The Oct. 16, 1995, assembly was unlike any other ever held on the Mall. Hundreds of thousands of black men gathered under the banner of the Million Man March, publicly pledging to reconcile themselves to each other and to atone for the neglect of their families. They promised to focus on their obligations as providers for their children and builders of their communities. I was there on that beautiful fall day in my capacity as a journalist; Post policy disallowed any other role. But there was no way to remain unaffected by the sight of so many black men drawn together around such positive themes.
The major controversy leading up to the Million Man March centered on its sponsorship and the expected turnout. Mainstream black churches and civil rights organizations had withheld their endorsement of the event because Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was the chief convener. Could he pull in a huge crowd without publicity in major news outlets and the support of religious leaders and old-line social service organizations?
The answers came by train, plane and automobile. The Mall was packed with African American men from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Yet they came to Washington not because of a call from the Nation of Islam. College presidents, lawyers and doctors -- and laborers, messengers and maintenance workers -- were there for a reason that strangers to black men would never understand: They came to assert their manhood and to unashamedly display brotherly affection.
Two weeks before the march, I asked in a column whether the event made sense beyond the symbolism of unity ["The Measure of the March," op-ed, Sept. 30, 1995]. "Time, not turnout, will be the ultimate test of that," I wrote. The turnout was indeed unbelievable, but what about the commitment to change?
From the column: "If, say a year from now, reconciliations and marriages -- yes, marriages -- are up, crime and incarcerations are down, there are fewer kids in foster care and moms on welfare, more fathers are at home helping to raise their children, there is mutual respect among African Americans across income and class lines, and we are putting more money into good causes and less on our backs, then Oct. 16 will have been the transforming phenomenon the sponsors hope it will be."
"If, however, things remain pretty much as they are, the march . . . will be just one more of those high-octane, emotionally gratifying, political, social and culturally must-do and be-seen-at events that black folks -- despite it all -- manage to pull off so well."
So here we are, a decade later. Another gathering on the Mall, this time dubbed the Millions More Movement. What has happened since that historic day of spiritual atonement?
Has respect for marriage been restored? Are more of our boys being raised into men who behave responsibly toward their families? Are we making the investments in family life that we pledged? Are more fathers staying with mothers? Are more of us accepting responsibility to be good husbands and fathers and builders of our community?
The answers vary from neighborhood to neighborhood and from city to city. This much is true: Those solemn pledges haven't been fulfilled in the nation's capital. True, some men have stepped up to the challenge and are making a difference in the lives of their loved ones. Neighborhood organizations, energized by the march, are still reaching out to reclaim young lives.
But while we said back in '95 that we would reconnect with our families, most D.C. children still live in homes without fathers. We said we would not harm one another, yet in the past 10 years nearly 2,900 men, women and children have been murdered in our city.
Our children are still showing up at school unready to learn. Too many still don't succeed when they get there. And a host of us grown-ups are leaving it to others -- mainly government agencies -- to do the jobs we should be doing.
Where do we go from here?
This year's event, supported by the NAACP, the National Urban League and the legendary Dorothy Height, is supposed to be policy-focused, drawing a bead on laws and conditions that keep many African Americans out of society's mainstream. It also is drawing fire, as before, for having Farrakhan at the helm. The taint of anti-Semitism stays on him as close as white on rice. It also forces prominent African Americans to choose: Stand with Farrakhan or side with his critics. The decision shouldn't be so hard: There can never be a safe haven for anti-Semitism and racism in America.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, moving beyond the standoff, put her finger on our key problem the other day when she cited, in a news release, the growth in the number of "never-married mothers," a role that she said has become the African American norm. Norton said that 70 percent of black children are born to women who have never been married.
"In Black America, the issue is in an extreme state -- not family dissolution or divorce, but the failure to form families at all through marriage, often with devastating consequences for Black children," she said, noting the data showing that children with both parents at home have markedly better life chances. Norton, who formed a Commission on Black Men and Boys to address the unique challenges confronting African American boys and men, is developing an action plan to guide the public and private sectors in strengthening black families and the quality of life for African American children. One initiative she supports is a federally funded program sponsored by Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback that would promote and save marriages for low-income city residents. Marriage and relationship counseling would also be offered on a voluntary basis.
Norton has it right: The important task is to rebuild African American family life. A rally won't do the trick. Neither will public manifestos. Reuniting families, raising children, rebuilding communities -- these require strong individuals with pride in their heritage and respect for themselves. It can't be achieved from a podium at a rally. It starts at home with family values that are reinforced in our churches and neighborhoods.
Get that idea across this weekend and we may have a fighting chance in this vale of tears after all.