A Note on the Obama-Farrakhan Photograph

From the Trice Edney Wire, a week ago:

It was during a mid-2005 Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) meeting on Capitol Hill when award-winning journalist Askia Muhammad captured one of the most significant photos of his career.

Muhammad had doggedly covered then Chicago Sen. Barack Obama since he “first laid eyes on him” at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Now, here was the Senator in a warm conversation with constituent and fellow Chicagoan Minister Louis Farrakhan. As leader of the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan is another star in Black America, but one whose name is synonymous with controversy.

…Muhammad had not even left the scene when he received a call and the photo was being summoned by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Muhammad ultimately surrendered the disk to Minister Farrakhan’s chief of staff. And it remained one of America’s best hidden secrets for the next 12 years…

The existence of the photo has been known for some time: Farrakhan made a public reference to it in October 2016, explaining that

I knew that if I ever let that go out, they would use that to hurt that brother. So you never saw it.

The photo has now been released by Muhammad ahead of the publication of his autobiography, The Autobiography of Charles 67X (previewed by Houston Style Magazine here). Its appearance has received widespread and mostly negative attention as evidence of Obama’s supposed secret militancy, and of media collusion in hiding information from the public. Fox News in particular has been promoting the story – Muhammad gave an interview to Tucker Carlson, while Fox and Friends invited commentary from Alan Dershowitz, who says that he would never have endorsed Obama in 2008 had he known of it.

According to Fox, the Congressional Black Caucus “buried” the photo and “pressured”  Muhammad “for more than a decade” not to disclose it. However, this is isn’t quite borne out by the details of the story. At the time, Muhammad was White House Correspondent for Farrakhan’s Final Call newspaper, and it appears that he simply left it up to his boss to decide whether it should be published or not. No-one knew that he had kept a copy for himself, and so the issue of “pressure” does not arise. Indeed, it seems that Muhammad is in sympathy with the reasons not to have released it before now, stating that the photo “would have made a difference” had it appeared during the 2008 Presidential election campaign.

Farrakhan came to Capitol Hill for a meeting during July 2005; Muhammad reported this in Final Call at the time, writing that

Just as individual members have, for some time, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), as a whole, is now preparing to play its part in the Millions More Movement.

Although their meeting was interrupted several times by votes on the House Floor, practically all 43 CBC members eagerly attended parts or all of a two-hour session at the Capitol July 20 with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and several leaders of the 10th Anniversary Commemoration of the Millions Man March to be held in Washington Oct. 14-16.

Following the unpublicized strategy session, CBC Chair Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) told reporters that the CBC supports the October mobilization. The CBC is determined to become involved before and, most importantly, after the Commemoration to ensure that the Millions More Movement is an ongoing movement that addresses the concerns of our people.

This seems to be the “mid-2005” meeting mentioned by Trice Edney Wire article; certainly, a low resolution group photo that is included with the Final Call article appears to be consistent with the Farrakhan-Obama picture. However, Obama is not mentioned in the Final Call article, and he appears to have left by the time the group photo was taken. Even so, though, the fact that “practically all 43 CBC members eagerly attended” obviously indicated that Obama may have been present, and so the photo is not some shocking revelation.

At the New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham provides some general context:

[Farrakhan] seems to relish backing black liberals into a corner, most recently Representative Keith Ellison, whose campaign for D.N.C. chairman, last year, devolved into a referendum on his past friendliness with the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan is the author of vile, uncountable, unreconstructed, cause-derailing anti-Semitic slurs, but his “Million Man March” made him and the Nation a stubborn, unignorable feature of the political landscape for black would-be public servants who came of age in the nineteen-nineties….

This is the difficulty with comparing Farrakhan to David Duke. The Million Man March, and Farrakhan’s place in public life more generally, cannot sensibly be reduced to vile things he has said (or to the eccentricities of Nation of Islam theology). In contrast, Duke has never organised or done anything that has managed to transcend the worst of his character.

The Farrakhan-Obama photo is obviously embarrassing, but there is nothing in Obama’s political past that now suddenly makes more sense because of it. However, the price of activism on behalf of black advancement ought not to be a willingness to tolerate or overlook anti-Jewish hatred. Perhaps, though, given the complexities of the “political landscape” as outlined by Cunningham, Obama should be allowed a Mulligan.

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