organization has increased some 57 percent in the past year.
But supporters of Mallory argue that the controversy is a sign of growing pains, cautioning that how Mallory is handled could alienate the women of color who already feel ignored and marginalized within the feminist movement, with many of her defenders arguing that attacks on black and brown communities do not cause the same outcry that Mallory’s attendance at the Farrakhan speech caused.
As a result, the controversy has also served as a starting point for larger discussions about the relationships between, and at times opposing ideologies of, anti-racist and anti-Semitic movements.
As of now, the effect of the controversy on future events organized by the Women’s March is unclear. But in highlighting the controversy, some right-wing media outlets have argued that the dustup undermines future Women’s March activities, including the March 14 National School Walkout being organized in collaboration with students across the country after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
March leaders say they are pressing forward. “We never stop organizing. We never stop keeping our eye on the prize,” Bland told BuzzFeed. “This learning has to happen the same way it has been happening: on the go.”