Black men, embittered by their past but hopeful for their future, are expected to gather by the tens of thousands on Washington's Mall tomorrow to make a vow of self-reliance and to demand that the nation accord them some respect.
The Million Man March, brainchild of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, will be an unusually inward-looking Washington demonstration by brethren long consigned to the bottom of America's social ladder, organizers say.
"We're going to lay some demands on the government and corporate America, but the primary demands are the demands we're making on ourselves as black men to take greater responsibility for our families and communities," said the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the march's national director.
If the march succeeds in drawing more than 250,000 people to Washington, as insiders expect, the size of the rally will reflect the enormity of the problems facing black men in America and the toll those ills have taken on the African-American family.
Clearly, many black men have prospered in the generation since the civil rights movement opened greater opportunities to African-Americans. In Maryland alone, about a quarter of black households -- nearly 100,000 -- had income of $50,000 or more, according to the 1990 census.
But by almost any group measure, black men in America are in trouble:
* Black men live eight years less on average than white men (64.5 years and 72.7 years, respectively).
* Black men are eight times as likely as white men to be homicide victims; more than 10,000 are killed every year.
* Black men are twice as likely as white men to be jobless (9.6 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively, last month) and, on average, earn only 70 percent of what white men do.
* More black men are in prison cells than in college classrooms. Black men, who make up 6 percent of the U.S. population, account for 30 percent of all arrests but less than 2 percent of all newly minted Ph.D.'s.
The ef-fects on the African-American family are devastating:
* Nearly 70 percent of all black babies are born to unmarried women; more than half of black children live with their mothers only.
* About a third of black families live in poverty, more than three times the rate of white families.
* Black families have, on average, barely one-tenth the assets -- savings, stocks, bonds, property -- of white families. Fewer than half of black families are homeowners, compared to more than two-thirds of whites.
The statistics only partly explain why the march, with its emphases on racial pride and self-help, has struck a resonant chord.
"A lot of it has to do with dignity," said Ronald Walters, chairman of Howard University's political science department. "The black male has been vilified to a great extent in terms of job opportunities, education, image, you name it.
"On the whole, black males have attempted to assume their responsibilities. This is a way to recommit them to that."
Darryl R. Matthews, executive director of Alpha Phi Alpha, a Baltimore-based national fraternity of black collegians, said: "When the only images you see of African-American men at 6 and 11 o'clock are of them being arrested, on the ground being handcuffed, and you don't have much exposure to groups like mine or other role models, you might paint the race with sweeping generalizations.
"When you walk down the street in a white shirt, suit and tie, and the elderly white ladies grab their purse and move out of the way, you get the message that there's little difference between you and that criminal," he said.
Jacques Dorsey, 35, who lives in Baltimore County, said he was treated better by whites when he lived in Europe while in the military.
"Black men in this society are dogged, looked down upon," said Mr. Dorsey, a security supervisor. "White America thinks we're inferior. This is largely because of the media. All they see of black people on TV is crime."
Devron Moten, 23, of Pikesville said black men are unjustly feared by society.
"They look at crime, and they think we're the basis of crime. And we're not," said Mr. Moten, a barber at Parker's Barbershop on Reisterstown Road.
Current events add up
Dr. Chavis said political events -- Republican attacks on social programs, Supreme Court rulings against majority-black congressional districts and minority set-asides, and the O. J. Simpson trial -- "created a historic setting where the ethos of the Million Man March has been embraced by a broader segment of black Americans."
The all-day gathering is billed as "A Holy Day of Atonement and Reconciliation." While speakers will defend affirmative action and promote voter registration, Dr. Chavis said the event would be more spiritual than political, a sort of heart-to-heart, man-to-man talk.
"What's going to excite the crowd is talking about God, talking about atonement, talking about reconciling differences," he said.
It will be a day in which black men will affirm their responsibilities to black women and children.
"The only thing black men have to atone for is not recognizing they have the strength to get themselves out of poverty and take care of their families," Mr. Dorsey said.
'Atoning to God'
Some supporters, like Dr. Walters, believe that the atonement theme risks blaming black victims of white racism for their own problems.
"The irony for many of us," Dr. Walters said, "is that these are themes that play into the conservative politics of the age." The conservative view holds that black men should stop complaining about racism and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
But Dr. Chavis said: "We're not atoning to the oppressor; we're atoning to God."
The former NAACP executive director, fired in 1994 after allegedly mishandling funds to settle a threatened sexual harassment lawsuit, said the event will reconnect the civil rights movement to its spiritual roots.
After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, "we literally put God out of the movement and became secularized. We became rather impotent," Dr. Chavis said. "We achieved a dramatic increase in the number of black elected officials, but the overall socioeconomic condition of black people has not substantially changed."
The tone of the march should be "representative of the sentiments of black America," he said. "We should not hide our anger. We should not pretend we're satisfied. On the other hand, there should be humility. The dignity and integrity of black manhood will be on display."
Stop the implosions
Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman and civil rights activist, said the Million Man March was an antidote to "the sheer hopelessness some men are expressing. Thirty years ago, that hopeless manifested itself in explosions. Thirty years later, it's implosions, the self-destructive behavior we see: black-on-black crime, drug and alcohol abuse."
Despite many blacks' reservations about Minister Farrakhan's leadership, Mr. Snowden said: "This is the only idea that struck any response. The truth is, nobody came up with a better idea. People need some way to express themselves, some outlet to ventilate."
The march has already succeeded in giving hope to some black Americans who thirst for unity among their leaders and in their neighborhoods.
"It will show that we won't be caught up in titles -- Muslims, Christian, Jehovah Witness, light-skinned or dark-skinned," said Shaheed Shabazz, 30, of West Baltimore. "It will show that we can cry on each others' shoulders and still be men."
Romanuel Boice, 31, a city Housing Authority employee, received a march flier from a Nation of Islam member during a canvass of the Murphy Homes public housing development. Mr. Boice, who said he's an ex-convict, plans to attend because the march will send black men a message of self-determination.
"I believe it's going to be a heart-spoken message," he said. "A lot of people want to do something positive, but they think doors are closed to them."
A skeptic blames cocaine
But Winnie Dansbury, a 20-year-old Park Heights man, said the march will prove nothing.
"I'd love for black people to get together, but I don't think that's going to happen," Mr. Dansbury said while visiting his sister at the McCulloh Homes, where a 22-year-old man was fatally shot two days earlier.
"There's too much cocaine in the black community."
To some, the Million Man March sounds much like the assemblies of the Promise Keepers, an evangelical Christian group whose confessional, men-only rallies pack stadiums across the country. The Promise Keepers hope to bring 1 million men to Washington in 1997.
But the Rev. Edward V. Hill, a Los Angeles pastor who preaches at the events, said: "The Promise Keepers crosses all racial and denominational lines, but it is strictly Christian. There's no parallel with the Million Man March."
Mr. Hill added that if Minister Farrakhan was encouraging black men to look after their families, that was a worthy message, if not a popular one.
"When you start telling men they have not been responsible, you're not going to get a whole lot of shouting," he said. "It's not a unique message. It's heard in the pulpit every Sunday."