A `million' blacks take capital in their stride

Rupert Cornwell at the biggest black rally since Martin Luther King's `dream'
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The Independent Online
In a huge collective rite of revivalism, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans yesterday assembled at the foot of the US Capitol to hear radical leader Louis Farrakhan uncompromisingly assert a separate black identity - and proclaim the arrival of a "new black man in America," ready to step forward and claim his equal rights.

"Atonement" was the order of the day for the Million Man March organised by the leader of the Nation of Islam. But in a speech of almost two full hours - passionate, often angry and punctuated by tirades against America's past and present white establihsment - Mr Farrakhan said blacks "were still under the control of our former slave masters and their children." Whites and blacks were "separate and unequal," he declared before the vast crowd stretching away towards the Washington Monument.

Part preacher, part history teacher, and part demagogue, Mr Farrakhan warned that "America is angry. Freedom can't come from white folks. We're here to make a statement to the government, we're not here to beg." The crowd listened first quietly, then more noisily, some giving the clenched- fist black power salute. Mr Farrakhan mixed calls to tackle the crime, drugs and broken families that plague black inner city communities with tirades against "white supremacists," from the Founding Fathers on, who had made a "sick society".

The impact of his charged address on America's fragile racial balance may only gradually become apparent; but its tenor was in sharp contrast with the relaxed, almost joyful atmosphere on a day of brilliant autumn sunlight. The air was crisp, cut with cries of "God Bless the black man," and the aromas of barbecued beef and fried chicken.

But Mr Farrakhan's harangue seemed to justify the prior fears of much of the US establishment, black and white alike - that the largest civil rights rally here since Martin Luther King gave his "I have a Dream" speech in August 1963, might turn into a free national platform for his black separatist, anti-Semitic views.

Speaking in Texas, President Clinton warned how "One million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division". Mr Farrakhan retorted by describing himself as "a doctor who has to go in and say what is wrong." In his speech the President "did not dig deeply enough to reach the roots of the problem", Mr Farrakhan added, his voice dripping with condescension.

General Colin Powell, who along with several moderate black church, civil rights and political figures had shunned the rally, was critical too. He wished "Someone else had had the idea of the march." The singer Stevie Wonder told the crowd, "This is bigger than one man."

Whether the march attained its statistical goal would only become clear later. The National Park Service said it would provide an estimate of attendance, based on photographs taken from helicopters, at the end of the day.

Joyous atonement, pages 10,11