People, black and white, say that the throngs of upstanding black men at the Million Man March showed a picture of the Black Man different from what the nation is accustomed to. Because this has always been my primary image of the Black Man—the men in my family, my father, his friends, my friends, total strangers at traffic lights, and sometimes even myself—what struck me was not the vast crowd’s proud demeanor or the insult that the crowd’s peacefulness was a pleasant surprise to most whites and to some blacks, but that the black men deserved a message more worthy of their journey than the numerology and self-election of Louis Farrakhan.
It was not a civil rights march, or even a march, though one Nation of Islam spokesman said on television that it was a march in Washington rather than a march on Washington. As more than one of the day’s speechmakers insisted, they had come neither to demand nor to ask anything of government and whites. They had come for themselves and to ask something of themselves. It was billed as a day of atonement and reconciliation. It was a mass rally, a religious convocation, a camp revival meeting on a grand scale, with some competition among the speechmakers to see who could blow the emotional lid off the patient multitudes. Perhaps those black men and the women mingling among them—1.5 million, 2 million, 400,000, 870,000?—came to experience just what it felt like to be in command of that place where history had been made a few times before. A lot of those present on October 16, 1995, had not been born in 1963.
“Thank God it’s not a million white men marching on Washington,” a white Englishman had said to me. The mean country South of the song “I’m coming with my razor and my gun” was all that had been radiating from Capitol Hill for months. On the shuttle on Sunday, the day before the March, a black youth dressed in immaculate baggy white, including a white knit cap, did not address a word to me across the empty seat, nor I to him, as if in the commuter privacy of laptops and phone calls made from the air we had succumbed, as usual, to the inhibition of being outnumbered. Then, too, I worried that he would think it presumptuous of me to assume that just because he was young, chic, and black he was on his way to the March.
Washington, D.C., is a predominantly black city and a large percentage of its population lives below the poverty line. After the emancipated slaves came to town, Congress periodically addressed poverty’s look. Jacob Riis was brought in at the turn of the century, legislators were taken on tours of alleys, told that those were the same flies that landed on their sandwiches back at the club, and during World War I the first …