If all goes as planned, the buses will rumble onto the Capital Beltway before dawn Oct. 16, arriving by the hundreds from throughout the country. They will converge in the heart of Washington, and their passengers -- tens or even hundreds of thousands of African American men -- will gather on the Mall for what organizers envision as a solemn display of moral fortitude and political strength.
They are calling it the Million Man March. And although numbers are impossible to predict, there already are abundant signs that the event has struck a chord in the black community. It is uniting a diverse array of leaders under its banner and generating uncommon attention beyond the ranks of the politically active.
The march is the brainchild of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose stern calls for self-reliance and spiritual renewal resonate with many African Americans but whose rhetoric, which has been widely criticized as anti-Semitic, repels many others. Some who in the past have kept Farrakhan at arm's length have made peace with him, at least for the moment, and are embracing the march. Others are putting aside deep disagreements to participate.
As conceived by Farrakhan, the march will highlight a day on which black men will "straighten their backs" and pledge themselves to a restoration of values. He is asking black men across the country to stay off their jobs as part of an economic boycott. And he hopes that a mass of orderly, resolute African American men in the nation's capital will stand in stark contrast to negative images that pervade popular culture.
But a number of political leaders are seeking to make the event more than that. With economic upheaval and crime taking a heavy toll on African Americans and with a Republican-controlled Congress pursuing an agenda that many regard as hostile to civil rights, organizers hope the march will ignite a new political urgency.
Customarily cautious politicians such as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, who is Jewish, have given their endorsement. Baptist preachers are organizing alongside Farrakhan's Muslim followers.
A number of well-known rap musicians, including Public Enemy and Brand Nubians, have signed on.
Women, who have not been invited to march but who are being asked for their support, are lining up to provide it. The National Council of Negro Women has given its endorsement, as has activist C. Delores Tucker, who has campaigned against the violence and sexism of the gangsta rap culture. Indeed, several senior planners of the Million Man March are women.
The coalition has grown so broad that even Farrakhan's most ardent critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, have thus far taken a muted approach to the event.
Despite a thin organization and continuing reservations among some influential African Americans, some who are familiar with the march say they believe it could draw more people than the storied 1963 March on Washington. That seminal event attracted 250,000, making it one of the largest demonstrations in the history of the civil rights movement.
"I think there is an obvious groundswell of support for the march in the African American community," said Earl T. Shinhoster, interim executive director of the NAACP, which has not taken a position on the march. "While the march has some controversial aspects, the overall notion that this will be a day of atonement during which African American men would challenge themselves to do what's manly has an appeal."
Wilner Williams, 45, a bus driver in San Jose who plans to join the economic boycott but not the march said: "Blacks need to wake up and realize that we are all in this together. We have to show our unity."
Like virtually all of Farrakhan's plans, the Million Man March was born on the street. Long before it gained support among black leaders, it took hold in barbershops, neighborhood markets and community gathering spots around the country.
Farrakhan first raised the idea of the march almost a year ago in his most familiar forum: The Final Call, the Nation of Islam newspaper. That tabloid publication, a fixture in many black communities, touted the event in huge headlines. And the word spread in classic grass-roots fashion, by word of mouth and by countless posters in store windows and on utility poles.
But soon after Farrakhan began talking up the march, his plan gained a valuable booster: the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, who already was no stranger to Farrakhan. A previous collaboration between the two had helped precipitate Chavis's ouster as executive director of the NAACP a few months earlier.
Soon after taking over as head of the nation's oldest civil rights organization, Chavis struck an alliance with Farrakhan that brought him into several NAACP events. But because of Farrakhan's history of controversial and, many say, offensive statements, a furor ensued; some of the organization's major donors expressed concern. Although the NAACP board ultimately dismissed Chavis for financial mismanagement in connection with the settlement of a sexual harassment allegation, the Farrakhan episode hurt him badly within the organization.
Chavis said then that he was trying to broaden the appeal of the civil rights movement and that Farrakhan -- whose fiery rhetoric has found a larger audience among young people than the NAACP's staid approach -- could do that. The march, Chavis said recently, offers him a chance to try again.
The two have been barnstorming the country to drum up support. And though both are considered renegades by many traditional black leaders, Farrakhan repeatedly has demonstrated that he can pack arenas with eager, enthusiastic audiences. His uncompromising posture gives him credibility among blacks who think established leaders are out of touch with their concerns.
The message they deliver at each stop is that black men must take more responsibility for the direction of their families and communities. They also say blacks must learn to wield their economic clout. To demonstrate that power, organizers don't want blacks to spend money Oct. 16. Marchers are being encouraged not to stay in hotels and to pack lunch for the demonstration.
The organizers also want black men to do better by their women. While women are not invited to march, they are being asked to play a supportive role that day by teaching their children at home and helping to turn men out for the demonstration.
The message has found an audience. The march is now a regular topic of conversation on black talk radio, on Black Entertainment Television and in the black press nationally. Some semblance of an organization also is beginning to form.
Farrakhan and Chavis traveled to Atlanta last week, and one of that city's local organizers for the march -- the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, of First Iconium Baptist Church -- said the effect was an immediate upsurge of interest. "The fact is that Farrakhan can come into town and attract more people in one week than some folk can get in a year," McDonald said.
"We've only been in operation for two weeks, but the enthusiasm is mounting every day," McDonald said. "We haven't gotten the phone lines in, but people are ready to work." The goal is to bring 10,000 marchers out of Atlanta.
McDonald admits there is resistance. Selling the march to "other Baptist brothers" has been rough, he said, because many ministers want nothing to do with Farrakhan. David A. Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political Studies, said this demonstrates how the march will differ from many other recent political events in the African American community.
"This is a march whose success is not going to be determined by the traditional civil rights groups and leaders," Bositis said. "This will really be a march of people who don't recognize the black establishment as the people who speak for them."
Indeed, enormous skepticism about the march still lingers in some quarters. Some worry that Farrakhan could exacerbate hostilities between blacks and Jews by adding to his string of explosive statements. And the occasion has sharpened already intense rivalries between traditional civil rights leaders and the Chavis-Farrakhan alliance.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson says that he supports the march but that he has no plans to be there. National Urban League President Hugh B. Price also won't march but says the idea has some merit. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says he is still mulling a personal appeal from Farrakhan to back the march. Shinhoster, of the NAACP, says that he plans to march as "an individual" but that his organization is not formally participating, although it plans to register voters at the event.
Chavis pointedly calls the march "a redefining moment for the civil rights movement," and adds, "Some of our traditional civil rights leaders are welcoming a new generation of freedom fighters. However, some are pondering what to do."
Another group that is worriedly pondering the event is the Anti-Defamation League, long one of Farrakhan's most energetic detractors. Group leaders do not want to disparage the march's purpose but say they are concerned that it could elevate Farrakhan to mainstream legitimacy.
"We are concerned that people not lose sight of who the convener is," said David C. Friedman, executive director of the league's Washington office. "Unfortunately, many of the people who support the concept of the march will also be perceived by their presence as supporting Farrakhan."
Aside from philosophical and political clashes, the march also faces enormous logistical problems. Organizers have been meeting for weeks with federal and local officials but, so far, have not offered any hard estimates of how many people will attend. And the planning process shows signs of confusion and disorganization.
For example, at a recent meeting of the Washington area's local organizing committee -- which Chavis has hailed as a model for other groups throughout the country -- tempers raged after the chairman, District lawyer Faye Williams, reported that the committee only had $30 in its treasury. Several community activists disrupted the meeting and demanded to know who was controlling the money.
In recent weeks, however, the march clearly has been gaining momentum. Nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the list of establishment figures who have blessed the event and, in so doing, have struck at least an uneasy alliance with Farrakhan and Chavis.
"The aims and purposes which the march holds up are very powerful," Shinhoster said. "This may be a very unique situation where the message overshadows the messenger."
Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said: "I support the march. I feel strongly that it is one of many things we need to do to mobilize people of color in this country. I think it going to galvanize people in a way that is unprecedented."
Rendell, the mayor of Philadelphia, has not only endorsed the march, but at least three members of Rendell's administration -- including Joseph Certaine, Philadelphia's managing director -- are working as local organizers. Schmoke, of Baltimore, said he supports the idea of uplifting black men.
Even though black women were not invited to march, some are rallying around the event. The National Council of Negro Women, the National Political Congress of Black Women and several other national black women's groups have endorsed it.
"As a black woman, I'm proud to see the black man stand up for us," said Linda Greene, the march's national fund-raising coordinator. "They are coming to the forefront for us. They are recommitting their lives to us as the provider of their families."
Greene said $1 million has been raised toward the march's budget of $3.5 million. And Chavis said organizing is under way in 500 cities and towns, with particularly strong activity on college campuses.
Beyond dollars and logistics, however, many African American political leaders say the potential power of the Million Man March is its simple but profound concept: At a time when many black men feel under siege, the march provides an opportunity for them literally to stand up and be counted. That alone may be enough to ensure its success.
John P. Stewart, a Navy budget analyst from Southeast Washington and a deacon at St. Theresa of Avila Catholic Church, said he is mobilizing a group of Catholic men to attend the march even though he does not support Farrakhan.
"I am bringing my five boys; they are bringing their 14 sons; and I am also bringing my great-grandson and great-granddaughter," Stewart said. "We have lost something as a people. . . . We need to achieve this oneness." CAPTION: John P. Stewart says he is mobilizing Catholic men to attend the march even though he does not support Farrakhan.