Million Man March

Los Angeles Times , October 18, 1995

I was in Washington, quite by accident, for the Million Man March. And it was great.

It was supposed to be awful, of course. Terrifying. Hate-filled. Outright dangerous to the likes of me. Something to be condemned and avoided.

A lawyer friend said she worried about going downtown to work; she was afraid shooting would break out. Most of my Monday appointments canceled, or asked that I meet them a safe distance from our office at 10th and Pennsylvania, just a few blocks from the main event. One Republican operative, a prominent moderate, told me that a friend on the D.C. police force had warned her away--fearing not traffic snarls but physical danger: "Tell that woman [me] to meet you someplace else," he said. When I got to work shortly after 9 a.m., our office building's doors were locked, a safety precaution usually reserved for well after hours.

Those of us who dared show our lily white faces on the sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue or the subways and airport shuttle buses packed with black men did indeed find a city transformed. But it wasn't the city we'd been warned against.

Washington was happier than usual, friendlier, upbeat. People smiled at each other across subway cars. Older white women gave solicitous directions to polite young black men. Fathers strolled the streets with their sons. Strangers engaged in significant small talk. It felt like an old-fashioned holiday--festive and patriotic, meaningful and fun.

My seatmate on the bus to Dulles Airport was a young attorney flying back to Columbus, Ohio, from an exhausting but exhilarating day. He'd come alone--his friends couldn't get off work--but met lots of people. "Everybody was really friendly," he said. He didn't approve of excluding women, or (he muttered, more to himself than to me) of Louis Farrakhan. "Mistakes," he said. But the march had become something much bigger than Farrakhan, something that emerged from the community of a million men.

As we walked from the bus to the terminal, Fred Peavy, a marketing and promotions consultant from Chicago, struck up a conversation--not the sort of thing departing strangers usually do. But outreach was in the air; these homebound marchers were in a very good mood. Peavy said he thought the march was the greatest thing African-Americans had ever done. It was a tremendous event, an important proclamation of responsibility--for family, for community, for personal destiny.

Why, then, did the press have to portray it so negatively? Why did reporters and commentators describe it as a divisive? I was a political writer--what did I think?

I had no good answer. There is, I said, a lot of paranoia among both blacks and whites. Neither group is as scary, or as hostile, as the other thinks. But those perceptions shape the stories journalists tell.

And, watching speeches on C-SPAN, hearing Farrakhan and some of his even more radical followers resonate with the rhetoric of white evil and black anger, I can see why some reporters tell the negative story, why some commentators worry. I'd worry too if I hadn't been there, hadn't seen marchers with my own eyes, hadn't experienced so much good will.

Reporters focus on center stage, on "leaders" and official spokespeople. And often they miss the real story--whether the leaders in question are Fortune 500 CEOs speaking for "business" or Farrakhans speaking for "black America." The complex patterns that emerge from individual thoughts and actions are less predictable than the simple stories leaders tell. And it is in such complexity that community strength is born.

The marchers were wiser than the commentators and more powerful than their would-be leaders. They took the event from its organizers, made it their own, turned it into a grassroots affirmation of the strength, dignity, and hope of African-American men. They neither repudiated Farrakhan nor embraced him. They simply swamped him, made him a tiny piece of their much larger story.

The march's greatest effect was, no doubt, on the men who participated. But the huge assembly sent two powerful messages to the rest of America: that it is dangerous to associate strength with irresponsibility and that it is deeply wrong to cast black men in general as malicious, anti-social, or criminal.

It would be a tragedy if the overheated rhetoric of the march's "leaders" drowns out the positive message of the men whose presence made it happen. And it would be a betrayal of these fellow Americans if whites insist on making the marchers bad guys, insist on seeing hostility where it does not exist, insist on making the Million Man March a story about us.

"What did you find?" Fred Peavy asked me in the airport. "What story will you tell?"

Simply this: that the march was bigger than any person, however demagogic; that it was a positive day for America; that I saw no angry faces on the streets of Washington; and that I was never, for one minute, afraid.