MILLION MAN MARCH : A Sea of Humanity Swells With Hope and Celebration : Scene: Thousands joyously embrace as brothers. They ponder how to use their newfound ‘power and promise.’
On a perfect autumn day in the nation’s capital, the massive gathering of black men Monday was a celebration of their new image of unity and hope. Strangers embraced as brothers; music and soaring language rang down the Mall.
The tidings were of redemption and reconciliation: The Rev. Jesse Jackson said that each man should leave the rally with the declaration, “I turned pain into power and promise.”
But that assertion raised dangling questions from an impressive and historic event: What will be its lasting impact? Now that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has the nation’s attention, what will he do with it? Will the event help bridge the great divide between black and white in America, or deepen it?
“We black men have a lot of problems in our community,” said Tony Wright, a computer operator from Brooklyn who drove to Washington with friends to participate in the rally. “This was a chance to show the positive aspects of our community.”
But the days after the march will be even more important, Wright said. “I hope we can make changes in the way we deal with each other as black men. If we can change things in our own community, things will be changed in our dealings with others.”
Monday was a day in which it was easy for many participants to believe that today would bring a new day for the black man in America. The morning dawned clear and unusually cold for mid-October in Washington, but by midday the sun had warmed the Mall and its monuments, even though a steady wind blew.
A kite bearing the black, red and green colors of black liberation fluttered above the crowd near the Capitol steps, where a little more than a year earlier House Speaker Newt Gingrich had launched his conservative revolution under the banner of the “contract with America.”
Vendors hawked caps, buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts commemorating the march. There was food and drink aplenty for sale, from mineral water and trail mix to homemade sweet potato pies.
Vans from black radio stations were parked along the mall, blasting out rhythm and blues, rap and hip-hop. Impromptu groups of drummers entertained corners of the throng. Families basked on blankets in the sun sharing picnic lunches. Hundreds who had ridden buses all night to attend the march slept slumped against trees.
And many carried gadgets that were never seen at the mass protests of the 1960s: cellular telephones, miniature color televisions, video cameras.
For many, the rally was a family affair, a chance for fathers to demonstrate their commitment to their sons.
John Bordeaux, a 50-year-old entrepreneur from St. Louis, came with his 25-year-old son and his 10-year-old grandson.
“Why did I come? There was no other place to be. I would be a fool not to come,” he said.
Bordeaux dismissed the controversy over Farrakhan’s sponsorship of the march, saying that while he was not a Muslim he nevertheless followed Farrakhan’s teachings about black separatism and self-sufficiency.
“Louis Farrakhan is a great man,” he said. “No other black leader in America could get people in these numbers to come. Martin Luther King was the last to do it.”
He added that his son, who thought that nice cars and nice clothes constituted the American dream, grew up the moment he set foot on the Mall on Monday.
“My son, when he got here, was a young man. He’s an old man now. Now he knows the truth, that Minister Farrakhan stood up for black people when we were not able to stand up for ourselves. My son now stands behind that vision,” Bordeaux said.
Order was ensured by hundreds of Nation of Islam crowd monitors dressed in conservative suits and red bow ties and armbands. Stationed every 50 yards or so along the length of the Mall, the Farrakhan followers unsmilingly directed pedestrian traffic and sold souvenir editions of the Nation of Islam newspaper, the Final Call.
The expected gridlock in the capital never materialized, in part because thousands of Washingtonians stayed home, heeding predictions of massive traffic problems.
The Smithsonian museums that line the Mall were quiet. The popular Air and Space Museum, usually packed with schoolchildren, served mostly as a place for marchers to rest and get out of the wind.
But one school group chose to brave the Mall in spite of warnings of monumental traffic problems. Teachers Don Cooper and Joan Dillon brought 39 students from tiny Bellevue High School in Bellevue, Mich., on a visit that had been planned for more than a year.
“We had the typical worries, about the traffic and the crowd. One nervous parent called last night . . . [asking] if we were sure it was OK,” said Cooper, whose school district has 300 students--only one of them black. “But it’s been a wonderful day, amazing. We met one group of black men from Minnesota who asked us to join them at the march.”
Every man in attendance, it seemed, carried his own message. But none were more original than that of Harold Brown, who works for a black-owned communications firm in Chicago.
His cleverly constructed costume portrayed himself being carried in a trash can by a bald-headed white man.
“You got to vote,” he yelled as he circulated through the crowd. “Stop doing drugs. Stop killing one another. Or this is where we’ll end up in the future--in the white man’s garbage can.”
Dozens stopped to take his picture. One said as Brown moved away: “That’s deep. That’s the deepest thing I’ve seen out here.”
But perhaps the overriding theme of the day was the vast gulf of perception between white and black in contemporary America.
Russell Mosley of Washington said that black men still have to overcome generations of pain and anger before they can fully reconcile with the white majority.
“Until today, we didn’t have any way to address our concerns,” Mosley said, looking out over the ocean of humanity arrayed beneath the radiant Capitol dome. “But today, there are a million black men out here in peace. For once, maybe, we’ll be recognized by mainstream society.”
Times staff writers Marlene Cimons and Marc Lacey contributed to this story.