Date: Mon, 23 Oct 1995 13:27:47 -0400
COPYRIGHT PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Woodstock with a difference—The Million Man March
By Sandy Close, Pacific News Service, 18 October 1995
EDITOR'S NOTE: Twenty six years after white American youth celebrated their vision of a counter-culture at Woodstock, black America held a Woodstock of its own on the Washington Mall. But while the Woodstock vision overdosed on Haight Street, black America's Woodstock discovered a different moral high. PNS executive editor Sandy Close has written about youth and racial politics for three decades.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Well before the pre-dawn chill had lifted, a young black man outfitted for the hood had already hugged six or seven black men he didn't know. He couldn't count the exact number. "I feel warm, I feel joy," he told a white reporter.
Twenty six years after a generation of white youth, estranged from mainstream America, gathered for a giant hug-in at Woodstock, black Americans held a Woodstock of their own at the Washington Mall. For many in non-black America, still enraged over the O.J. Simpson verdict, the Million Man March only intensified the racial polarization that has surfaced in the country in recent weeks. For the million-plus marchers, the mood of the march was joy, not protest and polarization.
First and foremost the march was not about black America's relations with other racial groups. It was about healing fissures within black America -- not only male against female, haves versus have-nots, political leaders versus private citizens but an older generation reared in the tradition of civil rights and a newer generation hardened by street wars against each other and the police.
Last week, the Sentencing Project reported that one out of three black Americans are caught up in the correctional system. Overwhelmingly, the Million Man Marchers represented the other two men. Sober suited, bearded, full-girthed, wearing African caps, the administrative law judge from Arlington, the former middle school principal from Savannah, the dentist from Oakland, the law student from Cleveland said they came to reclaim their place as elders in the community, in the school room, at the hearth.
Packed on the mall as tightly as passengers in a crowded elevator, the older men literally subsumed the stern looking teenagers, shrouded in their black knitted caps and raiders' jackets, in what one black woman participant called a "shield of love." "Giving my life back to you, giving us back to you," Stevie Wonder sang in the opening anthem of the day.
Here was Woodstock but with a crucial difference. At the 1969 gathering it was the young teaching the old -- or thumbing their nose at the old. At the mall, it was older black Americans embracing the young, restoring a sense of collective purpose to their lives.
The irony couldn't have been clearer. Barely two weeks after many in non-black America had decided that blacks were no longer capable of holding themselves morally accountable for individual acts of violence, a million plus men publicly acknowledged responsibility for black criminality and expressed their faith in the capacity of black America to redeem itself. Anger occasionally peppered the speeches from the podium. "We want one set of rules to apply," said one speaker, in a reference to the move to change jury trials in the wake of the O.J. trial. The more powerful message was what black men had to do for themselves. "In 1963, we came to ask something of government. Today we're here to ask something of ourselves," Kurt Shmoke, the mayor of Baltimore, told the marchers early in the day.
"The only thing I've heard about black men is that they drink, use drugs, do crime," said James Hall, the Savannah educator. "Well, here we are, a million or more of us in one place, and there's not a single negative act or hostile glance. The entire day, the only profanity I've heard is damn, as in d-a--a-m-n! If we can do this here, imagine what we can accomplish in our neighborhoods."
But the vision that captivated the marchers in the end went beyond the black community itself. While the politicians' speeches aired over CNN often spoke to the creation of black political agendas, the marchers on the ground spoke of how the individual private act could generate a new moral purpose for the country as a whole. "My sister will be a single mother next month -- now I'm going to be there for her kid," said Patrick, a sanitation worker from Washington. "There's no racial tone being presented. This is about men taking their place in society. Let's try to clean this place up and make America safer for all mankind."
The Million Man March played on TV and in much of the print media as a black event destined to fill non-black America with fear. Yet today America's most public acts of rage -- from Susan Smith to Oklahoma City and the Unabomber -- are identified with whites, not blacks.
The point of Woodstock was to celebrate youth, music and drugs -- the high of the moment. Woodstock's broader vision of building a counter culture died from an overdose on Haight Street. The Million Man Marchers also left in a mood of celebration, packing the club car of the Amtrak train back to New York and riffing about how the media had done the job for the organizers just when their PR money had run out.
Behind the humor was the unmistakable sense of having rediscovered their moral roots and authority. There's no way black America will o.d. on the moral high of the Million Man March.
(10181995) (c) COPYRIGHT PNS