WASHINGTON -- The biggest gathering of black Americans ever joined Louis Farrakhan at the Million Man March yesterday in an emotional pledge to strive for self-improvement and to forswear drugs and violence.
More than 400,000 people, nearly all black men, converged on the U.S. Capitol, according to U.S. Park Police estimates, for a day that was more spiritual revival than political demonstration. Organizers claimed that up to 2 million attended.
It was an unprecedented outpouring of black pride and a major achievement for Minister Farrakhan, who has growing influence among black Americans despite a record of anti-Jewish, anti-white rhetoric.
Minister Farrakhan spoke for more than two hours from the west front of the Capitol, attacking the "poisons" of white supremacy and black inferiority. In a conservative message, he urged African-Americans to embrace the traditional values of family and religion.
"Clean up, black man, and the world will respect and honor you," he said.
Black men came from all corners of the United States. Their voices, chants and songs echoed along The Mall, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond. The turnout easily surpassed that of the 1963 March on Washington, which drew about 250,000 -- black and white, men and women.
Whether the rally would have anywhere near the social impact of the 1963 event, which led to the passage of major civil rights legislation, was unclear. The leaders brought no legislative agenda to Washington, but they vowed to register millions of black voters.
In a rambling speech that touched on numerology, Egyptology and music theory, Minister Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, led black men through an eight-step program of atonement and castigated white America for a history of racism.
He said he had received the "call of God" to hold the march and at one point likened himself to biblical prophets. Part of the immense crowd drifted away during Minister Farrakhan's self-described "lecture," but many stayed with him until the final word.
"We are not here to tear down America," Minister Farrakhan said. "America is tearing itself down. We are here to rebuild."
'We all need this uplift'
Rick Sanders, 40, a paralegal from Shawnee, Okla., said after the speech: "This is something I needed. We all need this uplift."
"A lot of people think it's a race thing. It's more of a brotherhood. I believe most of the people here are engulfed in brotherhood and doing better -- something they've never felt and something someone should have told them a long time ago," he said.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume of West Baltimore, who made a two-minute speech, said afterward that he hoped the march would send a powerful message to the nation.
"More than anything, the march will say to America that there is from this point on a different manner of African-American men," he said. "I'm convinced we cannot effectively reach out to help our communities until we reach in and help ourselves."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore, who also made brief remarks, described the event as "one of the most uplifting experiences I've ever had." He came with his son, Gregory, 24, and a delegation of city officials.
Mr. Schmoke won applause when he told the crowd: "I was here in 1963 as a teen-ager. At that time, we were to ask something of the government. Today, we ask nothing of the government; we ask everything of ourselves."
He then asked neighbors to grasp hands and repeat: "Brother, my brother, let's get busy."
Stand up and be counted
There was a sense that the most important statement of the day was to simply stand up on The Mall and be counted. The atmosphere was upbeat but sober. Red, black and green liberation flags waved in the stiff breeze.
From atop the 550-foot-high Washington Monument, the view was of a dense crowd close to the Capitol steps, smaller crowds near the giant video screens and steady streams of people walking on The Mall and crowding the concession area on Constitution Avenue.
One man emerged from the Smithsonian Metro station, surveyed the scene and said in awe: "It's a new generation."
Nearby, a 10-member Fruit of Islam drill team went through precision moves. In mid-afternoon, Nation of Islam security men passed cardboard boxes through the crowd and men stuffed them with dollars.
Norman Bradfield, 59, of Dayton, Ohio, made the 10-hour bus trip to Washington with his 17-year-old son, also named Norman.
"I'm so glad I came, I don't know what to do," Mr. Bradfield said. "It may happen again, but it won't be in my lifetime."
He called Minister Farrakhan "probably the only African-American the United States that could have called the march and got people to come. Farrakhan isn't controlled by any establishment. He don't have to bow."
Victoria Hammond and Asher Lockhart, both 19-year-old George Washington University students, stood at a respectful distance as Minister Farrakhan led the men in a mass prayer at the end of his speech. The students, who are white, said they sensed no hostility in the crowd.
"It's amazing the fact that a million and a half people are here, and they are all unified, and there is no violence, and now they are holding hands," Ms. Hammond said. "It's very profound."
While the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson made a 23-minute speech that was warmly applauded, the day clearly belonged to Minister Farrakhan.
Leonard F. Muhammad, Minister Farrakhan's chief of staff, made sure that the crowd understood who was in charge. "Brothers, we love the messenger. We love Louis Farrakhan because without him none of us would be here today," he said.
Dupree Thornton, 43, of Baltimore brought his son, Eliot, 12, an eighth-grader at Roland Park Middle School.
"It's not going to do anything in itself," said Mr. Thornton, marketing director for a black-owned construction company. "But if they come and stand tall, maybe they can go back to their communities and begin something."
"It doesn't make a difference to me if it's Farrakhan or Joseph Kahn, the idea is good," he said.
Starting out early
Thousands of black men -- and some women -- had descended on the Capitol by 5 a.m., when the program was scheduled to begin. The sound of hammering echoed through the darkness as carpenters finished the stage. Men huddled in the 45-degree chill and listened to an impromptu group of African drummers.
The talk was of black unity, and spirits were high.
Carter Howard, 38, a Middleburg, Va., businessman, shopped for a T-shirt by the reflecting pool with his sons Tyrone, 18, and Maurice, 16. He bought one for $10 that pictured Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
"We can be as one," Mr. Howard said. "This is what it's all about when you get brothers together. When my children get old, they can remember and say, 'Dad took me here.' "
Charlie Crump, 47, a union carpenter from Port Chester, N.Y., had a front-row spot. He said he arrived about 4:30 a.m.
"I just want to be here. This is the most positive energy I have felt in my entire life," he said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else today. If I have to stand for 12 or 14 hours, I'm going to be right here."
Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" boomed from the sound system, which cranked up at 5:50 a.m. The program itself began at 7:10 a.m. with Muslim prayers as the day dawned crisp and clear.
Music leavened the long series of speeches. A gentle moment came before noon when thousands of men, fists raised respectfully in the air, sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the "black national anthem."
Speakers stood behind a partition of transparent, bulletproof plastic in the same place where Republicans signed their "Contract with America" a year ago.
Although Minister Farrakhan had asked women to stay home to teach their children, the crowd was sprinkled with women. Jolynn Brooks, 44, of Washington said no one had criticized her presence.
"We are proud of and love black men," she said. "The brothers understand why we're here. There is no animosity, none at all."
Some men made long journeys to support the march.
Johnnie Beamon, 30, got off a bus after a 22-hour, 906-mile ride from Quincy, Fla., a town of 7,400 just west of Tallahassee. The bus broke down for more than five hours in Santee, S.C., but the trip brought the group of 27 men and two women closer, he said.
"I want to experience it and see men come together and be men," said Mr. Beamon, a hospital rehabilitation specialist. "We could get off the bus, stand there awhile and leave, and I'd be happy."
The event sparked much talk of race on television and radio. Mainstream black leaders split on supporting an event promoted by the Nation of Islam leader, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Urban League and National Baptist Convention all withholding endorsement.
The talk of radio and TV
Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and a potential president candidate, said in a CBS-TV interview that he stayed away for fear his "presence on the stage with Farrakhan would give him a level of credibility I would not like to have seen."
General Powell added: "I wish somebody else had thought of the idea of a Million Man March other than Minister Farrakhan. He did it. It's taken root. I think those [marchers] who are in Washington can do something positive. We should try to find out what's positive in this rather than grind on the controversy as to who started it, who didn't."
The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the march's national director, struck a defiant tone in an early-morning pep talk to the crowd.
"I intend to stand with Minister Farrakhan all the days of my life," said Dr. Chavis, who was fired last year as the NAACP's executive director. "We're not going to allow anybody to tell us who our leaders are."