The Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan's plan for a huge rally on Washington's Mall to show America "a vastly different picture of the black male," has grown into an event with support from well beyond the black separatist leader's circle.
Mainstream leaders such as the Congressional Black Caucus, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke have endorsed the Oct. 16 march. Organizing efforts across the nation are rooted in black churches as well as Minister Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.
The event is billed as a "Holy Day of Atonement and Reconciliation." Blacks who don't attend are urged to stay home from school, work, shopping and sports.
"We believe that as men, we must recognize and unconditionally atone for our absence, in too many cases, of the black male as the head of the household, positive role model and builder of our community," Minister Farrakhan has said. "We believe that we must atone for, and establish positive solutions to, the abuse and misuse of our women and girls."
Just how big or how significant the march will be is still guesswork. March organizers maintain that more than 10,000 buses will clog the nation's capital that Monday, and that 1,000 vendors will cater to huge crowds along Constitution Avenue.
Government planners can't say whether the rally will draw more than a small fraction of its million-man goal -- which could only be reached if one of every 15 black males in the nation, including children, attended.
But Sandra Alley of the National Park Service said: "It definitely will be a major demonstration."
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the West Baltimore Democrat, said he expects the crowd to top the 250,000 who attended the 1963 March on Washington, the nation's largest civil rights demonstration. Mr. Mfume said he will speak at the event. "This march for African-American men is the first real step for assuming greater responsibility in our homes, in our communities and in our nation," Mr. Mfume said. "It is an act of solidarity among black men that has never been witnessed before."
Joseph E. Madison, a Washington radio talk show host, said he knew something noteworthy was brewing when old friends called to say they were coming. His Oct. 16 guest list includes a Chicago drug rehabilitation counselor, the assistant manager of an Atlanta health club, a Dayton, Ohio, attorney, and a human rights official from Saginaw, Mich.
"These are people who for the most part aren't politically active," he said. "They all believe it's time for African-American men to stand up and take charge and declare who they are, instead of having someone else identify us."
In Los Angeles, members of two black gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, have stood on corners with cans to raise money for air fare, said Chilton Alphonse, executive director of the Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation in South Central Los Angeles.
In Dallas, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, said "several bus loads" of men are preparing to make a $125 bus trip to Washington.
"It really represents for the first time in 30 years the opportunity to be part of a bellwether movement," he said. "It is not a protest march. No one is going with hat in hand to Congress or corporate America. There's a real sense of strength that is attractive."
Minister Farrakhan started promoting the event early in 1994 during a 13-city series of men-only rallies. He urged Baltimore men in June 1994 to join the march to demand reparations for slavery because "America owes us something for what she's put us through."
The reparations theme has disappeared as the event has become more mainstream. Speakers are expected to urge blacks to vote, decry congressional attempts to cut social programs and attack the Supreme Court's assault on affirmative action.
The march is, in fact, a rally. Speakers are scheduled to address the throng from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. from a stage on the west lawn of the Capitol -- visible from House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office, organizers say. A final list of speakers has not been released.
Several aspects of the event are controversial:
* The leadership: Minister Farrakhan has a record of anti-Jewish and anti-white statements. His fellow organizer, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., was fired last year as NAACP executive director after secretly authorizing up to $332,400 in payments to a former female aide who threatened a sexual-harassment suit.
The Anti-Defamation League has run newspaper ads calling the march "the largest event led by an anti-Semite in recent American history" and asking: "What if a white supremacist called for a march on Washington?"
The National Urban League has not endorsed the march because of "philosophical differences" with Minister Farrakhan. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has withheld support, partly because of differences with Dr. Chavis. Two black Baptist conventions oppose the march on religious grounds.
But the event has attracted a long list of endorsements ranging from the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Council of Negro Women to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Participants who are uncomfortable with the leaders contend that the Million Man March's message overshadows its messengers.
While Baltimore billboards feature Minister Farrakhan's visage and bill him as leader of the event, recent publicity does not include his photo.
"This march is bigger than any individual, and it's truly taken on a personality of its own," said Mr. Madison, who was Dr. Chavis' nemesis on the NAACP board.
Julian Bond, a veteran civil rights leader, acknowledged the march was a "coup" for Minister Farrakhan.
"The march has succeeded in bringing some mainstream leaders to it and, by implication, to him. I don't think people are embracing him but embracing the march. But it will be seen as embracing him," Mr. Bond said.
* The role of women: Minister Farrakhan has asked women to play a support role -- "to be with our children teaching them the value of home, self-esteem, family and unity" -- and to let black men take center stage. But women are helping organize the march, and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and poet Maya Angelou are expected to speak.
Linda Williams, acting chair of the University of Maryland's African-American studies program, said she wants the march to succeed, but that she is troubled by women's secondary role: "At no time in the 20th century have we had a march that excluded more than half the race," she said.
* The money: Participants who register by mail are being asked to pay $10 plus $1 shipping and handling. Those who register by phone are asked to call a 900 number that plays a "three-minute message from Minister Farrakhan" and bills them $3.99 a minute. Vendors are being charged $1,000 per space ($700 if they sign up by today ).
Organizers say the fees are necessary to defray the estimated $3.5 million cost of the event and are a sign of black economic self-reliance.
* The results: Even avid supporters fear the event will be an empty exercise unless it prompts more blacks to vote, to do community work and to build businesses.
"If the gathering leaves and nothing happens, it's a parade," Mr. Jackson has said. "If they leave and something happens, it's a movement. The commitment is to make it a movement."