I walked from my office down to the Mall on October 16, 1995, out of curiosity rather than any sense of mission. I approached the Million Man March the way I approached everything, with a journalist's instinctive skepticism. Wasn't the time for marching long past? Did Louis Farrakhan really speak for me? Couldn't all this time and effort be better spent on a concrete agenda, like registering people to vote?
Hours later, I left the Mall knowing I would treasure that magical afternoon for the rest of my life. So pardon me if I dispute all the stories and columns arguing that in the 10 years since a million black men spent a glorious day in unprecedented fellowship, nothing has really changed.
You can keep your cold-eyed analysis and save all your gloomy statistics. When a locked door is swung open and you see that beyond it lies a better world, something has changed. Even if the door slams shut again, you're not the same person you were before. You can't be.
What I saw that day was possibility. And possibility, even if it's still unrealized, is nonetheless real.
Yesterday, as the 10th-anniversary Millions More Movement came to the Mall, I kept running into men who were seeking another glimpse of that better world. "I never had that feeling before," reminisced Wade McCrimman, a New Yorker with salt-and-pepper hair, as he sat on a bench with a couple of friends. "Brotherhood is a beautiful thing."
Millions More was clearly a descendant of Million Man, with obvious family resemblances. There were also notable differences -- women were invited this time, and, of course, the whole thing was much smaller. The gathering had to share space on the Mall with a big display of solar-power technology. And weaving through the crowd was a steady stream of tourists out for a day at the Smithsonian Institution. Ten years ago, the apocalyptic vision of 1 million black men gathering in the same place had scared all the tourists away -- aside from some journalists and police officers, there wasn't a white face to be seen. Who knew what kind of mayhem might ensue?
That was the essential triumph of the Million Man March. The black man, everyone knew, was a problem -- criminal, violent, irresponsible, hot-headed, predatory. Yet a million of us came together in a spirit of perfect fellowship. You saw young brothers in baggy jeans helping elegant old men in threadbare suits find a place to rest their weary bones. You saw beautifully educated men from the suburbs holding hands in prayer with regular guys from the 'hood. The crowd was so thick that you couldn't avoid bumping into people, but there was no danger that the guy you jostled would feel he had to avenge the "disrespect" you had showed him in scuffing his pristine Timberlands.
Charles Allen, a 52-year-old, dreadlocks-wearing heating and air-conditioning technician from Lexington, Ky., didn't make it to the Million Man March and has regretted his absence ever since. Yesterday, he brought his sons to Millions More for a peek at that better world.
"This is just where we need to be today," Allen said. "We've come together as one spirit, and when we leave we'll take that back home. We should be here at this march, and it doesn't matter who called it. And I'm not a Muslim."
Yes, the controversial Farrakhan was the engine behind Millions More, and his many minions, the bow-tie-wearing Fruit of Islam, were much in evidence acting as marshals. The same was true 10 years ago. At both events, it didn't matter whether you liked Farrakhan or hated him. The speeches droned on and on, but the speechifying wasn't the point, not in 1995 and not yesterday. The point was the feeling of community. The point was seeing with your own eyes that "black" and "crisis" are not synonyms unless we allow them to be.
Kareem Muhammad, a 51-year-old teacher, brought 18 young people all the way from St. Louis to see what he had seen 10 years ago as one of a million men. When he gets home, he said, he will work in an activist campaign to get more jobs in the construction industry for St. Louis-area youth.
When Millions More strikes its tents, will the myriad problems facing black America be solved? Of course not. It took many decades for our left-behind black communities to fall; it will take time for them to rise. One feel-good rally could never be enough.
But yesterday, on the Mall, you could once again behold that better world that we all saw 10 years ago. Tell me how that can hurt. Tell me how that can do anything but help.