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Will Detroit Speech Be Farrakhan's Farewell?

TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'M Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan delivered yesterday, with many are reporting to be, his last major public address. The 73-year-old minister has been in poor health lately as he battles cancer. Still, Farrakhan had the strength to address thousands at Ford Field Football Stadium in Detroit, the city where the Nation of Islam was founded more than 75 years ago.

Celebrities and church bigwigs looked on as Minister Farrakhan said that his time heading the Nation of Islam is coming to a close. He called for religious unity in a world where, he said, various faiths are at war with one another.

Here to tell us more about Farrakhan's speech yesterday is NPR's Rachel Martin who is in Detroit. Hello, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN: Hi, Tony.

COX: Set the scene for us, will you please? Who was there?

MARTIN: Well, Ford Field was full. There tens of thousands of people. There were political dignitaries, community leaders, national black leaders, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Members of the Nation of Islam were dressed in traditional Nation uniforms, navy blue and red for the young men; the women were clad in white gowns and white hijab or head coverings. And they were all there to mark what they saw is a very significant event.

The location itself was very significant. This is Ford Field in what used to be known as Black Bottom Detroit. And this is where Fard Muhammad, 77 years ago, established the Nation of Islam.

COX: Talk about the main things of Farrakhan's speech. For example, was it a speech of conciliation, or confrontation, or perhaps both?

MARTIN: Well, a little bit of both. The speech was billed and titled, One Nation Under God. And that was definitely a theme that Farrakhan returned to. He started out calling for more unity among people of all faiths, and specifically calling out for an end to Sunni and Shia violence in Iraq. And explicitly calling for more cooperation between Christians and Muslims as he does in this clip here.

(Soundbite of speech)

Minister LOUIS FARRAKHAN (Leader, Nation of Islam): If Moses and the prophets and Abraham, the father, would be on this podium with all the prophets they would embrace each other. How can we who are people of God cannot embrace each other in the love of God and the love of the prophets that we claim?

(Soundbite of applause)

COX: Rachel, what else did he talk about?

MARTIN: Well, Farrakhan spoke for well over an hour. And the bulk of that message was really about U.S. foreign policy. It was a very political message. He denounced the Bush administration and specifically the war in Iraq, calling it unholy and unjustified. Even going so far as to tell his audience to turn their back on the war and to reject military recruiting efforts.

COX: Did he leave the audience with any sense about his future, or the future of the Nation of Islam?

MARTIN: Well, Minister Farrakhan has already acknowledged that he is stepping back from his leadership position of the Nation of Islam. Last year, he appointed an executive committee to oversee the day-to-day operations of the organization. And in this speech, he made it very clear that he's moving on. Here's a little of what he said.

Minister FARRAKHAN: My time is up. The final call can't last forever.

COX: What was your sense of what his speech and his appearance meant to the people who came to see him?

MARTIN: Well, I talked with several people who said that the minister's presence at this event was very profound for them, and they had been praying for him to recover from his health problems, and just to see him standing there being to deliver a very significant lengthy address was a real joy for them to see.

And even though this has been hailed as a goodbye, many people are reticent to call it that. So even though he maybe stepping down in an official capacity, many people consider him their spiritual leader. And will do so as long as he remains healthy.

COX: NPR's Rachel Martin. Rachel, thank you.

MARTIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.