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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Some local elected officials and candidates are coming under scrutiny this week after attending events headlined by hate group leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of anti-Semitic comments and hostility toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Among them is openly lesbian Charlotte City Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, who attended a Farrakhan speech on Oct. 13 and refused on Thursday to condemn Farrakhan’s prejudiced comments.
Farrakhan is a long-time leader of the Nation of Islam, a predominately African-American Islamic group described as a “black separatist” hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, or the SPLC. The Montgomery, Ala.-based SPLC, respected for its work in tracking hate groups and their leaders, has long listed the Nation of Islam alongside two other black separatist groups and hundreds of other identified hate groups ranging from neo-Nazis to right-wing anti-gay extremists.
Mayfield: Farrakhan ‘doing God’s will’
Mayfield, who in 2011 became the city’s first openly gay or lesbian elected official, was among several other elected officials and politicians at an Oct. 13 Farrakhan speech at Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church. There, Mayfield sent a message of supposed support for the hate group leader on Twitter.
“Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan at Little Rock AME Zion Church doing God’s will not his own,” Mayfield wrote with an accompanying photograph of Farrakhan at the church’s pulpit.
On Thursday, Mayfield said she was previously aware of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT record but she attended the event anyway as an invited local elected official.
“Yes, I am aware of his comments. I’m also aware that as an elected official, I am to represent all the people in my community not just some people in the community,” she told qnotes. “I attended the event as an elected official because we were invited to the event.”
Despite her seemingly supportive Twitter message, Mayfield said her attendance at the event shouldn’t be judged harshly.
“Me being in attendance as well as others who were in attendance wasn’t necessarily a show of support or condemnation,” Mayfield said. “As an elected being invited, there are a lot of events that I have attended and that I will attend as an elected official representing the entire city and specifically District 3.”
Mayfield declined to say whether she thought Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and anti-LGBT hostility are a part of “God’s will.” Her messages on Twitter are common fare, she said.
“The tweet that I sent out was different comments that he said during the event,” Mayfield said. “So, yeah, I tweeted throughout the event but I also tweet throughout most of the events I attend. Every event I attend I tweet out what’s going on, what’s being said. There are some things that he said that I agree with but that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says.”
Mayfield refused to condemn Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT hostility.
“No, I’m not going to condemn a man for his past, just like I would not want anyone to try to condemn me for my past,” she said. “Each day that we live there is a hope that we are going to learn and we’re going to grow and we’re going to do something better than we did the day before. So, why would I condemn because that’s not my place. That’s the place of God.”
Pressed further to condemn Farrakhan’s comments, rather than Farrakhan as a person, Mayfield still declined. “It’s not my place to condemn anything that someone else does, whether it’s in the past or it’s in the future,” she said. “That’s their pathway and their road with their religious beliefs in getting to greater enlightenment.”
Other politicians attend
Mayfield was joined by other local politicians at the Farrakhan event at Little Rock, including Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners Chair Harold Cogdell and Commissioner Vilma Leake. Leake also attended Farrakhan’s Sunday rally at Bojangles Coliseum, where she sat on stage behind Farrakhan, according to The Charlotte Observer.
Additionally, at least one other candidate for the county commission also attended the Little Rock event. Democrat Kim Ratliff, who “retweeted” or shared Mayfield’s laudatory Twitter message, told qnotes on Wednesday that her attendance at the event was for a friend and campaign volunteer.
“I’ve got a diverse campaign team,” she said, adding that one of her volunteers is a Vietnamese man who recently converted to Islam. “I went to support him. I went to be with him and to support him.”
Ratliff said she was not aware of Farrakhan’s hate speech before attending the event, but said she didn’t hear anything that would have made her leave the meeting that day.
“Really, a lot of what he was saying was different things that leaders should do,” she said. “Some of the things that he was saying, it was like, ‘Yeah we do need to do a better job of that.'”
Had she known about Farrakhan’s hate speech prior to attending, Ratliff said she still would have gone.
“My volunteer supports me and so it wasn’t even about Farrakhan. It wasn’t about the Nation of Islam or anything like that,” Ratliff said. “If you and I were friends and you asked me to do something because I’m your friend, I would go in support of you. That’s really why I went.”
On Thursday morning, qnotes emailed all members of the Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners asking if they had attended the event, if they were aware of Farrakhan’s history and status as a hate leader and if they would condemn his past remarks.
Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and Charlotte Councilmembers John Autry and Claire Fallon each said they did not attend and condemned Farrakhan’s remarks.
“I will always reject hate speech whether it’s from the pulpit or in front of a women’s reproductive health clinic,” Autry said. “We have no place in our society for such rhetoric.”
“I condemn hate in any form,” said Foxx.
“I did not and would not attend any thing he spoke at,” said Fallon. “As far as I am concerned it would be like me sitting with David Duke or Flip [Benham].”
Mayfield’s, Leake’s and Ratliff’s attendance at the Farrakhan events has prompted at least one call that their endorsements from a local LGBT rights group be rescinded.
Republican Wayne Powers, who is running for an at-large seat on the county commission, told qnotes that the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee, or MeckPAC, should strip Leake and Ratliff of their support.
“I would call upon MeckPAC to rescind the endorsement of any candidate or elected official who expresses or demonstrated support for Mr. Farrakhan, and that would include Ms. Mayfield,” Powers said.
Powers said the politicians did seem to support Farrakhan.
“There’s a difference between attendance and enthusiastic support,” he said. “LaWana tweeted and signaled to people who follow her that she was in enthusiastic support of Louis Farrakhan as did Kim Ratliff.”
Still, Powers said the decision will ultimately be up to MeckPAC. “”I will leave it to MeckPAC to honestly determine whether attendance itself signifies support or curiosity,” he said. “I did not attend and would not attend so as not to give even the impression of support for his morally repugnant message of hate and bigotry.”
Powers has been an outspoken advocate of the LGBT community, both during his campaign and his former tenure as a radio host with the local news-talk radio station WBT. He said his positions, including his opposition to May’s anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment and his support for domestic partner benefits for public employees, has cost him among some conservative voters.
Powers was not endorsed by MeckPAC in the primary or in the general election. He previously criticized the group this week for what he calls “an overwhelming record of overt partisanship.”
On Thursday, he broadened his criticism.
“I stand up and do go on record and it costs me when I do but I do it anyway,” he said. “These other people like Kim Ratliff, they go on record, it costs them nothing and they don’t mean it because they’ll show up at a Farrakhan rally.”
Rescinding an endorsement isn’t difficult, Powers added, pointing to a Charlotte Observer decision this year to rescind their endorsement of Mecklenburg County Commission Vice Chair and former Ninth Congressional District Republican primary candidate Jim Pendergraph after he questioned President Barack Obama’s citizenship and sided with a controversial Arizona sheriff accused of racially profiling Latinos.
“There shouldn’t even be a breath of hesitation,” Powers said.
On Wednesday, MeckPAC Steering Committee Chair Scott Bishop addressed concerns over Ratliff’s appearance at the Farrakhan event.
“This is one event that Kim Ratliff attended with someone whose been anti-gay in the past,” Bishop told qnotes. “I’m not going to hold one event against someone. We talked to Kim and we know why she was at the event. We explained to Kim what we know about Louis Farrakhan and his anti-gay stances. She understands that.”
Bishop said he, too, has been at events in the past which he attended after being invited and where anti-gay speakers had taken the stage. “I don’t think you can hold that against anybody,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that just because I attended that event that I support that person.”
Bishop said MeckPAC “feels confident” in Ratliff and says she has been supportive of LGBT issues, including her work on the anti-LGBT constitutional amendment this year.
“Her willingness to want to reach out to us when she is elected shows me that this one event does not sway her opinion,” he said.
Farrakhan’s mixed and controversial history
Criticism of Farrakhan and those who support him comes as a sort of mixed bag. While there is no doubt Farrakhan is a hate leader and his Nation of Islam is a hate group, many still respect them for the positive ways they have been able to influence the African-American community.
Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder and pastor of the predominately LGBT and African-American LGBT Unity Fellowship Church of Charlotte, told qnotes that social justice work across varying lines of difference is often sensitive.
“It isn’t clean and neat and easy and tidy. It is messy work,” she said. “But it is worth fighting.”
Rawls said it is important to view Farrakhan in context.
“Many of his positions I have not agreed with and some of the positions I have supported, in terms of empowerment of people of color and even some of the ways he and the Nation of Islam have made great strides in fighting HIV and AIDS,” she said. “I do not agree with many of the positions of Minister Louis Farrakhan but I also do support some of those positions that support people of color.”
Farrakhan’s place in American history is complex. He rose to power in the Nation of Islam in 1977. He’s been credited with providing positive leadership for urban African-American men and providing an identity of solidarity within the African-American community after centuries of oppression and decades of tumultuous civil rights struggles.
The Southern Poverty Law Center even acknowledges that racism, where it exists within black separatist groups like the Nation of Islam, “is, at least in part, a response to centuries of white racism.” Still, the SPLC says “it believes racism must be exposed in all its forms.”
“White groups espousing beliefs similar to black separatists would be considered clearly racist. The same criterion should be applied to all groups regardless of their color,” the group says on its website. “If a white group espoused similar beliefs with the colors reversed, few would have trouble describing it as racist and anti-Semitic. Although the racism of a group like the Nation may be relatively easy to understand, if we seek to expose white hate groups, we cannot be in the business of explaining away the black ones.”
Rawls is understanding of the concerns and stands solidly opposed to hate.
“I stand strongly in support of the Jewish community and against anti-Semitism and stand strongly in support of gay, lesbian, bi and trans and the right for gay couples to marry,” she said. “I do not support the way that anybody uses their power and a position in any way to harm any population.”
Yet, given Farrakhan’s history within the African-American community, it is hard to dismiss him entirely.
“For many in the black community, that is a place that we are able to learn how to as responsibly as possible grapple and own the need to hold our sisters and brothers accountable in whatever way is deemed appropriate and also make sure that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water where there are points of intersectionality where we can work together.”
Leaders like Powers remain unconvinced.
“The greatest hatemongers in the world always have a positive message,” he said. “They always talk about God. David Duke talks about God. David Duke has positive things to say, as does Louis Farrakhan. Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time but he was still a fascist. People cloak themselves in positive things but the core of who they are and what their real message is is rotten and putrid and repugnant.”
Powers said he is “shocked and repelled” that an openly gay elected officials and other LGBT-friendly officials would support Farrakhan.
“I don’t understand that and what is happening here, that there is a conflict here,” he said. “Yes, you can agree with the outer message, the wrapping on the package, but when you open that package up and see what is really inside, it’s repugnant.”
Rawls said she is confident in Mayfield’s judgement.
“I do know LaWana Mayfield is someone who stands for justice and equality,” she said. “I know her to be a woman of justice and equality for her whole career. That’s what she has fought for and paid high prices for.”
[Ed. Note — This writer served a brief term as a volunteer member of the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee’s steering committee during his hiatus from the newspaper this past spring. He no longer serves on the organization’s committee and had no special or prior knowledge of the organization’s general election endorsements or endorsement process.]