It was, at first, discussed only occasionally by a handful of people who envisioned an amazing sight: a million black men marching peacefully on the nation’s capital, not in protest but in a rare celebration of themselves - the Million Man March.
Grass-roots support spread like wildfire as word of the march was passed along the traditional grapevine of the black church along with its modern-day adjunct, the Internet.
Hundreds of thousands of black men are expected today on the streets of Washington in a peaceful demonstration of “a day of atonement” - celebrating not just unity but also responsibility, self-respect and self-sufficiency.
In sheer numbers, it might well eclipse the storied 1963 March on Washington.
“But this one is different,” said William Boone, head of the political science department at Clark Atlanta University. “This one grew out of a period in which there’s been a kind of question about what black people wanted to do. This may tell us that we are moving into a different era.”
Some leaders - initially reluctant to endorse the march publicly because one of its principal organizers is Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam - noted the groundswell of support and ran to get ahead of the parade.
Why is there such tremendous support - from pool halls in Los Angeles to post offices in Philadelphia, from pulpits in Atlanta to porch swings in New Orleans, wherever black men gather - for a march that has generated controversy? And why now?
The answer seems to rest in the fact that millions of black men, young and old, are disgusted by overwhelmingly negative stereotypes, and are seizing an opportunity to define themselves as a group. Some also are reacting to the Republican sweep of Congress last year, to the policies subsequently put forward by both houses, and to the nation’s general swing toward the political right.
Never mind that some of the women in their lives, sometimes their wives or sisters or daughters, are put off by what they view as the sexist motives of Farrakhan, who excluded women from the march, and of some marchers, who have declined to allow women to participate.
For many black men, the idea of such a march simply felt right.
“As soon as the idea came down, it immediately struck a chord with black men all across the country,” said Nathan McCall, the African American author of “Makes Me Wanna Holler.” “We didn’t need to check with black leaders to see if it was OK.”
Such a reaction is a big part of what the Million Man March has come to mean to a lot of black men - men who have seen their nation paint them only as bad or as absent fathers.
Much of the support for today’s march comes from a generation of African American men trying to teach their sons how to be men, at a time when their sons are being bombarded by negative influences.
Gangsta rap. Spiraling crime. Poverty and unemployment. Conservative politicians - a low point was George Bush and the Willie Horton ad - who play on whites’ fears of black males. All these have contributed to a climate in which many black men say they are glad to grab any opportunity to present themselves in a more positive light.
E. Randel T. Osburn, national administrator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said that two planes had been chartered to bring marchers from the West Coast, and that a group of rival Crips and Bloods gang members planned to travel together by bus.
“I have not seen the kind of unique, diverse energy that has surfaced for this (march),” said Osburn, who was at the 1963 march, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to about 250,000 people in Washington, which many believe was a pivotal point of the civil-rights movement.