It wasn’t a million or even a march, but the Million Man March pulled a buoyant crowd of African-American men - officially estimated at 400,000 - to a historic rally Monday at the U.S. Capitol to protest the pain pervading much of black America.
Still, the themes of a long day of high-volume oratory went beyond outrage. They included love, atonement, responsibility, fellowship, black pride, racial solidarity and exhortations to work to rid black communities of illiteracy, crime and broken families.
“Let us invite joy into our conversation, courtesy into our bedrooms, gentleness into our kitchens, care into our nurseries,” poet Maya Angelou told men who prayed and chanted and high-fived one another under an azure sky.
“We are gathered here today not to bash somebody else,” said an ebullient Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam whose inflammatory speeches attacking whites in general and Jews in particular had caused many black activists to shun the rally.
“We are gathered here today … to move toward a more perfect union with God. … We’re not here to tear down America. … We’re here to rebuild the wasted cities,” Farrakhan said in a 2-1/2-hour sermon that contained a conciliatory message to Jewish leaders.
Recalling that Israelis were able to negotiate with the former terrorist Yasser Arafat, Farrakhan declared: “Maybe it’s time to sit down talk.” But Jewish leaders have said they would not meet with him until he retracts his anti-Semitic and racist statements.
At another point, the leader of the Nation of Islam spoke of the ascendancy of minorities in the United States and around the world, saying: “A lot of whites are having heart attacks because their world is coming to an end.”
The size of the crowd was disputed almost from the outset, but it was unquestionably the largest gathering of black Americans in the nation’s capital. The 1963 March on Washington, during which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, drew about 250,000, both white and black.
The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, the co-organizer of the rally, announced before 10 a.m. that the goal of 1 million men had been reached.
“Be proud black man! Strong black man, be proud at what you’ve done,” Chavis said. “You have proven our unity to the world.”
But police officials scoffed at the announcement, privately calling it a gross exaggeration. After the rally, Park Police estimated the crowd at 400,000 after analyzing aerial photographs.
From all parts of the United States, hundreds of thousands of black men - and a few black women - massed on the National Mall for what turned out to be a joyous but well-mannered demonstration and caused no serious disruptions to the city’s transit system or on the highways.
“I’m thrilled to death,” said Maj. James J. McLaughlin, commander of the U.S. Park Police’s special detail. “I think this march is a 100 percent success.”
One elderly man died of a heart attack and 49 participants were treated for minor injuries, a police spokesman said. Ten were arrested, nine of them for illegally selling T-shirts on the Mall and one for making a bomb threat.
For most of the day, the crowd was vast and milling and fraternal. Professional men and Rastafarians mingled with bow-tied followers of the Nation of Islam and kids dressed in baggy, hip-hop style overalls.
In his prolonged address, Farrakhan recalled that black slaves once were sold nearby on the Mall and suggested that the idea for the rally could not be separated from its originator.
“So today whether you like it or not, God brought the idea through me,” said Farrakhan, who denied that he organized the rally because anti-Semitism or hatred of whites was in his heart. “If my heart was so dark, how could the message be so strong and so clear and the response so magnificent?”
Although many men in the audi ence said they endorsed the rally but not Farrakhan, several speakers said the message could not be separated from the messenger.
The Rev. Al Sampson of Chicago read the demonstration’s declaration of purpose: to accept the leadership of Louis Farrakhan and to say “that we love him, that we respect him, that we listen to his words, that we follow his words …”
After hands were raised in agreement, Sampson said “it has been moved and properly adopted that Minister Louis Farrakhan is our leader in the year 1995.”
The declaration provoked Michael Meyers, a leader of the New York Civil Rights Coalition who remained in New York City, to observe to CNN:
“I’ve always believed the purpose of the march was to get hundreds of thousands, if not a million, black men to Washington, D.C., to hail Farrakhan. … I don’t see any broad coalition in Washington, D.C. I see Africanists and black nationalists and black separatists, the usual group.”
Farrakhan urged blacks to rise above white racism, clean up their communities, and allow white supremacy to “die a natural death.”
“All we got to do is go back home and make our communities a decent, safe place to live,” Farrakhan said.
Archbishop George Stallings, a former Catholic priest who presides over the Imani Temple African American Catholic congregation in Washington, prayed for divine help: “Give us the strength to put down our guns and pick up our babies … put down the crack and clean up our act.”
Whether lasting good will come of the mass rally will depend upon what the participants do when they return to their communities, most observers said.
Shelby Steele, a black author of books on race relations, expressed profound doubts. He said demonstrations were anachronistic and the Million Man March was “entirely organized around the principle of race, which is empty.”
“Where’s the follow-up on these marches?” Steele asked on a CNN broadcast. “What are we going to do Tuesday morning when people go back to their communities?”
“You’re going to have a lot of people who are … looking for some direction, some structure, some values, some principles. And all they’re going to have is this racial mythology … and then they’re going to go back and have to struggle with real life again,” said Steele, a scholar at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution.
The event was widely viewed as likely to enhance Farrakhan’s claim to black leadership. The numerous black leaders who participated “are clearly strengthening his position and making him a more important figure,” Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in Georgia.
Mayor Barry, recalling his recovery from drug addiction, said “the vision for the Million Man March came directly from God himself.” Such longtime black activists as Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson and Joseph Lowery were among the speakers.
“People are talking about how Farrakhan organized the march, but I’ll tell you who organized this march,” Jackson said. “(Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas and Newt Gingrich organized this march. Because they are where they are is why we need to be here.”