Denver Blacks Out of Step With March?

Preparations for today's Million Man March rally in Denver have not been particularly encouraging.

Originally, the event was to be held at the at the Denver Colosseum, at a charge of $20 per person. But by mid-April, only 16 tickets had been sold. The fee was dropped and the rally was moved to the old Stapleton Airport.

At the kickoff ceremony last Thursday, there were more balloons than people gathered beneath the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Denver's City Park.

Somewhat discouraged by a turnout of fewer than 50 people, organizers chastised Denver's black community, saying it has to be willing to "come out of their comfort zones to make a difference."

But other Denver blacks say they've worked hard for those comfort zones and suggest that the need is for more concrete steps - such as patrolling the neighborhoods - rather than another morale-building urban rally.

Denver is home to 100,000 blacks, the largest African-American community in the Rocky Mountain West. The black population is, for the most part, well-educated, with a growing middle-class. Denver's mayor, school board president, and Republican congressional candidate are all black.

Denver also has large Hispanic and native American populations, which make it attractive to Million Man March organizers. The original march, orchestrated by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and held last October in Washington, promoted personal responsibility among black men. It drew hundreds of thousands to the Washington Mall and spawned some 350 local organizing committees.

In Atlanta, for example, the local Million Man March committee has registered nearly 30,000 voters. In Denver, march organizers hope to promote locally the messages of the original march and to include "all people of color."

Today's march is intended to bring together blacks, Hispanics, and native Americans to address gang and domestic violence, the breakdown of families, and other problems within their communities.

But those plans hit a snag two weeks ago, when two march participants - the American Indian Movement of Colorado and the Mexicano and Chicano Alliance for Neighborhood Action - withdrew their support.

Group representatives say black organizers withheld information, were disrespectful, and were uncooperative. Denver Million Man March organizer Alvertis Simmons downplays the withdrawal, saying the groups don't represent the entire Hispanic and native American communities.

Nevertheless, the focus has shifted back to blacks and their issues. Denver Million Man March events coordinator Steven Fleming says Denver's blacks have become complacent. They lack a galvanizing force like the string of gang-related firebombings in inner-city black neighborhoods last December and January. The public outcry over the bombings spurred 1,300 people to attend a meeting organized by the local Million Man March committee at a local Baptist church in January.

African-Americans account for just 5 percent of the 2 million people living in the Denver metropolitan area. And some blacks say that they don't need another march here. Like students ready to graduate, they want to put their skills to practice rather than sit through more lectures and pep talks.

"Maybe it's our Western heritage - we want to put up or shut up. We want to solve problems," says Joe Rogers, a Republican and the first black congressional candidate from the state of Colorado.

He points out that when a house in a black neighborhood here was firebombed recently, 800 black people galvanized to collect money for repairs.

"I think we've moved beyond marching for the sake of marching," Mr. Rogers says.

Some Denver blacks say they are choosing to stay away from today's march because of the Farrakhan factor. Washington march organizer Louis Farrakhan declined an invitation to speak at the Denver march, but is sending Alim Muhammad, a member of his Nation of Islam.

Denver blacks, already concerned by what some perceive to be Farrakhan's anti-Semitic and antiwhite stance, have been further disturbed by three controversial high school rallies staged this year by Farrakhan's Denver representative, Jamal Muhammad.

At the rallies, Jamal Muhammad emphasized black responsibility but also criticized other cultures to the extent that Denver school officials, citing concern about stress to students, tried to block a rally held on April 22. But the American Civil Liberties Union sued, and a federal judge ruled in the ACLU's favor.

Fleming says concern over the school rallies shouldn't affect march attendees. "We need to step back from the picture and take the whole thing in," he says. "We want to uplift the African nation at large, not just the Nation of Islam."

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