Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has made the rounds of media outlets for two days, held news conferences and given speeches at small gatherings across Washington to drum up support for today's mass gathering on the Mall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March.
At the events, Farrakhan has called for African American unity and lashed out at the government and the media for trying to tear him down at the expense of those -- particularly the poor -- that he says he is trying to help. A decade ago, gathering people in large numbers to offset negative stereotypes was the primary objective, and his march drew hundreds of thousands to the Mall.
This year, for the Millions More Movement, that's only part of the objective.
Even "if we get several hundred thousand, that does not mean we're successful," Farrakhan told reporters and editors at The Washington Post during an interview yesterday.
The objective, he said, is instead to create a lasting "movement" in communities across the nation addressing local and national concerns relating to education, police brutality, incarceration of black men and poverty. The seeds of that were evident yesterday at panel discussions at various venues to hash out problems and come up with solutions. But a common theme -- as it has been for months -- is the tearing down of internal barriers that divide blacks.
Although there is less focus on numbers this year, organizers expect a large crowd, with about 3,000 buses and thousands more cars reportedly headed to the area. Some arrived yesterday. Several young men dressed in black "Million Man March" T-shirts said they had arrived from Tulsa aboard a motor coach with 50 other men, women and children. At the time, they were walking toward Howard University from the nearby Metro station.
"I made good on a promise that I made 10 years ago to take my music to a new level and to not put out anything negative," said one man, who called himself Wabahacha, the name he uses for rap performances. Another rapper, who called himself Mysterious, said, "I am here now because I want to do something positive."
At Metropolitan Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, the theme of one four-hour panel discussion was spiritual unity. Archbishop G. Augustus Stallings Jr., founder of the African American Catholic Congregation, said Muslims and Christians can overcome their theological and doctrinal differences.
"We get so hung up on religion that we forget about being spiritual," Stallings said. "When you look at it closely, God never created a religion."
It's a point that Farrakhan makes often. But for the months leading up to this weekend, he has continued to attack what he sees wrong with the world. In 1995, he took on images in the media, particularly Hollywood, that portrayed black men as thieves, killers and gang members. Yesterday, he took a swipe at newspapers, including The Post.
"You sell newspapers on the basis of controversy," he said during the Post interview. "You create one to sell your newspaper. That, to me, is wicked, and it needs to stop. Your paper should be lifting people, not sending them to hell with controversy and division. The thing that sells is death and destruction. The more death comes, the more destruction comes, the more you've got to write about. . . . You're looking for evil because that's what you feed on."
Particularly galling, Farrakhan said, is the media's propensity to call Jewish groups to say something negative about him for every news story, whether the event has anything to do with the Jewish community or not. Media groups revive controversial statements from 20 years ago and never print his rebuttals, he said, something he said doesn't happen with other groups.
"That's been going on for 22 years, and no matter what I say, it never alters those words," he said.
Farrakhan said that a recent statement by former education secretary William J. Bennett, suggesting that aborting "every black baby in this country" would reduce the crime rate, will not follow Bennett the same way. "You won't say it for 20 years," he said.
And again yesterday, Jewish leaders chastised Farrakhan as a racist and an anti-Semite.
"Farrakahn's rally becomes our business when he invokes anti-Semitic imagery and words," said Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. "The African American community needs to look at how others are going to react to his message."
A decade ago, Farrakhan was largely shunned by mainstream black leaders, but this time civil rights groups, including the National Council of Negro Women, the Urban League and the NAACP, are supporting the rally along with several black religious groups.
Many who are going to today's event say the controversy surrounding Farrakhan is no controversy at all. Anthony Tate, who sings in the choir at Union Temple in Southeast Washington, said he marched with thousands of other men from Anacostia to the Mall a decade ago and plans to bring his girlfriend and her 17-year-old son today.
Tate, who is involved in the church's ministry for people living with HIV, said he's clinging to the hope that real change will result.
"It has to," he said. "We want something you can hold onto, not something that's just for 24 hours. That's really going to be difficult, because some people don't want to reach out."