The Million Man March struck a deeply resonant chord among African American men, many thousands of whom poured into Washington Monday. The historic turnout--at least double the integrated crowd that stood with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington--spoke volumes about the desperate conditions of life in many of America's black communities.
Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader and provocateur --known for making bigoted assertions about whites and Jews and his heated rhetoric aimed at blacks who don't agree with him--was the force behind the march. More than a year ago, he issued a clarion call, and this week they came. Some came to take a just stand. Some came because they already were responsible persons, were proud of it and were tired of seeing themselves portrayed as predators. Some came to promise to do better. Some came despite a messenger who puts fire, not balm, onto America's racial divides.
LEADERSHIP VOID: Unfortunately, Farrakhan is filling a void left by leaders of traditional civil rights organizations, many of whom seem to no longer connect with the grass roots, particularly with the young. But it's important to note that the void is not simply one of black American leadership, which is varied and speaks with many voices. It is also a void of white American leadership. Of American leadership, period. As President Clinton put it, "White racism may be black people's burden, but it's white people's problem."
Clinton, not coincidentally, addressed the issue of race on Monday at the University of Texas in Austin. He spoke of America's racial schizophrenia, which was exacerbated by reactions to the verdicts in the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Given the voracious media appetite for racial conflict, it would have been gratifying if more live television coverage had been given to this important speech.
"This moment in which the racial divide is so clearly out in the open need not be a setback for us," Clinton said. "It presents us with a great opportunity, and we dare not let it pass us by." His message, no matter how right, will be of little value unless political leaders, as well as everyday Americans, respond by attempting to find common ground and a unity of purpose.
Of the Million Man March, Clinton said, "This march could remind white people that most black people share their old-fashioned American values--for most black Americans still do work hard, care for their families, pay their taxes, and obey the law."
APPALLING STATISTICS: The facts are grim. The criminal justice system claims nearly one in three young black men. The unemployment rate for black men is 12%, more than for black women and more than twice that of whites. If these chronic statistics do not amount to a state of emergency for the black community--and for this nation--then nothing ever can.
Thousands of African American men did Monday what so many clergy members and politicians have been urging them to do: They stood up to be counted, they disavowed violence and drugs as the wrong ways to escape the ravages of racism and scarce economic opportunities. We may not be able to improve external conditions, they said, but we can improve what's going on in our own homes and communities. That's a powerful message, one that all of America should applaud.
America remains a house divided more than a century after Lincoln uttered those famous words. Thousands of black men said Monday they are determined to get their house in order. Time will tell whether the energy of Monday's march will translate into positive action in local communities. In the meantime, as President Clinton noted, this isn't something that the rest of America can just watch from the sidelines. De Tocqueville was speaking to whites when he warned that racial disharmony was the one thing that had the potential to tear America apart.