WASHINGTON -- They spoke to a man and a nation. They welcomed African-Americans to the Million Man March with a call for action. They warned millions of other Americans that they will unite against the forces that seek to divide the black community.
In sermons and speeches, poetry and song, march organizers and the collection of African-Americans brought to the podium urged their black brothers to atone for their sins and change their ways. They demanded the same of white America that refuses to give blacks their due.
From the leader of the Nation of Islam who called for this march to a 10-year-old Maryland girl who recited a poem, the speakers offered hope and inspiration, encouragement and critiques, life lessons and lectures to a crowd on The Mall mall and the nation at large.
Violence in America, the arrogance of power, white supremacy, the O. J. Simpson case, voter registration, the victimization of blacks, the racial divide, the 1996 elections, the healing power of God -- these were among the issues of which they spoke.
"It is very, very important that the signal that gets sent from this place today is one that says to the world that we are about changing our reality, politically, economically and socially in this country," said Leonard Muhammad, the chief of staff for the Nation of Islam, "and it's going to take all of us working together to do that."
Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam and the keynote speaker, devoted much of his talk to the racial division America. "There's still two Americas, one black, one white, separate and unequal," he said. He blamed the racial problems of today on white supremacy, "the idea that undergirds the set-up of the Western World."
"White supremacy is the enemy of both white people and black people. White supremacy has to die for humanity to live," Minister Farrakhan said.
Minister Farrakhan, criticized for anti-Semitic remarks, also reached out to Jews yesterday and called for a dialogue.
"I don't like this squabble with the members of the Jewish community," Minister Farrakhan told a crowd estimated at 400,000 by U.S. Park Police. "If the dialogue is proper, then we might be able to end the pain, and ending the pain may be good for both, and ultimately for the nation."
Minister Farrakhan may have been the speaker most touted yesterday. But he followed a long list of speechmakers.
They represented African-Americans' successes and sorrows -- civil rights legend Rosa Parks shared the stage with gang leaders from Chicago and Los Angeles.
Their voices quoted Scripture and African proverbs. They invoked the words of the founding fathers and the children of slaves. They spoke eloquently and angrily of black men killing black men, dope dealers poisoning the young, fathers neglecting their children.
They railed against an America that imprisons more black men than it educates. They criticized politicians who seek to undermine the achievements of the civil rights movement. Black women who spoke praised their sisters and offered support to the black men in their lives and before them on The Mall.
Often yesterday, the speechmakers used history to provide a cultural and social context for the day's activities.
The opening refrain of a poem recited by poet Maya Angelou eloquently characterized the struggle of black Americans: "The night has been long. The wound has been deep. The pit has been dark. And the walls have been steep."
But her poem also spoke of redemption: "The hells we have lived through and lived through still have sharpened our senses and toughened our will I know with each other we can make ourselves whole."
Dr. Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, referred to the march as a first step in "self-determination."
Bob Law, a radio talk show host from New York, reminded participants that "we are here to examine the content of our character."
And in doing so, Author Jawanza Kunjufu called his brothers to action in support of black youth. Tutor black boys, take them through a rite of passage in the example of their African ancestors, Mr. Kunjufu told the crowd.
Others had their own agendas.
Marion S. Barry Jr., the mayor of Washington, took the opportunity to promote home rule for the District of Columbia. "We are in bondage," said the mayor. "Let my people go."
Although the march was billed as a day of atonement, several speakers reminded America's elected officials of blacks' political power.
Rock Newman, manager of former heavyweight boxing champion Riddick Bowe, chastised President Clinton for his comments about Minister Farrakhan. "We want to say, Mr. Clinton, we put you into office and, Mr. Clinton, we can take you out of office," he said.
"When we go home, we must organize our people to ensure that Congress, the White House and corporate America stop destroying our community," said Damu Smith of Greenpeace USA.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland criticized the Republican leaders of Congress -- although not by name or party affiliation. He focused on recent attempts to erode affirmative action, educational opportunities and other achievements won by the civil rights movement.
Unlike other speakers who focused on the victimization of blacks, Mr. Mfume characterized African-Americans as "the problem solvers."
"Nothing will ever turn us around," he said.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson called on black men to attend to their children, financially and emotionally. He offered march goers a ready reply to any questions.
"Say I turned pain into power and promise," Mr. Jackson said. "Tell them I have a light, and I'm going to let my light shine. Tell them I'm dreaming now. My dream is bigger than my ghetto . Tell them there's a new day, and tell them we have a moral power."