Ronnie Mosley with his son, Brandon, in Philadelphia last month. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Everybody passing Ronnie Mosley had a purpose — the early-morning commuters, the marchers leaping from the trains. Mosley sat on a bench in Union Station, the only one not sure where to go.

Mosley’s main purpose was providing for his 4-year-old son, Brandon, whom he cradled in a white blanket. But on that day in 1995, he was failing even at that.

Brandon was hungry, and Mosley had run out of money. “We’ll be all right,” Mosley reassured his son. But he wondered, “What the hell’s going to happen?”

What happened was one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in American history, Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March. Mosley — circus hand, ex-Army Ranger, struggling single dad — had just stumbled upon it.

Twenty years later, Farrakhan is staging another march, “Justice or Else!” — an event scheduled Saturday on the Mall to protest a failing education system and killings of black men by police. Amid the preparations, academics are still debating the legacy of the original march.

Some say its core message of self-reliance and atonement left black men grappling alone with issues such as violence, drug abuse and poverty, letting politicians and institutions off the hook. Others argue that the earnest assembly was a potent symbol that changed perceptions of black men and inspired the marchers to make great changes in their lives.

For Mosley, the march made a deep impression. Though he is skeptical about its broader social impact, he said the march provided a focus that had been lacking from his life and fundamentally altered the kind of father he would become.

‘A lot of work to be done’

Before arriving in Washington, Mosley, then 27, had not heard about the march. He and Brandon meant only to change trains on their way from Mosley’s job in the circus to his home town in Tennessee. But the trains were full, and Mosley had no money for a hotel. So they slept on a bench and, by the time they awoke, Mosley had decided to march, too.

“I thought it would be fitting for my child to know we did this together,” Mosley told a Washington Post reporter at the time.

When he and Brandon joined the masses, Mosley was struck by the calm. At least 400,000 black men crowded the Mall, possibly more — the official crowd estimate was later disputed by march organizers and an academic study. As speakers rose to a lectern in front of the Capitol, strangers embraced. “Hey! How you doing?” everyone wanted to know. Mosley must have shaken a hundred hands.

When it came, some found Farrakhan’s speech rambling, full of obscure allusions. To Mosley, though, the message was clear: Men need to be men.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he thought. “I have to provide for my family. I have to provide for myself. I have to look out for my community.”

Mosley learned about self-reliance growing up in Millington, Tenn., a railroad town surrounded by cotton fields. That message was delivered at Boy Scout meetings and at the local Baptist church, and later by his commanders in the Army.

But somewhere between Millington and Washington, Mosley had lost his way. His divorce from Brandon’s mother, when the boy was 2, shook him badly. It took a long, lonely year to win custody.

Then he quit the military and took a job with the circus selling sweets and coloring books outside the big tent. He lacked the confidence to pursue his dream of becoming a clown, the star of the show. He had lost confidence in his abilities as a father, too — he had saved a month for this trip so he could take Brandon home, at least for a while, to be raised by his grandmother.

Back at Union Station, Mosley explained his plight to a clerk, who took pity on him and used her own money to put him and Brandon on a Greyhound bus. Mosley felt like a failure.

He vowed: Never again.

Back home, Mosley quickly set to work righting his life. He took odd jobs serving in a restaurant and helping on a construction site. Recalling Farrakhan’s words about community, he bought a high school workbook for one of his cousins, who had quit school and begun using drugs. And he went back to church, though he felt ashamed. He was penniless and divorced, in “total disarray,” he thought.

Still, he began telling friends that the march was his “turning point.” He decided to raise his son on his own no matter what. And he soon found a new job with a new circus — Cedric Walker’s UniverSoul Circus needed entertainers.

Now he was Ronnie the Clown.

Touring was exhausting: There were two three-hour shows each weekday and six shows on weekends. But Mosley loved it, teaching himself to juggle and perform magic tricks. Each morning, he put on his 20-gallon purple hat and Size 24 shoes and had fun.

Brandon went with him, often sitting in the stands and applauding his dad. By day, he was home-schooled with the lion tamer’s son. By night, Brandon practiced his Power Rangers moves while Mosley ironed his waistcoat.

With a stable job, Mosley lavished money and attention on his son. When Brandon developed an obsession with the “Inspector Gadget” movie, Mosley got him an Inspector Gadget watch. When Brandon won a giant toy whale at the circus arcade, Mosley removed some of the stuffing so they could carry it with them on the road.

Meanwhile, Mosley worked hard, mining his past “foolishness” for comic routines. Sometimes he pretended to beg for money. One night, he walked through the tent with a bouquet of flowers and a huge wedding ring, peering at women in the crowd.

“Who are you looking for?” one woman asked.

“My next ex-wife,” he said.

‘Seeds planted’

Making fun of his past helped Mosley feel better about himself. But his success soon went to his head. His routines were so popular that HBO featured him in a special about the UniverSoul Circus. Mosley began to think of himself as a TV star.

He demanded $6,000 a week and quit when his boss refused. Mosley quickly burned through his savings and asked for his job back. But within a year, he quit again, this time dreaming of fame as a stand-up comic.

He and Brandon moved to Philadelphia, near his new girlfriend, Krista, a paramedic. But Mosley failed to master the rhythms of stand-up and struggled for work. One morning, over breakfast at a local diner, he and Krista decided that he would have to return to the circus. There was no other way to pay the bills.

Driving home, they heard on the car radio that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. Mosley was moved by the courage of New York firefighters that day.

It occurred to him that going back to the circus, leaving his family, trying to become a star would be selfish. Being a firefighter would serve his community and his family — and provide a stable life for his son. He signed up.

But as Brandon grew, he began to chafe under that stability and his father’s strict rules. At 17, he stormed out of their house and headed back to Millington to live with Mosley’s sister.

Mosley followed Brandon to Millington and begged him to come home. “You can stop this,” the father said. “Come back anytime you’re ready.” But Brandon ignored him.

Meanwhile, Mosley noticed that little had changed in Millington. Some relatives were still out of work, others still struggling with drug addiction. His cousin never had finished that high school workbook he bought. He grew disillusioned with the idea that a man could change things through sheer will alone. Self-reliance, he came to believe, was a combination of will and good luck.

Maybe the legacy of the march, he thought, was not so powerful after all.

“There were a lot of seeds planted that day. Those people probably went home and planted more seeds,” he said. “But then we see the weeds overgrew the garden.”

Still, the focus of Mosley’s greatest attentions flourished. Unbeknownst to his father, Brandon pushed himself through his final year of high school, graduating six months early. And he soon returned to Philadelphia, renting a room a couple of blocks from his father.

“A coincidence,” Brandon insisted. But they started talking again.

Today, Brandon is 24 and training to become an ambulance driver. One day, he would like to be a paramedic, just like Krista.

One day last month, father and son were again sitting on a bench, in a park close to home. This time, neither was hungry: Brandon was looking forward to pizza with his roommates. And Mosley would have dinner with Krista, now his wife of 10 years.

As they sat together in the September sunshine, Mosley flipped through a plastic wallet full of photos: There was Ronnie the Clown, dressed as a janitor, a surgeon, a cop. There was Mosley’s first date with Krista. And there was the raggedy apartment Mosley and Brandon shared after he first quit the circus, with its longing view of the Philadelphia skyline.

“Remember? Our bathroom was in the kitchen,” Mosley said.

“And every step creaked,” Brandon added. “It was a nice size, though.”

Mosley still thinks about the Million Man March. But when he does, it is not Farrakhan’s words that come back to him. It’s Brandon’s hunger. Whenever Mosley feels like staying in bed or calling in sick, it’s that image that spurs him on.

“If I think about the worst day in my life, it would be that day,” Mosley said. “It kind of reminds me that maybe I want to get up.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.