This weekend in Atlanta, young people were set to gather for the Million Youth Movement, sponsored by the NAACP, the Nation of Islam and leaders of the civil rights community. Another rally--named the Million Youth March (after the Million Man March of 1995)--was scheduled in New York. The controversy over the latter threatens to drown out the message of both.
The New York gathering was called by Khalid Abdul Muhammad. He is the former Nation of Islam official fired by Louis Farrakhan for making anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and other hate-filled remarks. He has, to put it mildly, a gift for provocation.
In this case, his provocation has been met by that of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The mayor reacted as if the city were under invasion by aliens. He denounced Muhammad, dismissed the gathering as a "hate march," and warned that the attendance of gang members could lead to violence, increasing tensions with the police. The city refused to give the march a permit until ordered to do so by the courts as a matter of free speech.
This, of course, is not the first time that the controversy over a march threatened to overwhelm the message. When we look back on the March on Washington in 1963, we remember a peaceful, multiracial march of hundreds of thousands of people. We remember Martin Luther King Jr.'s stirring speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But we forget that King was accused of seeding mayhem when he called the march. There were dire warnings about violence and rioting. The Kennedy administration tried at first to stop the march, then to postpone it and finally to control it. It took King's great stature to overcome the furor and put the real issues before the American people.
Similarly, we remember the 1995 Million Man March as a moving moment of communal reflection, a time when African American men came together to rededicate themselves to their families and their communities. The energy generated at that event spawned community action across the country. Yet beforehand, Farrakhan, its lead organizer, was denounced. Supporters were pilloried. Violence and mayhem were predicted.
Now once again the controversy in New York threatens to drown out the message of the latest gatherings in Atlanta and New York.
Why would young African Americans want to march? The organizers of both marches portray them as a time to come together, to rededicate themselves to one another and to discuss the issues facing the young--including unemployment, drug abuse, racism and police brutality.
Surely these young people need to be heard. Half of them have been born and raised in poverty. They grew up on mean streets and went into broken schools.
They face daunting odds. Jobs are still scarce--unemployment rates among black teenagers in these neighborhoods reaches 50%. Drugs and alcohol provide escape from the pain. Treatment is harder to get than punishment. The absence of stable jobs makes marriages hard to sustain. Too many young women become mothers. Too many young men fail to raise the children they helped create.
Giuliani and other mayors have gained popularity by pushing off these young people. They are treated as threats who need to be locked up rather than as young people who need to be lifted up.
Now, as the strong economy helps put people to work, urban, young African Americans and Latinos are again being left behind. They have less education, lower incomes and deeper poverty.
We should focus not on the curses, but on the realities; not on the messengers, but on the message. For too long, political leaders in both parties have essentially written off inner cities. Urban policy is off the table.
As a result, more resources flow to imprisonment than to empowerment. The federal government requires that poor mothers work, but hasn't made the investment needed to provide jobs, education, child care or transportation to job sites. The administration wants every child to meet the same academic standards, but doesn't guarantee every child the same healthy head start.
Our government guarantees investments in risky markets abroad and spends billions bailing out investors when things go bad so they'll go back. Why not do that at home to encourage capital to invest in our own cities, to employ our own children, to tap into what would be the largest emerging market of all--our own ghettos and barrios.
Personal responsibility and community self-help gatherings are essential. But at a national, state and local level, governments need to be responsible as well. America is a remarkably wealthy country. It cannot close its eyes and ears to so many of its young without losing its own way.