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As I joined the Million Family March, I could not help but miss the Million Man March that preceded it by five years. Both events were conceived and organized by Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, but don't hold that against them.
The aging Farrakhan, deep into what Benjamin Disraeli would call his "anecdotage," wants you to know that he is a changed man. In Monday's event, as in its predecessor, he was on his best behavior. There was not a discouraging word said about Jews or any other ethnic group.
After "preaching blackness for 46 years," he says he has broadened his view. In accordance with that change, Farrakhan devoted much of his two-hour sermon to insisting that the races are all equal in the eyes of God, although he still didn't sound too keen on interracial marriages.
This was not the black supremacy rap for which Farrakhan is famous, and it was just as well. This time his crowd, although predominately black, was also quite multiracial, including some interracial marriages of whites, Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups.
Many of the non-blacks were affiliated with the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who helped to fund and publicize the event. Moon also originated the mass wedding and renewal of marriage vows, which set this march apart from the previous one.
Yet, for all of its kindlier and gentler feelings, the new march did not draw as many people as the earlier march did. The earlier event filled the space between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument with black men, most of whom stood patiently and attentively shoulder-to-shoulder for hours in the sun.
This time you could see large patches of green between clusters of people who gathered mostly in front of giant video screens. All of this way they came, just to watch the event on television and serve as animated props for Farrakhan's giant media event.
Both events were huge and historic, but the second march lacked the first march's edgy appeal, defiant spirit and palpable sense of purpose. In this way, the second march serves to remind us of how much has changed in America since the first march.
Five years ago, the politics of race, crime and economics in America were in the pits. The economic recovery had begun, but not enough that most people were noticing it.
It was a year after the Republican takeover of Congress was fueled by "angry white males."
It was three years after the Los Angeles riots and the televised beatings of Rodney King by white police officers and of Reginald Denny by black thugs.
And, oh, yes, days earlier there was the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, which became one of the most racially divided moments in American history.
Every day the news media seemed to be filled with images of black America in crisis, suffering a plague of street gangs, crack cocaine wars, welfare dependency, broken families and fatherless children. Many of us who consider ourselves to be responsible black men felt angry that black life and the black male image seemed to be spinning out of control. We also felt frustrated over what could be done about it.
So, when Farrakhan called for a Million Man March on Washington to "atone" and take responsibility for ourselves, our families and our communities, hundreds of thousands of us answered the call. If nothing else, at least we could march. As one participant told me, at least we could "put a positive image of black males on national TV for at least one night."
The Million Man March accomplished at least that much. It may have accomplished more, but that's hard to say. Many black men returned home after the Million Man March to energize mentoring programs and other local efforts. Black crime and victimization rates have plummeted. It is hard to say how much the march helped, but no one can say that it hurt.
But, as Martin Luther King Jr. asked so sagely, where do we go from here? If Farrakhan leaves no other legacy, he will be remembered for pulling off the Million Man March when many doubted that it could be done. But, after five years, that event should have led us to more than just another march and media event for Farrakhan.
It should lead us to a new understanding of what it means to take responsibility for our families, our communities and ourselves. It should lead us to understand that this task extends across lines of race as well as class.
Then it should lead us to back home to understand that marching alone will not solve America's problems. Effort will.
(C)2000 BY THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE