THE Million Man March, held earlier this month in Washington, was a signal to the world that the African-American community is at a critical crossroad and in crisis. Hundreds of thousands of black men came together in a show of solidarity and concern for their community. A crucial question, given the march's dramatic display of untapped energy, is who will lead the effort to focus this energy and in what direction?
The Louis Farrakhan direction is one of racial isolation, heavily seasoned with bigotry against Jews, white Christians, Asian Americans, and others. The possibility exists, however, that this racial solidarity could be molded to include black women and other people of color. It could allay suspiciousness and move toward a coalition with all others who seek a just society.
Mr. Farrakhan has sought to position himself as black America's preeminent "leader," despite the fact that most men attending the march will not join his Nation of Islam. They came to the march to reclaim dignity and respect and to express love for their black brothers. Now is the time for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which did not endorse the event because of Farrakhan's involvement, to respond strongly to ensure that the activity of caring blacks is not abused but rather taken in a healthy direction.
A charismatic politician
The NAACP could seize the day by offering its executive directorship to Jesse Jackson, whose charisma is unquestioned, and whose political understanding runs deep. He, more effectively than anyone else on the scene, could counter the cynicism and despair on which the ultranationalist camp thrives. Mr. Jackson's keen intellect allows him to fully grasp the public policy issues that are crucial to the black community. (Having worked with him occasionally in the 1960s, I know how quickly he can absorb and distill masses of data). Most important, Jackson believes in coalitions.
What forces might work against such a marriage? No doubt the NAACP is still feeling the effects of the turmoil that attended the (sensible) firing of its last executive director, Benjamin Chavis. Myrlie Evers-Williams, the current chairwoman of the NAACP, would have to take the lead to quiet fears about taking on a person with Jackson's visibility and independence.
On the other hand, Jackson himself might not want the constraints that go with trying to command an elaborately structured organization - after all, he withdrew his name from consideration during the previous search for a director. He may see himself as a freelancer who does not need a large organizational base.
Nonetheless, I would urge both parties, based on the concern we all share for the future of the black community, to seriously weigh the prospects of joining forces. The NAACP would get a committed, creative, articulate spokesman who also has the common touch. It would get a leader who could build membership and design effective programs. In return, Jackson would benefit from the broader resources and administrative support of the nation's most venerable civil-rights organization, and from the discipline imposed by having to meet a democratically developed agenda.
Most important, African-Americans - and residually, the nation as a whole - would benefit by having the Million Man March energy channeled in a constructive direction.