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Last Year's Gathering Has Lasting Effects, Poll SaysBy Mario A. Brossard and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 16, 1996; Page A14
NEW YORK--One year after the Million Man March, African Americans believe the event has had a lasting effect on the black community across the country, and report that some of the specific changes called for by the marchers have occurred in their communities.
According to a new Washington Post poll, almost two-thirds of blacks--63 percent--believe the Million Man March had a positive impact on "the black community as a whole," and in some areas identified as problems by march organizers, many blacks polled say they have seen change. More than four in 10 African Americans, for instance, say black men in their communities take more responsibility for their families and almost half say black men are more responsible for what goes on in their communities.
But in other specific areas, poll respondents saw little progress. Only one-fifth of African Americans said they have noticed the black men in their communities treating women better since last year's march. Just one in three said the black men in their communities have treated their children better, or begun treating each other better since the march.
Despite the ambivalence in the poll's findings, the Oct. 16, 1995, march, which drew hundreds of thousands of black men to one of the largest demonstrations in Washington history, continues to percolate in the lives of many participants in very personal--but mostly inexact--ways.
"I feel it. I see it. I smell it," said Andrew Cooper, a retired New York City official. "I know there [has been an effect]."
Cooper was one of a group of 10 mostly middle-class, professional men assembled in a focus group by the Washington Post last week, in conjunction with the poll, to discuss the event's impact. The men in the group--all but one of whom participated in the march--have found the march's legacy to be profound yet mostly intangible. The poll was conducted Oct. 1-7, among a random sample of 609 African American adults. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus four percentage points.
The men in the focus group called themselves living proof of an unmistakable new attitude taking hold among their peers. And for that, they credit the march, which most of them saw as an unparalleled event.
"As a member of a group that's been despised, scorned, feared and hated in this country, in my lifetime I wanted to stand with brothers from coast to coast, a million strong," said Jacques DeGraff, 46, a construction executive. "It's really that fundamental. There are some moments in your life that there are no words to describe."
One year after the Million Man March, the event's most enduring legacy may be the spiritual boost it provided for black men who say they were uplifted by the historic gathering.
For the men who participated in the focus group, the march changed little because--like many of those who attended the march--they were already active in community service organizations and enjoyed good relationships with their families. They saw the march as an opportunity to stand together in proud defiance of the widespread negative images of black men.
The impact of the march, they say, is more evident in the attitudes of others.
Cooper, who owns a number of apartment buildings throughout the city, said he has seen the effect of the march in unexpected places. "I see them down in housing court saying, 'Okay judge, I can't do this. I can't do that. But I'll give you $50 because this is my family' . . . And believe me, they didn't say this five years ago. They didn't say it seven years ago. They didn't say it three years ago. But I see it happening," he said.
DeGraff believes he saw the march's spirit at work last February, when members of his men's group-100 Black Men-decided to summon 100 men to a special assembly for their adopted high school. Some doubted whether the event would come off as planned.
"But . . . 107 black men showed up . . . And when they showed up, the kids . . . treated them like rock stars because they didn't believe that black men could do that," he said.
Despite the shortage of concrete examples of the march's impact, most of the 10 men gathered here were unshakable in their confidence that it had a positive effect.
"There are a lot of things happening in a lot of places, if nowhere else than in the hearts and minds of people who went because we know that what was said to be impossible is possible," DeGraff said.
Echoing some of the poll's findings, a number of participants in the focus group said they were disappointed with the leadership that has emerged in the African American community in the year since the march.
Despite the thousands of black elected officials and the many civil rights leaders across the country, more than 8 in 10 blacks in the poll said they felt there is a shortage of black leaders who effectively articulate issues that are important to most African Americans.
And some in the focus group were skeptical of the leadership of march organizers Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the former NAACP executive director, in part because they were slow to account for a massive cash collection taken during the event.
"When I saw the part where Farrakhan said 'everybody put a dollar up in the air' and I saw . . . people give my man a dollar over there. What happened to that money? Where did it go?," asked Derrick Dolphin, 26, a youth training technician with the New York City Citizens Committee.
Nationally, half of all black Americans have a favorable opinion of Farrakhan in the poll, almost doubling from 28 percent in a survey taken last October. His enhanced position among African Americans can be traced directly to the march. Almost half of those polled say Farrakhan has become more influential in the black community as a result of the march. And 3 in 4 people who hold this view say it is a 'good thing.'
While the men in the group generally held favorable views of Farrakhan, many still expressed significant misgivings about his leadership. Most of the participants said they had not heard about nor had any plans to attend a Farrakhan-led rally outside the United Nations today that is being billed as a worldwide commemoration of last year's Million Man March.
"He cannot hide what I view as a serious dislike, a hatred for white people," said Derrick Carty, 38, a corporate recruiter. "I think if we have a problem being hated as black people, we should have a problem with anybody being hated."
Others said they were concerned about Farrakhan's perceived antisemitism, and of the sexism some in the group see as part of the Nation of Islam's dogma. Others resented that Farrakhan often casts himself as "the last hope" for African Americans.
Cooper, who also attended the 1963 March on Washington, is certain that the Million Man March ultimately will prove to be more significant to African Americans than the earlier, historic gathering.
"Twenty-five years from now you're going to be able to point your finger to that day and say that's the day that the world changed in [black] America."
Million Man March Poll
The results of this Washington Post national survey are based on telephone interviews with 609 randomly selected African American adults, including 95 households with members who attended the Million Man March, and was conducted October 1-7, 1996. The margin of sampling error for the overall results are plus or minus 4 percentage points. Interviewing was done by ICR Research of Media, PA.
Compiled by Mario A. Brossard
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company