Hundreds of thousands of black men answered Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's call for a march on Washington yesterday with a historic rally that washed them in a warm sense of brotherhood and challenged them to return home with a new sense of purpose.
The huge assembly -- estimated by police at 400,000 people and clearly the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history -- created the sheltering atmosphere of a family reunion. An array of speakers sternly charged participants to take more responsibility for their lives and condemned white racism.
The event reversed the customary patterns of daily life in the nation's capital, swelling the Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument with black men from across the country but draining many commuters from the rest of the city.
Not only did predictions of a rush-hour nightmare prove wrong, but downtown streets were abnormally quiet because many workers either abandoned their cars for a day or stayed home.
In a fiery and disjointed two-hour keynote address, Farrakhan lashed out at what he called a culture of white supremacy in the United States, enjoined black men to take more responsibility for their own lives, declared that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a greater patriot than either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, and engaged in a long-distance colloquy with President Clinton, responding to a speech on race relations that Clinton gave in Texas earlier in the day.
But while television cameras broadcast remarks from the podium to a national audience, the crowd on the Mall and adjoining streets alternately cheered and ignored the remarks, engaging in impromptu man-to-man talks and basking in a day of peaceful solidarity. Although a 69-year-old South Carolina man collapsed and died on the Capitol grounds, apparently of a heart attack, police reported no other serious injuries. There was only one arrest for disorderly conduct.
Women largely obeyed Farrakhan's request to stay away; only a tiny fraction of the crowd was female. For the men, it was a day of spontaneous embraces, public tears and straight-in-the-eye greetings -- the opposite of the nervous, sidelong glances that some men said they customarily employ to avoid confrontation.
Washingtonian Ken Thomas, the father of 3- and 9-year-old daughters, carried a sign that read, "Here for my girls." Oklahoma City minister Leodis Strong navigated the Mall on crutches, hobbled by recent knee surgery but determined to join in. And when LeVon Buckley encountered a group of teenagers mock fighting and addressing each other with a racially offensive term, the 28-year-old Tampa firefighter stepped in with fatherly advice: "That ain't what today's about. Today's about learning how to love your brother."
As expected, the size of the crowd was a matter of sharp debate. Organizers put the attendance at 1.5 million, more than three times the official police estimate. The march's national director, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., argued that organizers had a counting system of their own and, "We know we are way over 1 million, so anything under a million is totally unacceptable."
But U.S. Park Police officials said that they relied on aerial photographs and a long-established grid system to count the crowd on the Mall, and D.C. police said they counted those who crowded vending stands on Constitution Avenue, which was closed to traffic. The Park Police use a density-based formula for people per square foot and multiply the density of the occupancy by the area involved.
Park Police Maj. Robert H. Hines acknowledged that counting crowds "is not an exact science" and that any estimate could be off by as much as 20 percent, but he expressed confidence in the estimate.
Even the police estimate far surpassed that of the 250,000 people who attended the storied 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and was exceeded by only a handful of other political demonstrations of any kind. The crowd was studded with celebrities: pro basketball stars Charles Smith, Charles Oakley, Juwan Howard and Chris Webber; recording stars Hammer, Ice-T and Stevie Wonder, who was one of the speakers; actor Will Smith; retired boxer Michael Spinks; and numerous politicians.
"It is about correcting yourself, admiting that you were wrong and not pointing the finger," Spinks said. "That is where it has to start."
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who exuberantly addressed the crowd as "my brilliant, beautiful black brothers," drew on his well-known struggle with drugs and alcohol to inspire those in attendance to better their lives. It was one of the few direct references Barry has made to his personal problems since he was reelected last year.
"I am here to tell you, I know firsthand God's power, God's grace and God's redemptive love," Barry said. "God took me from the mountain top to the valley and back to the mountain top again.
"Look at me. Look at me now. I've come back stronger and wiser than ever before. If God can do that for me, He can certainly do it for you. Rise up, black people, and be strong." Farrakhan was among the vast array of speakers who took to the stage to address the day-long program. There were speeches from black nationalists and black mayors; university professors, doctors, and politicians; artists and preachers. But only Farrakhan had been singled out, albeit not by name, for criticism by Clinton, who praised the march in his remarks in Texas but criticized Farrakhan for employing what he called hateful rhetoric. Farrakhan praised Clinton's appeal for racial tolerance but defended himself.
"I must hasten to tell you, Mr. President, that I'm not a malicious person, and I'm not filled with malice," he said. "But I must tell you that I come in the tradition of the doctor who has to point out, with truth, what's wrong." Other than Farrakhan, the day's most heralded speaker was Jesse L. Jackson, the former Democratic presidential candidate, who went head-on at the Republicans who took control of Congress this year, at one point comparing them to one of the most reviled figures of the '60s civil rights struggle. Invoking the names of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Jackson linked them to an Alabama police chief who unleashed dogs and fire houses on nonviolent protesters. "Who organized the march?" Jackson thundered. "Did Minister Farrakhan organize the march? No! "Clarence Thomas and Gingrich organized the march -- just like Bull Connor organized the march in 1963!
Nor was everyone in the crowd festive. As he snapped pictures of the hundreds of men gathering around him, Raymond Robertson, a 48-year-old disabled veteran from Danville, Va., looked distraught and very much alone as he rested against a fence. He came to the march in the name of his 17-year-old nephew. Friday, Robertson had been in court back home when his nephew was sentenced to two life sentences for a robbery that ended in the death of a man.
"I wish he could have been here to see this," Robertson said. "If it had happened first, maybe it could have put him on a different track. I'm here to atone, for him and other youth.
"I'm hoping this will open their eyes and get them to accept what we have to say about avoiding the wrong directions. I helped raise my nephew. This is bittersweet for me." The marchers began assembling on the Mall in the wee hours of the morning. When the sun finally rose over the Capitol, it illuminated a sea of black men being serenaded by the sounds of African drums. All along the Mall, people snapped pictures or videotaped the scene in an attempt to capture their moment in history. At Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, a busy drop-off point for marchers coming into town, tens of thousands of black men and youngsters arrived throughout the morning, in hundreds of buses, cars and vans. From there, thousands rode Metro trains to the Mall, while thousands more -- 10 and 12 abreast -- marched nearly 20 blocks along East Capitol Street to the rally site. At Eastern High School, near the stadium, students and staff members stood outside, cheering wildly as the marchers passed. On street corners and front porches all along the route, women stood applauding the men. One woman, her voice raspy from shouting, stood on a wall, clapping loudly. "Black man. Black man," she managed to chant. "We applaud you, black man. We applaud you." Farther along East Capitol, at 16th Street, Edna Hodges, 55, of Baltimore, held her arms open wide. "Black sunshine! Black sunshine!" she shouted again and again. "We love you, brothers!" In the Le Droit Park neighborhood, Hasinatou Camara stood on the corner of Fifth and U streets NW yesterday morning, weeping. A mass of students, perhaps as many as a thousand, had just marched past her home, on their way from Howard University to join the march. "Can you believe it? said Camara, a District teacher. "Oh, look at the children. I've never seen anything like this in my life. Grandma's losing it." At the New Carrollton Metro stop, Denise Douglas, 34, and LaVerne McIntosh, 59, stood with a large, orange, cardboard sign lettered with silver glitter that announced: "Welcome Black Men." Not everyone celebrated the march. Carol DiMaio, a 57-year-old Alexandrian, who is white, said: I think they should all be at work. That bonding is unnecessary. They should go out and help themselves." Several white men interviewed said they hadn't thought much about the event. "It doesn't affect me one way or another. I still have to work," said Edward C. Jones, a 63-year-old cabdriver who lives in Arlington.
He was skeptical that even a large demonstration would make any difference: "It's like in the cab business. When you go on strike, half will do it and half will work to make up for what you're trying to do." Kevin Frye, a 25-year-old African American from Fredericksburg, worked his regular delivery truck shift yesterday, and at an Arlington 7-Eleven he said the march wasn't for him. "I don't go into that," Frye said. "If they leave me alone, I'll leave them alone." In many places, though, support was strong. In Mount Pleasant, a group of about 50 Latinos gathered yesterday morning at a soccer field on 16th Street NW and unfurled banners that said, "Latino Solidarity with the Million Man March." Escorted by police cars, they walked slowly through the community, heading for the Mall and urging other Latinos to join them.
"We've never had anything in common with Louis Farrakhan, but we're in a war and we need allies," said Pedro Aviles, executive director of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force, which organized the contingent. For the men on the Mall, the first issue is to keep their own, new-found alliance intact. "It doesn't affect things right away," said Jerome Mapp, 39, of Washington. "Men will go home and think about it. If their lives are dysfunctional, they will start to take a hard look at themselves. They will never look at the streets the same way again.
"And that's what's so great about today. We are all on this earth accountable for everything we do. If people go home and understand that and take responsibility, then the march has done a very good thing." CAPTION: A historic gathering: A crowd estimated by Park Police at 400,000 packs the Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. The Million Man March drew participants from across the country. CAPTION: Tearful prayer: Donald Bronson, of Washington, joins others at a morning ecumenical service. CAPTION: The Johnsons, of Temple Hills, came as a family. Crystal Johnson kisses daughter Kriss, 9, as her husband, Tony Johnson Sr., holds Tony Jr., 5. CAPTION: Abdul Alim Quadir, left, and his cousin, Larry Ethridge, hug during speeches on the Mall. CAPTION: Robert Fairchild, of Virginia, shares a laugh with fellow march participants on the Mall. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)