'Million Man March' sends message of 'self-respect'

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON Praying, chanting and reveling in a day of racial pride and brotherhood, vast numbers of black men stood united yesterday to dedicate themselves to uplifting each other and their families.

In a dramatic finale, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan proclaimed divine guidance in bringing to Washington the largest assemblage of black Americans since the 1963 March on Washington.

The ''Million Man March'' had critics who cited Farrakhan's inflammatory statements about Jews, Catholics, gays and Asians, but he brushed them aside.

''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,'' Farrakhan said.

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

The throng stretched for blocks from the foot of the Capitol down the grassy expanse of the national Mall. The day was chilly but bright, the mood serious yet buoyant.

''There is no violence here, no racism,'' said Omar Holt of Detroit. ''It's very moving.''

Young men dressed in jeans, sweatshirts and jackets dominated the crowd. But men of all ages were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the stage. Others climbed onto statues, light posts and trees for a better view. A few waded through the Reflecting Pool, one wearing few if any clothes.

''It's a healing feeling to see so many black men come together, and not a whole bunch of violence or drugs or all that stuff,'' said Donald Simms of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. ''This whole thing is about self-respect.''

People lined up 10-deep around the food vendors, and the mixed aromas of barbecue and vegetarian curries filled the air. Scores of Nation of Islam members, standing erect in suits and their trademark bow ties, lent an air of solemnity.

Civil rights veterans Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks and Dick Gregory were among dozens of back-to-back speakers who spoke from behind bulletproof glass. Stevie Wonder sang briefly and Maya Angelou read a poem urging the crowd to do right by itself and ''save your race.''

Giant speakers and video screens were set up around the Mall, but most men couldn't get near enough to them to benefit. ''We can't hear,'' said Harold Johnson of Reading, Pa., ''but we can feel the important feel of it.''

The event often had the feeling of a revival meeting, with men clapping and singing along with church choirs, then bowing their heads in prayer.

At one point, cardboard boxes and plastic bags were passed through the crowd for contributions to defray the cost of the event and begin a black economic development fund. Each time a bag was filled, organizers hoisted it into the air to the cheers of the crowd that waved dollar bills in the air.

By mid-morning, co-organizer Benjamin Chavis Jr. said the crowd had exceeded 1 million. The National Park Service said it would provide its own estimate in the afternoon, using pictures taken from helicopters.

Several women spoke on stage, but few were scattered through the crowd. Farrakhan had asked them to stay home to pray, fast and teach the children. He also asked all black Americans to stay home from work or school and avoid spending money.

Phillippa Braxton of suburban Laurel, Md., came to lend support to the men, saying, ''This will show America that the black man isn't some gun-toting, drug-selling stereotype that's portrayed in the media.''

At a speech in Austin, Texas, President Clinton praised the rally as an event for ''black men taking renewed responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities.''

But he expressed disapproval of Farrakhan. Without mentioning the Nation of Islam minister by name, the president clearly criticized Farrakhan's explosive rhetoric that has brought charges of anti-Semitism, sexism and bigotry.

''One million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division,'' Clinton said.

Farrakhan said Clinton ''did not dig deep enough'' to find a solution to the racial divide.

''Abraham Lincoln saw in his day what President Clinton sees in this day,'' Farrakhan told the crowd. ''He saw the great divide between black and white. . There are still two Americas one black, one white, separate and unequal.''

Before the march, some black leaders who endorsed the event also condemned Farrakhan's incendiary words. But many on the stage and in the crowd praised his leadership.

''It's too bad we can't have Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but we have to take what we have,'' said Pierre Brown of Newburgh, N.Y.

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