WASHINGTON — THE Million Man March may not have literally lived up to its name. But for the hundreds of thousands of black men, young and old, who gathered yesterday in the nation's capital, the event was a boost to the spirit in hundreds of thousands of ways.
On a day whose crisp weather seemed ordered up for the occasion, the crowd stretched from the US Capitol towards the Washington Monument in the largest assemblage of African Americans since Martin Luther King's historic march 32 years ago.
Now, as the crowds disperse, the question is whether this feeling will translate into longer-term gains. A day of fellowship is one thing; the hard work needed to push political or social advancement another.
Many marchers said that the racial divisiveness occasionally espoused by organizer Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, was not the issue for them. They insisted that their main purpose was renewal in their own communities.
The march "will produce a sustaining, invigorating spirit," said participant Derrick Steadman, a District of Columbia resident. "The black man needs to be pulled aside and whispered to, and sent back to his community with this new spirit."
Yet the rhetoric of march speakers was not without anger. The Rev. Robert Smith, in a sermon that helped open the program, said "The powers here have not wished us well. "They took our wives, took our children, enslaved us to the point we adopted a slave mentality. In spite of what they've done to us ... we're here today."
Clearly, the march touched a deep yearning for unity among African-American men, and some women. Drawing a million participants would have been a formidable task, as there are only about nine million black men over the age of 18 in the US.
Official estimates at time of writing indicated that the event drew far fewer people than its goal; however, co-organizer Ben Chavis, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, claimed early in the day that the march had in fact drawn 1 million people.
Focus on responsibility
Whatever their feelings about the controversial Farrakhan, many African-American leaders endorsed the march as a way to focus black men on the need to take more responsibility for their lives and the lives of those around them.
It was a theme that many marchers echoed. J. W. Anza lives in New Brunswick, N.J., where he runs a business that imports African products. He says he drove to Washington on Sunday with three carloads of friends and that he thought about bringing merchandise to sell, but decided against it.
"This is not about making money. It's about making a statement," he says.
Mr. Anza adds that he hopes participants will return to their communities and work to keep the spirit of the march alive. "We can't come to Washington every year," he says.
Darryl Larkin is a United Parcel Service delivery man from Newark, N.J., who in his religious life is known as "4X" and attends a Newark mosque.
"You see the way people are circulating?" he asks a reporter. "It gets people into a mindset of unification."
Dressed in the trademark suit and bow tie of a Farrakhan adherent, Mr. Larkin is standing on a street corner hawking Islamic prayer cards for 50 cents apiece.
"Black men are the most despised people in the country," he says, "and we have to address our hurts and our wants first...."
"Brother, can you give me $3.29 for a hot meal?" interrupts an apparently homeless man who is missing half his teeth. Larkin fishes a fistful of quarters out of his pocket and doles out two to the man.
For some marchers, the notion of black unity equals black separation from the rest of society. "I want to come out of this with a nation; that means freedom, justice, land, self-determination," says Qahir Majeed, a cook from Atlanta who looked distinctly uncomfortable speaking to a white reporter.
"Black separatists? They must be young," says Phil Grimes, a lawyer from Philadelphia who came down with his son, a law student. "After you've been in the struggle for a while, you learn that separation is not the key."
New sense of unity
Mr. Grimes says he senses a new energy among African-Americans, the kind of energy that gave birth to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "I didn't make it to the '63 march, so I wanted to make sure I got to this one," he says. "I came to show peace and solidarity, and to take it back to my neighborhood."
The "march" involved little in the way of walking for participants, except that required to reach Washington's Mall area.
The event was less a march than a planned celebration, complete with African drums and whistles, the Marvin Gaye song "What's Going On," and an appearance by comedian/activist Dick Gregory.
Dennis Rahim Watson, executive director of the National Black Youth Leadership Council in New York, called the event "the greatest day in the lives of black men, especially the 3 million African-American male youths. Black youth in America have a new sense of importance and purpose for the 21st century."
One 18-year-old who rode down from Boston with a busload of fellow marchers said, "This is a good experience for me, to be part of a historic occasion."
Not every major US African-American figure approved of the gathering.
Some, including longtime activist Angela Davis, denounced the official male-only status of the march. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell said he would not have shared a podium with Farrakhan.
At a pre-march rally Sunday that was disowned by main event organizers, speakers railed against whites, Jews, and critical blacks, calling them "house Negroes."
*Staff correspondents Sam Walker and Linda Feldmann contributed to this report from Washington.