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Blacks Ponder Next Steps After Historic Rally

October 18, 1995|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After rallying in Washington to change destructive attitudes and behavior in the black community, an army of African American men are returning to their homes across the country to face the challenge of giving concrete meaning to their historic day of atonement.

But how do they do that?

The answer, judging from the comments and reactions of many who attended Monday's "Million Man March," is not simple. On the one hand, few are likely to rush into Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, even though most agree that no other prominent black figure could have made the march happen.

On the other hand, neither do most participants seem willing to pour their energies into traditional national organizations, many of which refused to participate in the event.

"I will never become a Muslim," says Harry Evans III, who took the day off from his job as a rights adviser for the Maryland Department of Health to attend the march. "At the same time, I have watched our senior brothers driving the civil rights bus this way and then lurching that way and, quite frankly, I'm concerned about the way they drive."

As a result, some black leaders fear, the good feeling and energy generated among the men who took part in the march--the Park Service estimates that 400,000 participated--and of others who were stirred by it at a distance, may simply fade into a warm glow of memory.

But others suggest the legacy of the "Million Man March" may show itself not in a new mass movement, but in thousands of private acts and grass-roots efforts that--taken together--have a profound impact on the future of the black community.

That would represent another triumph for the strategy that has guided Farrakhan--even though most marchers reject many of his particular beliefs.

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March organizers said it was never their intent to align the participants with any new or existing organization. Rather, the point had been to put aside for a day the divisions among black men so that they could reflect on their common problems and concerns, to leave them with the message that black men should be responsible for themselves and depend less on government and other institutions to further their interests.

As the event unfolded, surpassing the expectations of skeptics in both size and spirit, the lure of a call for collective action proved inescapable. Some political leaders who addressed the throng advocated such agendas as achieving statehood for the District of Columbia and defeating House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

The Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered perhaps the most political speech of the day as he took aim at a trio of Republicans--Gingrich and presidential hopefuls Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. Marchers had the power "to send Gingrich, Gramm and Dole back in private life," Jackson said. "Use your votes."

Farrakhan also called for greater organization in the black community.

He urged marchers to return home and join "some organization that is working for, and in the interests of, the uplift and the liberation of our people. We must become a totally organized people."

But he appeared to envision a more diffuse approach, one tacitly acknowledging that many marchers disagree with his rhetoric and beliefs but supported the event because blacks lack credible leadership elsewhere.

"Every leader has a market," said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard University law professor and a critic of both Farrakhan and the traditional civil rights leadership. "There was a market for this march because of an abdication of responsibility on the part of everyone--except maybe Farrakhan, who seized an opportunity from everyone else's failure to rise up the ladder of political celebrity to become a leader."

Long before the "Million Man March" became a reality, traditional black leaders--from civil rights activists to clerics to elected officials--spoke out repeatedly about the deep sense of isolation and desperation experienced by African American men. But few offered practical solutions to match their public expressions of dismay and powerlessness.

Farrakhan was the lone exception. Despite the many issues that divide him from most Americans--including his racist comments, advocacy of black separatism and his nationalist hybrid of Islamic scripture--Farrakhan's message of self-reliance and independence from white America strikes a responsive chord that many find lacking in other black leaders.

Moreover, Farrakhan's Nation of Islam has won support in many inner-city communities for running off drug dealers in housing projects and being among the few black groups that recruit from inside prison walls.

"I respect Farrakhan for one thing," said Shirley Beasley, a 42-year-old Memphis, Tenn., bill collector. "He has caused so many young black men to get off drugs and to straighten out their lives. You have to give him credit for doing that when no one else is making the same committed effort."

Ellis Cose, author of "The Rage of the Black Middle Class," said that those accomplishments cross the many boundaries within black communities.

"The one thing that a lot of [black] people are saying is that whether you like what he says or not, Farrakhan isn't afraid to say what they themselves are really thinking," said Cose, who attended the rally. "That cuts across generations and a whole lot of other issues that divide black people."

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