February 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Farrakhan calls for unity among congregations, says Detroit's resurgence must address neighborhoods

Minister Louis Farrakhan said Mayor Mike Duggan needs to focus on areas beyond downtown in efforts to turn around Detroit. (Jose Juarez / Special to The Detroit News)

Detroit — Minister Louis Farrakhan delivered a fiery speech Sunday before thousands, calling on Christians and Muslims to work together and expressing confidence in Detroit’s resurgence while delivering a stern message to Mayor Mike Duggan that improving downtown is not enough.

“We said to the mayor, it’s one thing to build downtown, but if uptown and crosstown are blighted, why would you want to be mayor over downtown, and not over all of the town? Farrakhan told a packed Joe Louis Arena.

“What plan is there to resurrect the blighted areas of people who worked, paid their taxes and now they’re being told, after they retired, I’m sorry.”

During more than two hours on the last day of the annual Nation of Islam Saviours’ Day convention Sunday, he sang a few Christian hymns, quoted Scripture as well as the Qur’an and asked two prominent pastors, the Rev. Jim Holley of Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit and the Rev. Willie F. Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., to come forward on the stage, asking that they work together.

“Wait a minute, Muslims,” he said dramatically. “If you really understood the Prophet Muhammad, he spoke to Christians, to Jews, to Zoroastrians, all the religious people of his day — and he spoke to them out of their books,” he said. “If we formed a unity, then we could work the community.

He said the religious leaders “are getting old now.”

“I don’t have no time to die,” he said. “We have work to do to change the horrible reality of our people. What better place to start than in this city that needs our attention?” he said.

The convention was held in Detroit for the first time since 2007. Among those attending were U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit; Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones; and former Detroit congresswoman . Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.

The convention commemorates the birth of Nation of Islam founder W. Fard Muhammad, who began teaching in Detroit in 1930. The Nation of Islam was led to prominence from 1934-75 by Prophet Elijah Muhammad. This is the 84th year of the Nation of Islam in North America.

This year’s convention theme was, “How Strong Is Our Foundation: Can We Survive?”

In the background on stage, a large poster carried the theme’s words surrounded by photos of historical African-Americans, including Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute; W.E.B. DuBois; Malcolm X; and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of those who went before us, and we, hopefully, will be the shoulders of those who come after us,” he said. All of them, he said, shared the goal of fighting for the liberation of black people.

Acknowledging that majority black Detroiters chose Duggan, who is white, as their leader, Farrakhan said the city’s new mayor needs to help resurrect the city’s blighted neighborhoods and not just promote its reviving downtown.

His comments came on the heels of a plan of adjustment expected to be a blueprint for Detroit’s exit from bankruptcy. The plan allots $520 million over the next five years to fight blight.

Farrakhan lashed out at the criminal justice system that he said fails to serve African-Americans, pointing to controversial stand your ground laws in some states.

“How long must we let people stand their ground, shooting us and getting away with it while we don’t get justice?” Farrakhan said to the crowd. “We want justice. Equal justice under the law. We want the federal government to intercede to see that black people get justice in accordance with the law. Otherwise, I’m going on record with this today … we have to have our own courts.”

Farrakhan also praised auto baron Henry Ford. “Mr. Ford was a great man, who was called an anti-Semite,” he said. “That man set up in Highland Park a community building homes for workers to give them a middle-class existence.”

Farrakhan has been accused himself of using anti-Semitic language in speeches, recently in May at Detroit’s Fellowship Chapel. In Detroit last year, Farrakhan denounced “satanic Jews” and the “synagogue of Satan” that he said controls major U.S. institutions and said President Barack Obama has “surrounded himself with Satan … members of the Jewish community.”

Sunday, he addressed that criticism. “I don’t hate Jewish people,” he said.

His comments drew a quick rebuke from Heidi Budaj, Michigan regional director of the Jewish rights advocacy group the Anti-Defamation League.

“Expressing pride for being called anti-Semitic is shameful,” she said. “A person in this day and age should be ashamed to say that.”

Earlier in his speech Sunday, Farrakhan criticized an unnamed rabbi, with whom he had a recent conversation.

“The rabbi told me anybody who is critical of Jews wouldn’t be well spoken of in history,” he said.

“No one is allowed to speak of them critically, or history will not record you well. That didn’t sit well with me. He said it’s not for us to criticize their behavior, that’s for them to do. That rabbi is the former dean of rabbis in Chicago. I said, ‘Really?’ You mean even legitimate criticism is unacceptable unless it comes from you to your people?”

Community activist Barry Ross, who is Jewish, said he called five of his Jewish friends to see if they would attend Farrakhan’s speech, but “they all slammed the phone down on me.”

Ross, from Royal Oak, said he didn’t find Farrakhan’s comments offensive and “he wished every African-American in the city of Detroit could have been uplifted.”

“There’s many ways to interpret what he said,” Ross said. “Historically, I think Jews always believed he was attacking us but I think he speaks from a position of fact and I don’t think anyone in the Jewish community has any facts to back up that he’s erroneous in any of his statements.”

Others traveled from across the country to listen to Farrakhan’s speech, including Christian minister Bronson James, who visited from Memphis, Tenn. He said he hopes to return to Detroit to establish his own church.

“In the spiritual component of his message, it was striking to me because so many believers offer lip service, but he’s talking about putting flesh on the skeleton,” James said.

Hannah Muhammad rode the bus for 18 hours from Mississippi to attend Saviour’s Day.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Muhammad said. “It’s great. I wouldn’t have it no other way.”

Michael Roberts, owner of Roberts Riverwalk Hotel & Residence in Detroit, was on stage for Farrakhan’s address. He said the speech hit home for him because he views himself as a part of Detroit’s resurgence as well as helping to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in the city younger generation.

“He has various messages, of course, but I think one of the things I listen for is his effort to have people become more entrepreneurial or independent and to develop a mindset of independence.

“And in America, that is extremely important.”

Associated Press contributed.

Attendees bow their heads during the Saviours' Day opening prayer. (Jose Juarez / Special to The Detroit News)