A million blacks take capital in their stride

Rupert Cornwell witnesses a collective rite of revivalism in Washington 's biggest black rally since Martin Luther King
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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 reassert their identity as blacks, and vow to overcome the crisis besetting black America. "Atonement" was the order of the day for the Million Man March organised by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.

But as a crisp and sunny autumn day progressed, any fears the rally would fall victim to his often bitter black separatism abated. The mood was relaxed, even joyful, the air cut with cries of "God Bless the black man", and and the aromas of barbecued beef and fried chicken.

Beforehand the mood of the establishment, black and white alike, had been cautious, alarmed that the largest black rally here since Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech in August 1963, would turn into a vehicle for the anti-Semitic, white-baiting views of Mr Farrakhan.

Speaking in Texas, President Clinton warned how "One million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division" - an unmistakeable allusion to Mr Farrakhan.

Earlier General Colin Powell, who along with several moderate black church, civil rights and political figures, had shunned the rally, said he wished "Someone else had had the idea of the March". Defending his absence, the possible presidential candidate said his presence on the speaker's podium would have given the Nation of Islam leader "more credibility than I would like".

More pertinently, Stevie Wonder, the singer, told the crowd stretching away towards the Washington monument, that "this is bigger than one man". Marion Barry, the once disgraced Mayor of Washington, provided a personal cameo of the redemption theme. "Look at me, I have never been stronger and wiser," Mr Barry, who went to prison for drug use before returning to win back his old job, declared. "If the Lord can do it for me, he can do it for you."

"The powers have not treated us well," declared the Rev Robert Smith as he gave the morning sermon, and a few placards attacked the police, savaged in the recent OJ Simpson trial: "Chicago police, Natural Born Killers," proclaimed a slogan. Elsewhere a gigantic portrait of OJ Simpson, floated over the crowd. But the atmosphere was festive and utterly unthreatening. The few whites who were in attendance felt entirely at ease.

Whether the March attained its statistical goal would only become clear later in the day. But by 10am Ben Chavis, the former head of the NAACP civil rights group, was claiming that a million people had already arrived and much of Washington - official and otherwise - had effectively shut down, leaving the streets elsewhere in the city eerily empty. The Million Man March drew more than a sprinkling of black women to the Capitol grounds and the National Mall. Cora Masters Barry, wife of Marion Barry, declared from the podium: "This is the prettiest sight I've ever seen in my entire life."

"I pray my multiracial and international friends will view this gathering as an opportunity for all men, but particularly men of African- American heritage, to make changes in their lives for the better," said Rosa Parks, who became known as the "mother of the civil rights movement" after her refusal in 1955 to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, became a cause celebre.

The ultimate hope, however, was reconciliation, a theme repeated time and again by President Clinton. Rejecting Mr Farrakhan's separatism, he urged the country to heal "the rift we see before us that is tearing at the heart of America" and unite the black and white worlds "at last into one America".

Atonement and gaiety, pages 10,11