Next week's Million Man March of black males is causing apprehension among whites and uncertainty among African-Americans. One result, however, seems sure: a much bigger role in the country's fraught civil rights debate for the march's prime organiser, Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and de facto leader of the radical black movement.
Only a humiliatingly low turnout stands between Mr Farrakhan and success. But even if the march fails to live precisely up to its name, charter plane and bus bookings across the country suggest it may top the 250,000 who took part in Dr Martin Luther King's celebrated March on Washington in 1963 - and possibly the estimated 600,000 who attended the biggest anti-Vietnam War rally here in November 1969.
But the question which dominates the uneasy run-up to Monday's big event is another: whether the Farrakhan on show will be the militant of old, best known for snarling rhetoric, frequent anti-Semitism, and thinly veiled contempt for women's and gay rights - or a leader capable of channelling black America's grievances and frustrations to productive ends.
Hence the ambivalence about the occasion, from the White House down. President Bill Clinton has no quarrel with many of Mr Farrakhan's goals: to tackle black America's crime, drugs and broken families head-on. The problem lies with the messenger, as Mike McCurry, the President's spokesman made brutally clear, describing some of Mr Farrakhan's past statements as "bordering on the disgusting".
Pointedly, the White House has not given black staff the day off to attend. And as Washington city officials braced for a day of massive disruption, aides yesterday let it be known that Mr Clinton plans a major speech on frayed US race relations very soon, perhaps at a long-scheduled appearance in Dallas on Monday itself.
And imponderables abound: Will the march remain faithful to its declared goal of "atonement", or will it turn into a giant protest, birth of a new black militancy in the image of Mr Farrakhan? What will be the chemistry with the OJ Simpson affair? And, not least, who will attend?
One person who definitely will not be there is General Colin Powell, author and possible presidential candidate, who has pleaded previously scheduled engagements to promote his book. But his absence is hardly surprising; in political terms Mr Powell counts as a white, as a remarkable poll this week underlined. Among whites, General Powell leads Mr Clinton 54-37 in a theoretical presidential contest. Among blacks, Mr Clinton wins 68-25.
Given the media frenzy that would ensue, speculation that the freshly acquitted OJ will show up seems excessive. More plausible is the presence of his chief defence attorney, Johnnie Cochran, the new hero of black America, who was wont to arrive at court in Los Angeles recently surrounded by Nation of Islam bodyguards.Reuse content