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MILLION MAN MARCH : Black Men, in Show of Unity, Join in 400,000-Strong March : Rally: Speakers, participants make clear they must rely on themselves. 'We cannot continue the destruction of our lives and . . . communities,' says Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan.

October 17, 1995|SAM FULWOOD III and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In a moving display of pride and mutual support, hundreds of thousands of black men stood shoulder to shoulder in a crowd that stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond Monday as speakers at the "Million Man March" urged them to dedicate their lives to curing the ills afflicting black America.

Basking in the racial solidarity of attending the largest gathering of African Americans in the nation's history, participants embraced each other and the march's theme of "atonement" to create an event significantly different from civil rights protests of the past.

As many of the speakers and numerous participants made clear, Monday's assemblage was sharply focused on what black men should do for themselves, not what others should do for them. Unlike past Washington demonstrations--such as the historic 1963 March on Washington, where 250,000 people heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s passionate "I have a dream" speech--few of Monday's speakers appealed to government for help.

"Today, we ask nothing of the government," Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke declared before a crowd officially estimated at 400,000, but "we ask everything of ourselves."

The march's primary organizer, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, delivered a searing demand for self-discipline in a more-than two-hour speech at the end of the day.

"We cannot continue the destruction of our lives and the destruction of our communities," Farrakhan said to cheers and nods of agreement. Black men must stop the "death of the babies by the senseless slaughter" in black neighborhoods, he said, calling on members of the crowd to pledge never again to commit violence, use drugs, abuse women or children or otherwise degrade themselves or their community.

Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle and who was one of several women to address the march, urged black men "to make changes in their lives for the better."

While such messages of blame and demands for improvement often quieted the crowd, they did not stifle its remarkable sense of warmth and community.

"I don't see no strangers here," declared George Grover, a mechanic from Virginia Beach, Va., who passed through the crowd offering handshakes to everyone he met. "These are my brothers. We might have been strangers, but I've been telling everyone: 'Hey, man! I'm your brother, George.' "

Although the march had become ensnarled in a controversy that divided both blacks and whites, primarily because of Farrakhan, the day's events were marked by messages of peace, reverence, celebration and optimism.

Even Farrakhan suggested the time might have come for him to sit down with leaders of the Jewish community, whom he has denounced as "bloodsuckers" and who have denounced him as anti-Semitic.

Farrakhan brushed aside criticism of his role in the march, saying he had divine guidance.

"Whether you like it or not, God brought the idea through me, and he didn't bring it through me because my heart was dark with hatred and anti-Semitism," he said.

"If my heart was that dark, how is the message so bright?"

He urged the men to go home and join black organizations--even those that refused to endorse his rally--to take hold of political power, unite against racism and cleanse black communities of crime, drugs and violence.

Away from the Mall, critics continued to denounce Farrakhan, and some prominent blacks remained ambivalent about the event.

Clinton Speech

President Clinton, in a speech in Austin, Tex., that focused on race relations, referred obliquely to Farrakhan, saying: "One million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division. No good house was ever built on a bad foundation."

Clinton later flew to Los Angeles to speak at a celebrity-filled benefit concert at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood slated to raise money for the fight against substance abuse. He was to return to Texas today.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), commenting during a trip to his home state, called Farrakhan "an unrepentant bigot" and predicted he would draw strength and legitimacy from the march.

Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, a possible presidential candidate, expressed the ambivalence many black leaders have felt about the event because of Farrakhan's role:

"If I was there, I would be torn between the opportunity to present a message of family and reconciliation to the group," Powell said in New York. "But at the same time . . . I would be a little reluctant to lend too much credibility to his [Farrakhan's] leadership of the event.

"Let's not prejudge what might be accomplished," Powell added. "Let's let the people who are at the march make that judgment. We can trust them to separate out what is wisdom in the message from Minister Farrakhan and what is not wisdom, what is anti-Semitic, racist statements. They can sort that out."

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