The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 55.0°F | Fog

Million Man March Draws Severla Hundred Thousand

By Sam Fulwood III and Marc Lacey
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

In a moving display of pride and mutual support, hundreds of thousands of black men stood shoulder to shoulder in a crowd that stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond Monday as speakers at the Million Man March urged them to dedicate their lives to curing the ills afflicting black America.

Basking in the racial solidarity of attending the largest gathering of African Americans in the nation's history, participants embraced each other and the march's theme of "atonement" to create an event significantly different from civil-rights protests of the past.

As many of the speakers and numerous participants made clear, Monday's assemblage was sharply focused on what black men should do for themselves, not what others should do for them. Unlike past Washington demonstrations - such as the historic 1963 March on Washington, where 250,000 people heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s passionate "I have a dream" speech - few of Monday's speakers appealed to government for help.

"Today, we ask nothing of the government," Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke said before a crowd officially estimated at 400,000, but "we ask everything of ourselves."

And the march's primary organizer, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, delivered a searing demand for self-discipline in a more than two-hour speech at the end of the day.

"We cannot continue the destruction of our lives and the destruction of our communities," Farrakhan said to cheers and nods of agreement. Black men must stop the "death of the babies by the senseless slaughter" in black neighborhoods, he said, calling on members of the crowd to pledge never again to commit violence, use drugs, abuse women or children or otherwise degrade themselves or their community.

Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., marked a turning point in the civil-rights struggle and who was one of several women to address the march, urged black men "to make changes in their lives for the better."

While such messages of blame and demands for improvement often quieted the crowd, they did not stifle its remarkable sense of warmth and community.

"I don't see no strangers here," declared George Grover, a mechanic from Virginia Beach, Va., who passed through the crowd offering handshakes to everyone he met. "These are my brothers. We might have been strangers, but I've been telling everyone: Hey, man! I'm your brother, George.' "

Although the march had become ensnarled in a controversy that divided both blacks and whites, primarily because of Farrakhan, the day's events were marked by messages of peace, reverence, celebration and optimism.

Even Farrakhan suggested the time might have come for him to sit down with leaders of the Jewish community, whom he previously had denounced as "bloodsuckers" and who had denounced him as anti-Semitic.

Away from the Mall, critics continued to denounce Farrakhan and some prominent blacks remained ambivalent about the event.

President Clinton, in a speech in Austin, Texas, that focused on race relations, referred to Farrakhan, saying "1 million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division. No good house was ever built on a bad foundation."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.), commenting during a trip to his home state, called Farrakhan "an unrepentant bigot" and predicted he would draw strength and legitimacy from the march.

And Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a possible presidential candidate, expressed the ambivalence that many black leaders had felt about the event because of Farrakhan's role:

"If I was there, I would be torn between the opportunity to present a message of family and reconciliation to the group," Powell said in New York. "But at the same time I would be a little reluctant to lend too much credibility to his (Farrakhan's) leadership of the event."

The prospect of so many black men massing together had spread a measure of anxiety throughout the Washington metropolitan area - anxiety about snarled traffic.

Indeed, so many people stayed away from the downtown area that normally busy streets and expressways were all but deserted.

Yet as a testament to the good feelings that permeated the rally, law enforcement officials spent much of the day with little police work to do. By midafternoon, D.C. Metropolitan Police and U.S. Park Police said they had made three arrests for unlicensed vending. In addition, police said they received a telephone bomb threat, which was traced to a pay telephone, and an arrest was made in that incident.

The idea for the Million Man March first surfaced last year, shortly after its co-organizer, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., was ousted as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Farrakhan and Chavis said at the time they would attempt to lead 1 million black men in a march on Washington during a "holy day of atonement" for the sins that black men have committed against themselves and their communities.