Newhouse News Service
October 17, 1995
WASHINGTON – For a nation seemingly evermore on the rack over race, yesterday’s Million Man March seemed a holiday. In a remarkable display of peace, harmony and united good intentions, hundreds of thousands of black men gathered on the National Mall and collectively generated less rancor or tension than a random half-hour of “Geraldo” or “Oprah,” or even “Washington Week in Review.”
Somehow, America’s leading rabble-rouser came to the Capitol and dropped a balm.
It was Nixon in China. Perhaps only someone with the awful edge, the capacity for acrimony, of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan could draw this many black men to Washington to immerse themselves so wholly in what Farrakhan himself described in his speech as a “sea of peace, a sea of tranquility.” “We have grown beyond our bitterness; we have transcended our pain,” declared Farrakhan, often seen in the white community as the suave prince of black bitterness, the clever king of black pain.
What Farrakhan does with his newly claimed prominence remains to be seen. Despite his nonpareil success in mobilizing black men, Farrakhan’s 2 1/2-hour speech before his Million Man March (the National Park Service estimated the crowd at 400,000) was almost anticlimactic. He spoke to a huge but thinning throng, as thousands streamed away. It was not the emotional equivalent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech 32 years ago.
And whatever the particulars of Farrakhan’s speech, the overriding message from the black men in attendance was simple, earnest and direct. They want safe neighborhoods, mutual respect, good schools, whole families.
Forget black rage. Forget O.J. Simpson. Forget the nettlesome national debate over affirmative action. Eleven months after the elections inaugurated the year of the angry white male – and a couple of weeks after the Simpson verdict prompted intimations of white backlash – Americans who listened closely to those who flocked to the Million Man March were introduced to the responsible and determined black male.
“Whether or not America wants to make us the enemy, we are not the enemy,” said Robert Rhue, a 59-year-old district court bailiff from Detroit. “We love this country.”
“We heeded his call,” said Rhue of Farrakhan. “Nobody else could have brought this many black people here. But what we do with it is up to us.”
“Forget the messenger; listen to the message,” said Miles Spencer Steele 3d, a retired car parts manager in Washington and lifelong friend of Rhue.
“We don’t need a leader,” said Steele.
“We lead ourselves,” said Rhue.
To many, the high point of the day was the moment they arrived in each other’s midst and saw the sea of themselves.
“It was heaven,” said Charles Sabree, a 58-year-old member of the Nation of Islam from Chicago.
“If I were to die today I would be happy,” said Joseph Dulin, who runs an alternative high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I had to come. I had no choice.”
It was a day of eye contact and smiles, of hugs and handshakes. Even a white reporter – to many the embodiment of the mainstream stereotyper – was encouraged once and again with the gentlest of challenges: “Get it right,” or at least, “Try to get it right.”
For those who came it was a day in history.
“If we go back a few years from today I think this will be seen as the point where black men made their change, when we took charge of our lives and our communities, when we stopped being children,” said Brother Jerome, a 32- year-old barber who is a member of the Nation of Islam in Philadelphia and declined to give his last name. “It is kind of like the black men’s bar mitzvah,” said Jerome simply.
To some, the unrelievedly upbeat tone of the day may have been a slight letdown.
“I had expected it to be like what happened in the ’60s. ‘Down with this. Down with that,”‘ said Rayford Allen, an unemployed engineer from Chicago who now makes his way writing for and hawking a newspaper called Streetwise.
“But there aren’t any down-with-anythings. Everything is all up. It’s more positive than it was in the ’60s. It’s more of a picnic or a party,” said Allen, taking a break from listening to Rush Limbaugh’s up-to-the-minute critique of “Calypso Lou” Farrakhan on his Walkman.
To Allen, the streets will be as unsafe, the black community in just as much peril tomorrow, as it was the day before the march.
But others were hopeful that would not be the case.
“Hopefully, people will not go back into their neighborhoods and fall into their same old ways,” says Donald Brown, a corrections officer from Trenton.
“It would be so nice,” agreed a fellow corrections officer, Curtis Boyd.
“There are more good people in the world than bad people,” said Kenny, a recently laid-off aerospace worker from San Diego who would not give his last name. “They only want a certain peace in their life.”
The march, he marveled, was a place of “no anxiety, no tension.”
“No hostility,” added his childhood friend, Kurt Wagner, who lives in Virginia and works construction at National Airport.
“Trust,” said Kenny.
“I’m loving it; it’s like a family reunion,” said Wagner.
To many it was about defying and destroying the stereotype of every black man as a potential Willie Horton, of making the black male a less fearsome being not only to white America but to each other as well.
“Black-on-black crime is serious,” said Harold Jones, a Chrysler worker from Syracuse, N.Y.
Bill Godsen, 40, who counsels juvenile offenders in Baltimore, was encouraged by the absence, so far as he could see, of a single fight or even, it seemed, cross word.
“There are so many people talking about making it work,” said Godsen. Though he acknowledged, “It’s not going to be easy.”