The sound of African drums began echoing through the air shortly before dawn Monday. But John Hamilton was already awake.
Sleep hadn't mattered for days. All he could think about, long before he'd boarded the plane here from Los Angeles, was The March, and all it might symbolize. At 24, he had found his niche as an elementary school teacher focusing on needy children, a black man dedicated to the next generation. Now, in a friend's apartment hallway, he was yelling at slow-moving others to hustle. It was time.
"Y'all are not really pumped like me," he kept repeating, thumping his chest. "You ain't ready for this march."
The anxiety and eagerness that had kept his stocky body awake all night was finally coming to a crescendo. Between taking in the sights and smells of his first trip to the East Coast, the fifth-grade teacher wondered aloud what a million black men would look like. How many could he network with, talk to, learn from? How would the delicate ballet of race, police and religion that had consumed the conversation the night before with his friends play out in public? How would all these brothers, so used to explaining the existence of a black man to outsiders--women, children, whites--talk about it among themselves?
It did not take long for the sensation to hit him.
"Look at all those brothers," Hamilton said, tugging on a friend's shirt and pointing to a row of black men on the Washington subway as he headed to the march site with two friends, Kevin Kent, a Howard University law school student, and Carlos McCullers of Cerritos.
He quickly became overwhelmed as he and his friends approached the windy Capitol area. Snapping pictures at a feverish pace, he was lost in the endless swirls of voices and conversations around him.
Even what wasn't here was noteworthy. No alcohol. "That was real deep what that brother just said," he told his friends as they walked toward the steps of the Capitol. "He said he hadn't seen one beer bottle all day."
As he slid through the crowd, bumping shoulders with black men he had never before seen, he greeted brothers with, "What's up, black man?" It was, he'd say later without irony, "the blackest moment" of his life. It filled him with a strength, a sense of solidarity, an elation that was impossible to imagine at home.
"I haven't had so many deep conversations with black men in my whole life," he told Kent.
In another moment, Hamilton spotted more than a dozen black men crowding the Iwo Jima Monument. He threw his fist into the air in a black power salute, reminiscent of the Black Panthers.
But then the elation subsided and his jaw dropped, because coming from a few feet away from him was a voice that sounded more like one of Hamilton's students at 112th Street School near Watts than the raspy, life-hardened voices that were dominating the podium.
He heard the stinging words of 13-year-old Messiah Ali from Philadelphia: "They say we are going to die," the wide-eyed teen-ager said, alluding to the desperate conditions of many black youths. "So if I am going to die, I would rather die with my black brothers."
It pulled Hamilton back. Until that moment, his job as a teacher had seemed so far away. Ali's words reminded him of his purpose--here in Washington, and back in Los Angeles. He was committed to using education to help young black boys, to change the fatalistic minds of kids like Messiah.
Through most of the weekend, Hamilton had been engaged in a debate with Kent and McCullers on such topics as sexism in some black families and the presence of Louis Farrakhan as the march's organizer. He asked Kent as they strolled by the Capitol wading pool why so many black women were at the march cooking food, when black men were perfectly capable themselves.
Now, slicing his way through throngs of black men lining the Mall, Hamilton bumped into Bing Turner, a 47-year-old Pomona man who was getting a march T-shirt signed by other black men. Never, Turner said, had he "been around so many brothers before without some fear."
Hamilton wasn't surprised by that. Again and again he'd noticed the plethora of "excuse-me" and "pardon me, brother" that would seen impossible daily in Los Angeles, where an incidental bump into another black man could trigger an intense glare, and sometimes far worse.
The controversy surrounding Farrakhan, he told his friends, had to be shoved on the back burner this day. "Of course he's one of the people putting it on," he said. "But if this is supposed to be a 'Million Man March,' then it's more than just about one man."
And though he was looking forward to Farrakhan's speech, Hamilton did not see the need for atonement. "I didn't do anything to anyone," he said calmly. "I didn't put crack on the street. I don't sell it."
Even a quick trip toward the restroom provided a dose of home. He ran into 75-year-old Altadena resident Thabiti Hashim shouting into a bullhorn: "Unity is power. Make sure you register to vote."
It made Hamilton mindful of the long-term effects he hoped the march would have. "What we need to do is keep all those 'Million Man March' headquarters open," Hamilton said as he rested from the day of walking, "and use them as a place . . . for community groups and brothers to keep things going."
He savored the food, keeping his stomach full of hot fish sandwiches and his backpack full with gifts for Mom and the "homies back in L.A." The day wound down. The plane ride home was a few hours away. He had bathed in a sensibility he could hardly have imagined a few days before and found strength, he said, in "all these brothers from everywhere."