Yesterday morning, 400,000 black men arrived in Washington, D.C., for atonement and spiritual rejuvenation, the doors opened for business as usual at Garrison Middle School, Garrison Boulevard and Barrington Road in Northwest Baltimore. There are 830 students there. On a normal day, about 750 show up. Yesterday, there were 200.
"The others went to the march?" the principal, Malcum Dates, was asked now.
"No," he said. "But they're sympathetic. Education's important, but the march is education, too. It's a historic event."
The school was known as Garrison Junior High back when Dates and I were students there. I graduated in 1960, Dates a year later. Back then, the school was racially balanced almost equally. This was called integration. Today, there is one white student at Garrison, a seventh-grader. This is called routine in the city's schools. The system's 80 percent black, and the preponderance of white students tends to be clustered at a handful of schools.
In Washington yesterday, there were no white people in the vast gathering, though some in the crowd compared the event to 1963's great march, when Martin Luther King dreamed of an integrated America. It was such a marvelous, uplifting vision that it sustained a lot of us for the next three decades, even as many of the old racial wounds failed to heal. And yesterday, there was Louis Farrakhan, who does not share the dream articulated by King.
"It was different back in our time, yes," Malcum Dates was saying yesterday in his school office. "We were concerned with integration. These kids are concerned with economics. We were trying to learn to get along with other ethnic groups. They're worried about buying school lunches now."
In our time at Garrison, the country seemed filled with racial promise. Dates comes from that initial generation of black Baltimore youngsters to attend integrated schools. Garrison Junior High drew from the surrounding neighborhoods, which were taking in the first wave of middle class black families. Today, from those same neighborhoods, about 65 percent of the kids at Garrison need government assistance to buy their lunches.
In our time, no one imagined this kind of distant future. Those black kids were going to be doctors and lawyers. Today, some of them are. But 65 percent of black children grow up in single-parent families today. Black men are eight times more likely than whites to be murdered. Usually, it's another black doing the murdering, not some white lynch mob. A third of black men in their 20s are living under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. And the narcotics traffic fuels all of this, one generation following another.
But, to all of this, the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke yesterday of the unfairness of courts that give heavy time for crack but mere probation for powdered cocaine. On a day of spiritual renewal, shouldn't the message be: Give up all drugs? He said Louis Farrakhan didn't organize this rally, Clarence Thomas and Newt Gingrich did, just as Bull Connor did in '63. It's a good line, but it was the poisonous Farrakhan addressing the nation yesterday, not the poisonous Gingrich.
This was billed as a day of atonement, a moment to cast aside sins, to begin building families and teaching discipline and turning from violence. But sometimes, the message seemed lost.
Even before Farrakhan's arrival, there were sneers at whites, at Jews, at the media. Racism was strictly one-way, said former Rep. Gus Savage, of Illinois. "We don't have enough power to be racist," he told the crowd, "and whites have too much power not to be." Oh? An aide to Farrakhan told a reporter that Jews should "go to hell" and be prepared "for war." Is this what's called atonement?
In his office at Garrison Middle School, Malcum Dates leaned back in his chair yesterday. He remembered when he first arrived at the school in 1958 and found classmates who were white.
"Those days were positive," he said, "because I could compare my culture with other kids. I could draw on the richness of other cultures. We learned respect for each other. We saw that our similarities were greater than our differences."
In Washington, such memories seemed a little vague yesterday. And, for the moment, it leaves those of us who still believe in Dr. King's dream wondering if it's still valid for those who responded to the invitation of Farrakhan, or if it's now seen as some dusty museum relic, nice to be dusted off once in a while but too outdated to be workable.