IT began four centuries ago with lashes and leg irons. Today it deepens with careless epithets and economics. It is America's dark chasm: the problem of race.
The legacy of slavery and segregation has long been one of the most intractable political issues in the US. In recent weeks, however, it has regained a prominence in national debate not seen since the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action, O.J. Simpson trial reaction, and the Million Man March have all pointed out that American blacks and whites, in many ways, still live in different countries.
Race now seems sure to be a potent factor in the coming presidential campaign. Energized African-Americans could turn in larger numbers toward the Democratic incumbent - perhaps pushing Bill Clinton's party toward the left. Some Republican White House hopefuls might step up attacks on affirmative action, hoping to benefit from a white backlash. If racial positions become more polarized, pressure on retired Gen. Colin Powell to enter the race as a healer of division may increase.
If nothing else, the solemn demonstration of roughly 400,000 African American men in Washington this week laid bare emotions and scars that many participants and speakers say have been banished from public dialogue for too long.
"Power has made America arrogant," said the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in his at-times harsh keynote speech. "Power and wealth has made America spiritually blind.... There's still two Americas, one black, one white, separate and unequal.... We are being torn apart and we cannot gloss it over with nice speeches."
Many attendees at the Million Man March said they did not come just because of Mr. Farrakhan. Still, the overall message of the rally, and the thoughts of many in the crowd as they rambled home, mark the distance America has traveled in the 32 years since Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and famously expounded on his vision of a colorblind society.
Bruce Campbell attended the 1963 March on Washington as a boy. But the North Carolina native said that this week he felt few of the same emotions. "This," he said, "is a different kind of pilgrimage."
Mr. Campbell, not unlike many others in the crowd, said he left the march with a renewed sense of spirit, a renewed conviction that black America's only true path to parity in America is to behave like, and to become again, the nation's moral conscience.
"We did not come here to ask for anything from government," Campbell said. "All we want from America is a fair shake, and an acknowledgment of the obstacles that have been placed in our way.
"We've had plenty of bootstraps," Campbell added. "Now we need some shoestrings."
MANY marchers, including Campbell, said they have seen the chasm of racial division grow since the time of King, when he and many others believed that the road to salvation lay in integration and the importance of a generic "American" character over racial identity. But they said that recent events, from the rise of Republican power in Congress, to white reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict, have pointed out how unreachable King's goal was.
"Race is like the sun and the moon," said Jamal Berry, a marcher from Houston, as he folded a blanket into the trunk of his car. "You can ignore it, but it doesn't mean it's not there. Until we can honestly talk to each other across racial lines and deal with the anger, there isn't going to be any peace in America."
Indeed, Farrakhan presented a hard reality of race relations that is far less idealistic than the rosy picture of black and white children playing together that King painted three decades ago. Like many of his predecessors in the black Muslim movement, Farrakhan showed little desire to win the acceptance of most white Americans.
"My people have validated me, I don't need you to validate me," he said. "I don't want to be in any mainstream."
By rejecting the integrationist ideal, Farrakhan was able to use his speech to do what few black leaders have been able to do with such clout: criticize the state of black America, and urge African-Americans to live better lives. Black men, he said, "have fallen down like the prodigal son."
To many Americans, the message was clouded by Farrakhan himself, who has, on occasion, spoken disparagingly of Jews and other groups. Although Farrakhan insisted he is not malicious, and offered to sit down with Jewish leaders to discuss their differences, many doubts remain about his sincerity.
Yet for many marchers, the event was not a forum for Farrakhan or a great shift in racial paradigms, but a chance to reconnect with each other, and to renew the strength it will take to go into their own communities and effect change.
"I came here with a low battery," Mr. Berry said, "but I just got a jump start."
Republicans, meanwhile, denounced Farrakhan and expressed dismay that he had gained such a wide audience for his views. Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas said Farrakhan "is a racist and anti-Semite, unhinged by hate. He has no place in American public life, and all who lead must say so."
Yet Dole and other GOP leaders said that many march participants were well-intentioned and should be commended for talking about self-reliance and cleaning up drugs and crime in their own communities.