CHICAGO — TRAVELLING by car, plane, and chartered bus, thousands of African-American men plan to descend on Washington this month for what organizers say could be the largest public rally on the status of US blacks since the 1960s civil rights movement.
Three decades after Martin Luther King led 250,000 people on a historic march on Washington in 1963, the Million Man March, scheduled for Oct. 16, is winning support from a broadening social and religious spectrum of blacks.
Still, there is no clear indication the march, already the subject of sharp debate in the black community, will live up to its name. While many black men are inspired by the call to ''stand up'' for themselves and their communities, others dislike what they view as a publicity stunt by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the rally's chief organizer.
Some prominent black groups wary of the fiery Mr. Farrakhan and his black Muslim religious group have withheld support from the march. Jewish-rights groups and US lawmakers have condemned the involvement of Farrakhan, known for his antiwhite, anti-Semitic oratory.
Nevertheless, the march has drawn an eclectic mix of supporters, including Christians and Muslims, executives and blue-collar workers, fraternity brothers, athletes, and gang members. They appear united by concern over Republican attacks on affirmative action,
welfare, and other policies.
''A lot of what [black activists] accomplished in the '60s is falling by the wayside with the new, mean-spirited Republican Congress,'' says Clyde Smith, a physics major at Chicago State University who plans to join the sunrise-to-sunset gathering on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
''Now is the time to march,'' said Smith, one of 100 students at a campus rally last week for the event.
Craig Hodges, a basketball coach and former Chicago Bull, says the march is popular ''because conditions are so serious among black people'' - especially black men.
High rates of unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, homicide, and incarceration are threatening ''the potential extinction of African-American males,'' says Conrad Worrill, president of the National Black United Front.
''Black men are under siege; it's something you can see and touch every day,'' says Mr. Worrill.
Demands for Washington
March organizers will urge Washington ''to address the black man and woman in fairness and justice,'' says James Muhammad, editor of The Final Call, the Nation of Islam newspaper.
Supporters also say the march has powerful spiritual appeal as a day of ''atonement'' in which black men declare their willingness before God to take responsibility for their wives, children, and communities.
Black men are ''looking for ways to be more responsible and more connected,'' says Earl Shinhoster, acting executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Baltimore.
That sentiment is part of a ''new wave of spirituality'' among American men, Mr. Shinhoster said, likening the rally to the huge, emotional gatherings of men's Christian groups like the Promise Keepers across the country.
''The Million Man March has struck a resonant cord within the African-American community unlike anything I've seen before,'' says Shinhoster.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, and dozens of black professional, political, and church groups have endorsed the march in a gesture of unity as the 1996 election nears.
Still, other major black groups are withholding support. The 500,000-strong NAACP, for example, has stopped short of formally endorsing the event, in which ousted NAACP director Benjamin Chavis is playing a key role.
Warnings on Farrakhan
The Rev. Henry Lyons and the Rev. Bennett W. Smith Sr., two black Christian leaders who between them oversee almost 10 million Baptists, last week indicated they could not support a march organized by Farrakhan.
Critics warn that a successful march could strengthen Farrakhan, whom they view as a dictatorial leader.
''This is a right-wing mass movement with an autocractic leader that has the potential of becoming a fascist movement,'' says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass.
Participants will include officials of the All African People's Revolutionary Party, who say they will call for ''smashing'' Zionism as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Nevertheless, support for the march is building as organizers work to raise a $3 million budget and mobilize black men in more than 300 target cities.
In Detroit, the march is a popular topic on black-owned television and radio talk shows. The city council unanimously passed a resolution backing the march. The mayors of Washington, St. Louis, and East St. Louis have endorsed the march.
In Chicago, bow-tied Nation of Islam members are handing out flyers at train stations and housing projects. Hundreds of people pack weekly organizing meetings on Chicago's South Side.
''This is a new day for black men to stand up and take our rightful place in the sun,'' says Worrill. ''People respect people when they respect themselves.''