WASHINGTON -- Black men from across the nation strolled The Mall yesterday and snapped up commemorative T-shirts on the eve of the Million Man March as Louis Farrakhan, keynote speaker at today's show of black unity, canceled all of yesterday's appearances due to "exhaustion."
Today's gathering of black men will take place in the shadow of the Capitol. It is billed as "A Holy Day of Atonement and Reconciliation," a chance for black men to recommit to support their families and communities.
The event, which is not really a march, is scheduled to begin at dawn with prayers and African drumming. It will continue with music and speakers such as poet Maya Angelou, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Minister Farrakhan. No detailed program was released.
About 6,000 people, including Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., attended a spirited pre-march rally last night at the Washington Convention Center. Many women were in the crowd.
Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, defended the idea of a men-only march.
"If you can have a world women's conference in Beijing, China, you certainly can have a million-man march," she said to cheers. "We know the world is in crisis, and nobody is going to come to our rescue but us."
Minister Farrakhan's physician, Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, said in an interview yesterday that the 62-year-old Nation of Islam leader "is in good health; he was just exhausted." He said Minister Farrakhan would be at full throttle today for the gathering, which is expected to draw a quarter-million men or more.
"We made the decision [Saturday] night to cancel his schedule," said Dr. Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's minister of health. "He needed a full day's rest. We all ganged up on him."
Minister Farrakhan canceled appearances on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" and CNN's "Both Sides Now," of which Mr. Jackson is the host.
Last-minute preparations for the event continued yesterday. The Mall, the 2-mile-long park that extends from the west front of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, was dotted with sound systems, video screens, portable toilets, television satellite trucks and entrepreneurs trying to cash in.
Fatin Dantzler, 21, of Atlanta, sold event T-shirts that asked, "How Many Black Men Must Die Before We Unify?"
Vance Collins, 26, of Los Angeles, hawked a sardonic one: "LAPD War Zone: So Many Suspects. So Little Time."
"They do mess with every black man they see on the street," Mr. Collins said of the Los Angeles Police Department.
But the tone along The Mall on a brilliant autumn Sunday was one of celebration, not protest. Black men photographed and videotaped one another for posterity. Total strangers called each other "brother" or "black man."
"I'm not sure whether it will change anything, but I think it's a good idea for brothers to get together and network with each other," Mr. Dantzler said. "Together is the only way to make a difference and make a change."
James Woody, 46, a Cleveland construction worker, brought daughter Angela, 13, and son Michael, 11, to Washington "to let them see firsthand."
"We're here to take unity and pride back to the black community," Mr. Woody said. "We plan to go home and run those drug dealers off the streets. We need to do things for ourselves, stand up as black men and be counted, support our kids and our communities."
Such black organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and the National Baptist Convention did not endorse the event largely because of differences with Minister Farrakhan.
"History will show it's a mistake," Mr. Woody said. "I don't care who's leading the pack. If it brings positive things to the black community, so be it. We need all black groups to work together to help keep these kids' minds straight."
Minister Farrakhan's leadership of the march posed a political dilemma for black leaders. Those who endorsed the march, such as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Rep. Kweisi Mfume, insist that it transcends the Nation of Islam leader.
"There are some people who are going to view this as the !B Farrakhan march, and nothing that I can say will change their minds about that," Mr. Schmoke said last week. "But I think most people who are looking at this event are beginning to understand that the reason it is gaining momentum is the idea and not the man."
The mayor plans to attend with his son, Gregory, and four busloads of city employees, who are taking personal leave days.
"The real deal is this: Whether you're a Muslim named Farrakhan whether you're a Christian named Schmoke, you're still black," the mayor said. "And we recognize the positives and the negatives that have come out about our presence here in this country, and we feel that the positives far outweigh the negatives and it is time to assert those positives."
Mr. Jackson, who supports the event, squared off yesterday with Rep. Gary A. Franks, a black Connecticut Republican who opposes it, on "Meet the Press." Mr. Jackson said it was no more wrong for him to appear with Minister Farrakhan than it was for Mr. Franks to go to GOP conventions with arch-conservatives such as Sens. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.
Mr. Franks insisted: "You cannot separate the message from the messenger. In reality, this is an event about promoting Louis Farrakhan."
But Mr. Jackson said: "If these men go home with a renewed commitment to direct action and voter registration it will change the course of history."
Organizers said they wanted House Speaker Newt Gingrich to see the gathering of black men from his office window. But the House of Representatives won't be in session today. The Senate won't convene either. Sen. Bob Dole said staff members might not have been able to reach the Capitol.