October 13, 1995 in Nation/World

Societal Effects Of March On D.C. Already Being Felt Can Demonstration Of Black Unity Heal A Divided Nation?

Rachel L. Jones Knight-Ridder
 

The Million Man March won’t begin until Monday, but America already is feeling the tremors.

In one sense, this plan to put a million black men on the National Mall has achieved its goal before the first marcher has arrived. Americans - both blacks and whites - are thinking about the tenuous social and economic condition of black men more than in recent memory.

And many blacks are coming together at a time of high interracial friction to reassert to the nation and the world the pride of black men and their commitment to family and community.

But not all the tremors are positive - whites and some blacks worry about promoting the sometimes hateful agenda of Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan, who first envisioned the march.

President Clinton plans to be out of town Monday, attending political fund-raisers in Texas. On Thursday, White House spokesman Mike McCurry indirectly challenged Farrakhan on behalf of Clinton. “There are things that he’s said that are … repugnant,” McCurry said.

Though organizers rightfully are claiming a broad cross section of support within the black community, some, such as John White, a black 53-year-old vice president of a D.C. public relations firm, may not attend.

“Farrakhan is why I haven’t decided yet,” White said. His 21-year-old son David is eager about attending, but White has strong reservations.

He missed the 1963 March on Washington because of military duty. Now, when the need to march is just as strong, there’s Farrakhan. “I think the message they’re trying to send is important,” White said, “but I’ve lived long enough to know that whoever holds the mike influences the message.”

“There’s nothing noble about this march,” said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. “It’s about anointing Louis Farrakhan as a legitimate black leader, and people who refuse to see that are in denial.”

Meyers won’t be participating in the march because he says it’s merely a diversionary tactic. “Farrakhan is expert at making people feel good about their pain, of giving them a momentary fix. And by rallying mainstream black leadership around him, he’s already won, whether he gets a million people or not.”

Farrakhan’s power to align non-supporters with supporters is particularly disturbing to the American Jewish Congress.

On Wednesday, that group issued a condemnation of a pre-march event scheduled at nearby Howard University called “Black Holocaust Nationhood Conference.”

The meeting features Khalid Muhammad, a colleague of Farrakhan’s billed as his “flamethrower,” and City College of New York professor Leonard Jeffries, both of whom have been repeatedly censured for anti-Semitic and anti-white remarks.

Though march supporters claim the conference - scheduled Saturday and Sunday - is separate from the march, the American Jewish Congress said it was an inevitable result.

“It is tragic that the worst kinds of hatred and scapegoating threaten to delegitimize the rightful struggles of a community to improve its dreadful situation,” a Jewish Congress press release states. “The era of Dr. Martin Luther King, in which society was shamed into action by a march, has been succeeded by an era in which shameful individuals have appropriated leadership roles in a march.”

Phil Baum, the group’s executive director, said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a colleague in many AJC activities, cautioned him to be careful in his criticism of the march.

“Farrakhan represents a certain tendency within the African American community that we find disturbing,” Baum said. “Too often, leaders are willing to subordinate their concern about obscene racist invective to support a so-called larger goal. We find that distressing.”

Though many black women were angered that they were initially being excluded from the event, Farrakhan has now opened the doors-a bit. He said women would not be “unwelcome,” though he warned them that the event should not be viewed as a “mating game.”

Organizers expect march participants to begin arriving on Saturday. Some will camp out in the Mall area then; others may stay at satellite locations being arranged by city officials, such as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium two miles east of the Capitol.

Thousands of participants are expected to begin streaming toward the Mall area before sunrise, to gather in front of a 90-foot stage that will be erected near the west steps of Capitol building.

They’ll be arrayed down the broad grassy mall toward the Lincoln Monument, long a symbol of black America’s long journey to equality, two miles away.

If a million men really do appear, the demonstration will be four times the size of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” march on Washington in 1963 and more than twice the size of a 1969 Vietnam War protest that is the largest Mall demonstration to date.

If more than a quarter million people show up, it is expected to be a signal victory for Farrakhan.

Farrakhan and contentious former NAACP chief Benjamin Chavis, who is helping to coordinate the event, are unleashing a flood of conflicting sentiments that are threatening to overwhelm its participants - for better or worse.

Controversies aside, many blacks say the larger cause is so important - the need for black men to assert themselves positively - that they feel compelled to take part.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ABOUT THE MARCH Here are answers to some basic questions about next Monday’s Million Man March. Q. Where did the idea for the Million Man March come from? A. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said the idea to have a million black men gather on the Mall in Washington came to him in a dream, or “vision.” He says he was called to highlight the deteriorating conditions of violence and destruction among blacks. Q. Why are some people concerned about Farrakhan’s participation? A. Farrakhan, who became leader of the Nation of Islam in 1976, is widely perceived to have made negative, racist and sexist comments about whites, Jews and women. He has preached black nationalism, or separatism from whites, throughout his tenure as leader. Jews have been particularly outraged by comments he has made about them, causing a deep rift in relations between blacks and Jews. Q. It’s being called a “holy day of atonement.” Why? A. Farrakhan has said that black men need to atone, or make amends for, their absence in families, communities and the spiritual realm. He said that the terrible conditions flourishing in too many black communities evolved because black men abandoned their wives, children and neighborhoods. The march will be a chance for black men to pray and atone to God and family. Q. How many will come? A. Nobody knows for sure. March organizers say a million are committed. City officials say they are planning for 500,000. Q. Will women be allowed to attend? A. Farrakhan originally asked that women stay away. He said the day was a time for men to gather by themselves and reflect on their issues. He requested that women stay at home with children and avoid shopping. But last week, he reversed his position and said that women would not be unwelcome. But Farrakhan stressed that women shouldn’t come looking for a love connection, and that men have serious work to do that day. Q. What is Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, and why is it so controversial? A. The organization has its roots in an American religious movement called the American Muslim Mission. Although the name “Black Muslims” is often used for members of the movement, the members themselves reject this name.

Founded by W.D. Fard It was founded in Detroit in the early 1930s by W.D. Fard, a fabric salesman. Fard’s followers believe he came to America from Mecca, the holy city of the Islamic religion. They believed that Fard came to redeem blacks from what he called the “white devils” who were enslaving them. Fard disappeared in 1934, and Elijah Muhammad, an autoworker, became leader of the movement.

Elijah Muhammad’s leadership Muhammad favored separation of the races, setting his movement apart from many traditional Islamic Muslim groups. Muhammad preached self-sufficiency and abstinence from alcohol and drugs. Under his leadership, the Nation of Islam earned a reputation among black Americans for rehabilitating addicts and criminals, including convict Malcolm Little, who was recruited while in prison and became Malcolm X.

Role of Malcolm X During the early 1960s, Malcolm X attracted many people to the movement through his speeches and writings. He left the movement in 1964 and converted to traditional Islam, before being assassinated in 1965. In 1976, a number of members led by Farrakhan split off, adopting the Nation of Islam name and the original principles of Elijah Muhammad. - Knight-Ridder

This sidebar appeared with the story: ABOUT THE MARCH Here are answers to some basic questions about next Monday’s Million Man March. Q. Where did the idea for the Million Man March come from? A. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said the idea to have a million black men gather on the Mall in Washington came to him in a dream, or “vision.” He says he was called to highlight the deteriorating conditions of violence and destruction among blacks. Q. Why are some people concerned about Farrakhan’s participation? A. Farrakhan, who became leader of the Nation of Islam in 1976, is widely perceived to have made negative, racist and sexist comments about whites, Jews and women. He has preached black nationalism, or separatism from whites, throughout his tenure as leader. Jews have been particularly outraged by comments he has made about them, causing a deep rift in relations between blacks and Jews. Q. It’s being called a “holy day of atonement.” Why? A. Farrakhan has said that black men need to atone, or make amends for, their absence in families, communities and the spiritual realm. He said that the terrible conditions flourishing in too many black communities evolved because black men abandoned their wives, children and neighborhoods. The march will be a chance for black men to pray and atone to God and family. Q. How many will come? A. Nobody knows for sure. March organizers say a million are committed. City officials say they are planning for 500,000. Q. Will women be allowed to attend? A. Farrakhan originally asked that women stay away. He said the day was a time for men to gather by themselves and reflect on their issues. He requested that women stay at home with children and avoid shopping. But last week, he reversed his position and said that women would not be unwelcome. But Farrakhan stressed that women shouldn’t come looking for a love connection, and that men have serious work to do that day. Q. What is Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, and why is it so controversial? A. The organization has its roots in an American religious movement called the American Muslim Mission. Although the name “Black Muslims” is often used for members of the movement, the members themselves reject this name.

Founded by W.D. Fard It was founded in Detroit in the early 1930s by W.D. Fard, a fabric salesman. Fard’s followers believe he came to America from Mecca, the holy city of the Islamic religion. They believed that Fard came to redeem blacks from what he called the “white devils” who were enslaving them. Fard disappeared in 1934, and Elijah Muhammad, an autoworker, became leader of the movement.

Elijah Muhammad’s leadership Muhammad favored separation of the races, setting his movement apart from many traditional Islamic Muslim groups. Muhammad preached self-sufficiency and abstinence from alcohol and drugs. Under his leadership, the Nation of Islam earned a reputation among black Americans for rehabilitating addicts and criminals, including convict Malcolm Little, who was recruited while in prison and became Malcolm X.

Role of Malcolm X During the early 1960s, Malcolm X attracted many people to the movement through his speeches and writings. He left the movement in 1964 and converted to traditional Islam, before being assassinated in 1965. In 1976, a number of members led by Farrakhan split off, adopting the Nation of Islam name and the original principles of Elijah Muhammad. - Knight-Ridder

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