THE REMARKABLE gathering of black men in Washington yesterday is best seen not as a reprise of the 1963 march on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech. That was a traditional exercise of the constitutional right peaceably to assemble in order to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Yesterday's tens of thousands on the Mall surely have grievances with their government, as many speakers made clear, but the theme that ran through so many of the speakers' addresses was the great need for black men themselves to overcome the grievous problems of so many black communities.
Self help and self respect were notes hit over and again. Bishop H. H. Bookins of Los Angeles said, pointedly, "We did not come here for a handout from the white people on the Hill." Poet Maya Angelou put it this way: "Draw near to one another,/Save your race." Rev. Joseph Lowery of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference called on black men to "resurrect our discipline and responsibility." Even Al Sharpton, the New York activist best known for his rhetorical attacks on whites, said "we can take care of our own." Jesse Jackson devoted most of his speech to the blame game, but concluded with a call for African Americans to improve their communities.
Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, who conceived of and brought off the Million Man March, also devoted too much of his speech to blaming the misery that afflicts so many blacks on white Americans of the past and present -- from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson down to today. We wish he had spent more of his time on his other message: the need for some blacks to "atone" for their self-destructive actions and to take responsibility for themselves, their family and their community. We wish he had developed and made clearer his argument that America needs to become a "more perfect union" of blacks and whites -- an important truth.
Mr. Farrakhan's speech was too long, with too much numerology, symbolism and anti-Masonic rhetoric unrelated to the matter at hand. But the audience he attracted stayed with him. Because, after yesterday, it is likely that he is going to be more influential than ever, his larger audience -- the nation -- will have to see through his demagogy and accept only the responsible (and wise) parts of his message.