All advance signs pointed to an outburst of separatist feeling in the Million Man March on Washington, featuring demands for land and reparations for slavery. Contributing to the surcharged atmosphere was the Republican congressional revolution against welfare and illegitimacy, for many simplistically associated with blacks. The O.J. Simpson verdict, fortuitously two weeks before the march, dramatized racial polarization. For African-Americans, Detective Mark Fuhrman became an emblem of unequal justice.
But the hundreds of thousands of participants came with their own agendas. Many seemed more in the mood for a festival of black togetherness than anti-white jihad. Many seemed more in the mood to assert dignity and self-reliance than to demonstrate victimization.
In the way that rallies sometimes have of leading their leaders, this demonstration under sunny skies developed a revivalist spirit of its own that made Louis Farrakhan's rambling two-and-a-half-hour speech oddly out of sync with the crowd.
It is hard to know what role President Clinton's speech that morning in Austin, decrying racism, played in helping to set the mood of the meeting. Farrakhan's deputy, Akbar Muhammed, called it the greatest speech of Clinton's life and credited Farrakhan with bringing it about. Farrakhan himself welcomed most of it.
It was not the first time a president has spoken of bridging the racial gulf. Thirty years ago, before a joint session of Congress, President Johnson said, "It is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice." Since then "Negroes" have become "Blacks," and "Blacks" have become "African-Americans," and the gulf is still there. But the emphasis of speakers on voter registration and the power of the ballot suggested that these African-Americans, militant though their leaders may be, are not ready for self-isolation.
THOSE who feared the enhancement of Farrakhan's influence found their fears realized. The Nation of Islam leader has presided over a spectacular success, in terms of timing and organization. The chant of "I am somebody" from the multitudes sounded a lot more powerful than when I first heard it from the ill-fated rain-sodden Poor People's March in 1968. But the question now is whether success will change Louis Farrakhan and moderate his strident bigotry. He has a chance to become a political factor in resisting the dismantling of the welfare state. If not, then he becomes another in the long series of spellbinding false messiahs.