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 declared before a crowd officially estimated at 400,000, but "we ask everything of ourselves."
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 seat on the bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 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 has denounced as "bloodsuckers" and who have denounced him as anti-Semitic.
Farrakhan brushed aside criticism of his role in the march, saying he had divine guidance.
"Whether you like it or not, God brought the idea through me, and he didn't bring it through me because my heart was dark with hatred and anti-Semitism," he said.
"If my heart was that dark, how is the message so bright?"
He urged the men to go home and join black organizations--even those that refused to endorse his rally--to take hold of political power, unite against racism and cleanse black communities of crime, drugs and violence.
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, Tex., that focused on race relations, referred obliquely to Farrakhan, saying: "One million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division. No good house was ever built on a bad foundation."
Clinton later flew to Los Angeles to speak at a celebrity-filled benefit concert at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood slated to raise money for the fight against substance abuse. He was to return to Texas today.
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.
Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, a possible presidential candidate, expressed the ambivalence many black leaders have 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.
"Let's not prejudge what might be accomplished," Powell added. "Let's let the people who are at the march make that judgment. We can trust them to separate out what is wisdom in the message from Minister Farrakhan and what is not wisdom, what is anti-Semitic, racist statements. They can sort that out."
That was just what George Ragin, a plumber from Landover, Md., seemed to do as he surveyed the scene from a grassy knoll next to the gleaming dome of the Capitol. He was overcome by the sight of black men stretching out before him to the west in wave after wave as far as he could see.
"We're all together here today, and hopefully we'll stay together," he said. "I hope this march is the beginning of wonderful things."
Measure of Anxiety
The prospect of so many black men massing together had spread a measure of anxiety throughout the Washington metropolitan area--concern about snarled traffic and more.
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, the metropolitan police said they received a telephone bomb threat, which was traced to a pay telephone and a suspect was arrested.
The Associated Press reported that one elderly man in the crowd suffered a heart attack and died, and some two dozen participants were treated in area hospitals for minor injuries.
The idea for the "Million Man March" surfaced last year, shortly after co-organizer Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was ousted as executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Farrakhan and Chavis said then 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.
Almost from the beginning, the idea provoked division.
Some dismissed it as impossible or racially divisive because it was being led by two controversial black activists. Farrakhan, who has been rebuked repeatedly for making anti-Semitic comments, has drawn the ire of Jewish leaders and organizations, many of them traditional allies for civil rights organizations. Chavis' firing by the NAACP because of a money and sex scandal seemed to make him an unlikely leader for a ceremony of atonement.
Nevertheless, Farrakhan and Chavis pressed ahead with the idea without encouragement from most traditional black organizations and with no financial support from white groups. Word of the "Million Man March" was passed along among grass-roots activists in black communities and was heavily promoted on black-oriented radio shows.
Even as the march moved toward becoming a reality, controversy followed as groups of black women and others protested the all-male and racially exclusive nature of the assembly. Farrakhan had asked that women not attend the rally but instead support the march by staying home with their children and sending the men to Washington.
In the end, women joined in the march. Some, such as Parks and National Council of Negro Women President Dorothy Height, addressed the crowd from the podium at the foot of the west front of the Capitol.
Poet Maya Angelou, in a reprise of her appearance at the inauguration of Clinton, read a poem written for the day:
"Draw near to one another,
"Save your race.
"You have been paid for in a distant place.
"The old ones remind us that slavery's chains
"Have paid for our freedom again and again."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson praised the crowd for its resolve to change the fate of black America.
"The idea of a million men has touched a nerve deep in the hearts of people yearning to breathe free," he said. "Big meetings were never allowed on the plantation. We've always yearned for a big meeting. Today we've left the plantation. This is a big meeting."
Jackson noted that the 1963 march was a historic step in the civil rights struggle, and he suggested that the "Million Man March" may be remembered in the same light. "America will benefit and ultimately be grateful for this day," he said. "When the rising tide for racial justice and gender equality and family stability lifts the boats stuck at the bottom, all boats benefit."
Although Jackson and Farrakhan were among some familiar faces, most of the speakers were not well-known personalities, even to the black population. Many represented Farrakhan's highly secretive Nation of Islam; others were activists little known outside their own communities.
Together, they offered a full-throated exhibition of grass-roots frustration and resolve to improve the plight of black men.
One of the most stirring speeches of the day came from 10-year-old Tiffany Mayo of Waldorf, Md., who called on the men to stand up for young girls. "I need the protection of every black man," she said in a clear, melodious voice. "I'm a girl. Won't you look after me? I am not yet a woman, even if I pretend to be. Save me from abusers. I am not the cause of pain in your life, I am not the stand-in for your girlfriend or your wife."
Ron Sailor, who represented a contingent of young NAACP activists from Atlanta, led the crowd in a chant: "Praise God for young black males!"
He then admonished the audience to work on the public perception of black men. "I'm so tired of America treating young black males like we are prodigal children," he said, encouraging black men to go home and get involved in turning around their neighborhoods and holding political leaders accountable to black people.
"It's time to go home," he said.
But before they left, nearly everyone--those in the crowd before him and those watching on television--wanted to hear what Farrakhan would say.
Dressed in a blue, double-breasted suit with his traditional bow tie, Farrakhan spoke for more than two hours--from the warm glow of a perfect autumn afternoon until the shadows of a cold evening had stretched across the Mall. Instead of the fiery speeches that are his trademark, he struck a conciliatory tone by paying tribute to all other religions.
Urging his listeners to become involved in community life when they return to their homes, Farrakhan told them to attend "church, synagogue, temple or mosque." Quoting more from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible than from the Koran, the holy book of Islam, he talked extensively of Jesus Christ's teachings.
Acknowledging and responding to the concerns of some critics of the march, as well as many of its participants, Farrakhan said the march was not a political platform for his own views. "I don't want to take credit for a day like this," he said. "It's bigger than all of us."
Farrakhan also called for a dialogue with the Jewish community, saying reducing tensions between blacks and Jews would be positive for the nation.
"I don't like this squabble with the members of the Jewish community," he said. "Perhaps in the light of what we see today, it's time to sit down and talk, not with any preconditions."
Jewish groups, however, responded with skepticism and demanded the man who once labeled their religion "dirty" repudiate his past rhetoric. "Minister Farrakhan wants dialogue but has done nothing to demonstrate that that dialogue would be meaningful," said David Friedman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League's Washington office.
Times staff writers John M. Broder, Edwin Chen, Sara Fritz, Robert L. Jackson and Elizabeth Shogren also contributed to this story.
* IMPORTANT TIME: What mattered for John Hamilton of L.A. was this day. A11
* RELATED STORIES, PHOTOS, EXCERPTS: A10-A14, A17-A18
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"I feel that the atmosphere is strong -- young black men being empowered with other black men. It's beautiful,"
--Clayton Pasley, a pastor from St. Louis
"How good it is, to hear the sound of chains and shackles breaking."
--The Rev. Jesse Jackson
"Today, whether you like it or not, God brought the idea through me."
--Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan
"When the term 'bloodsucker' is used, understand that a bloodsucker is a parasite, one who lives off of a host. So, the so-called Jew who comes into the black community and makes tractor-trailer loads of money ... and the black communities get poorer and poorer."
--Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammed, explaining Farrakhan's anti-Semitic remarks
"This group is not Farrakhan's group. This is a group of black men from around the country who are coming here for a day of atonement and to talk about how to take responsibility for their own lives."
--Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes
"No good house was ever built on a bad foundation. Nothing good ever came of hate. So let us pray today that all who march and all who speak will stand for atonement, for reconciliation, for responsibility."
"We're not marching because we're the fruit of Islam, we're marching because we're the fruit of Christ."
--The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., of Washington