A `million' black men march on the capital

WASHINGTON RALLY

JOHN CARLIN

Washington

"There is nothing more painful to me," Jesse Jackson said a couple of years ago, "than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then to look around and see someone white and feel relieved."

Mr Jackson's famously candid remark goes to the heart of the predicament black American men sought to address in their Million Man gathering in Washington yesterday. It also went to the heart of my predicament as I ventured, a solitary paleface, into the alien throng.

I was living, on the surface of things, white America's ultimate urban nightmare. Never mind the footsteps. I had black men to the right of me, black men to the left, black men behind and black men ahead. Hundreds of thousands of them flowing up and down the mile-long Mall, between the National Monument obelisk and the domed Capitol.

It felt comfortable. Conspicuous as I was, hardly anybody gave me a second glance. Those who did nodded and smiled, as if to reassure me. No one muttered a racist comment. I felt as if I'd stumbled into a giant family picnic.

Vendors sold T-shirts, car-stickers, necklaces and quasi-African medicinal potions. Every third man appeared to be holding a camera. One posed in front of the National Monument with a fist held high in a black power salute and a big grin on his face. The elderly men sat on the Mall's park benches; some of the younger ones lay down on the grass. A lot were eating hamburgers and hot dogs and chocolate biscuits.

After 10 minutes I saw my first white man, a beggar with three days' growth of beard and a torn baseball cap. He went up to a group of half a dozen young black men. He said something to them. One reached into a bag and handed him an apricot pie.

Then I saw a white policeman reclining on a motorbike. A young marcher greeted him and asked if he would pose for a picture. The policeman smiled, the young man held the policeman's hand in a comradely grip and another man took the photograph. So much for the all-policemen-are-racist-pigs conclusion that black people are supposed to have taken away from the OJ Simpson trial. A couple of other marchers observed the scene with quizzical disapproval, but there was no sign that they planned to exact any retribution, verbal or otherwise.

This was what the T-shirts said: "We've lost more brothers to our own than to the Klu Klux Klan"; "I am my brother's keeper"; "Dare to keep kids off drugs"; "The black man is back"; "If you think all black men are criminals, dope-pushers, wife-beaters

Half a dozen white demonstrators were standing under a tree, holding banners saying: "We are against all racism - black and white". Evidently they had a problem with Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader who organised yesterday's event. Black men shook their hands and posed for group pictures.

Attracting almost as much attention was a man in a suit wearing a yellow button which read "Operation Big Vote". He handed out forms and asked marchers to sit down for a minute and register to vote. Other "Operation Big Vote" activists were doing a busy trade all over the Mall amphitheatre.

If there was one thing these marchers were not doing, it was planning revolution. They were not bowing out of the system. They were gearing up to turn out in greater numbers at next year's presidential elections, thereby giving their stamp of legitimacy to the political establishment that some of their leaders so deride.

During the morning warm-ups, speakers whose faces nobody recognised kept up a constant babble. Some of them engaged in a little race-baiting: "We're not at work today. Mr Charlie's gotta find someone else to fix his garden today!" A nice lady from Operation Big Vote explained that "Mr Charlie" usually meant a white cop, but it could also just mean any white guy.

But most early speakerstapped into the benign mood of atonement and spiritual regeneration which, corny as it might sound, was the reason most men gave for turning up.

"The difference with 1963," one said, "is that we're dealing not with a physical problem - not with segregation - we're dealing with a mental and economic problem. We have to go away with a message of love. We have to go home to our families with love." Those listening in the crowd applauded.

Then I spoke to a couple of people. One was called Tom, the other Archie. Tom, 63, said he had been passed over for jobs all his life because of the colour of his skin. "I'm here because I don't want what happened to me to happen to any man of colour." Was he bitter? "Yes. I'm bitter, real bitter."

It was almost a relief to find someone who didn't sound as if he'd eaten happy pills for breakfast. But then Tom ruined it by saying that he had no problem with white folks in general, just some: "You know, the best friend I ever had was a white man from Brooklyn."

As for Archie, who was 32 and wore black glasses and a raincoat, he insisted that the march was "not about colour". Come again, I said. "No, it's not about colour and it's not about Islam and it's not about Farrakhan," explained Archie, who said he was an unpublished writer of short stories about the urban experience. "We're not going to behave in a racist way and stoop to the level of those we criticise. It's about dealing with ourselves. It's about recognising that black women have been the backbone of black men for too long. This is about saying to ourselves we must stand up on our own two feet and make our families and our communities fruitful."

Was it working? "I've never felt this electricity before. You see that guy over there? Ordinarily I would be afraid to catch his eye because he might attack me. Now, look, we smile."

Electricity was not really the word. The atmosphere was too mellow. It was a vast exercise in group therapy. Black American men were feeling good about themselves. They were hearing plenty of black footsteps, and they were not afraid.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
Sport
Hamilton runs down the back straight in the rain
F1
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing