Day of unity, civility, kindness Emotions run high among participants


RETURNING home from reporting on the 1983 March on Washington, my head buzzed with images from the stage.

This past week's Million Man March in Washington left me with very different images. Now, nearly a week after the gathering, the things most vividly etched in my mind took place far from the stage on the nation's Mall. Mostly they are unusually poignant events that created contemplative moments.

Most of these were small acts, some of kindness, like the young man who gave his seat to an elderly woman on a standing-room-only train packed with march-bound participants.

Or the college kid who passed out juice boxes from his backpack to thirsty strangers on The Mall. In a world where some feel compelled to apply bumper stickers to their cars to remind others to practice "random acts of kindness," these were touching acts of civility and generosity.

Some were humorous, like the 20-something fellow who, marveling that some women showed up at what had been announced as an exclusively male event, said to his friend: "I knew there couldn't be a million black men in one place and no women."

In 1983, I reported on the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, trav eling by bus overnight with marchers from Louisville. Both marches had the good vibes that come from people sharing a common pursuit. And in each instance, the marchers felt a responsibility to be on their best behavior because history was being made while the nation was watching. But there was a spirit of unity at last Monday's that was missing in 1983. It was palpable to the extent that many articulate people I interviewed groped for words to describe their emotions in the friendly and peaceful atmosphere that resulted in an instant bonding with strangers. "Euphoria" and "surreal" were often used in describing what they had seen. No, it was no ordinary event.

The 'Cosby crowd'

On Monday, Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station looked like it does on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as march-bound passengers crowded the station even after the normal rush hours. I boarded the 9:45 Carolinian and discovered a train full of black men filled with anticipation. These passengers, mostly professionals and college students, were headed to what had been billed as their national day of atonement and reconciliation.

As they tapped on laptop computers, perused spread sheets, read newspapers or simply talked quietly with friends, I contemplated the fact that men like these were the fruit of the 1963 March on Washington which led to passage of major civil rights legislation. They are what some would call pillars of their communities. Among those present were an engineer, several college professors, a minister, lawyers, doctors and others from professional or semi-professional occupations. They came with neighbors and friends, lodge buddies, fraternity brothers, other associates or just alone.

Walking from car to car on the sold-out train, I observed this most distinguished assembly, which included a man in a wheelchair and many who had to stand because every seat was occupied. Then it became clear to me that what had begun as a narrowly focused grass-roots campaign to improve the beleaguered condition of black men had broadened to include what one marcher called the "Bill Cosby crowd." They appeared to be like many of the black men I've had the pleasure to know most of my life: mostly hard-working, serious husbands and fathers who succeed despite the odds against them. It isn't an image of black men that's widely publicized in America, at least in part because normal behavior does not make good headlines.

On Monday, I repeatedly heard from black men and women who criticized the media, particularly television news, for helping to define the typical black man as a criminal who appears in handcuffs on the 11 o'clock news.

In part, that's why many of these men were marching -- to show America that most black men are hard-working people.

One indication of the affluence of the train passengers was the preponderance of camcorders. Immediately upon arriving in Washington, at least a dozen of the first men off the train crowded a window (with camcorders rolling) to videotape the scores of other marchers disembarking on the platform below. They were visibly thrilled to see so many of their black brethren assembled for this purpose.

One man whispered under his breath as he hurriedly removed the lens cap from his camcorder to capture his fellow passengers, "This is history in the making." It was a phrase I would hear repeated throughout the day.

Living on the edge

I went to the march specifically looking for mothers who had brought their young sons to witness the assembly. As an African-American mother of two sons, I instinctively knew some would be there despite march organizer Louis Farrakhan's preference that they "stay home and teach the children." Too many black mothers and grandmothers -- no matter their economic background or marital status -- fear for their young male offspring in a nation where they have been called an endangered species by the media and others, particularly because of the threat of other young black men armed with guns. I began my search by squeezing through the mass of bodies gathered near the stage on the west side of the Capitol; but I didn't find any mothers with their sons. Eventually, I found some of them along the edges of The Mall.

Unlike Angela Davis and some other black activists who denounced the march as sexist, these women said they didn't feel slighted or belittled by the male-only invitation as long as they could bring their boys to observe. The boys wriggled uncomfortably as their mothers talked about the negative images of black men on TV, not quite sure why this event was so important to their mothers.

The ones I met were mostly middle-class women who live in suburban Maryland and value education but thought a day off from school to witness this historic event was a lesson their sons couldn't afford to miss.

One image that will stay with me for some time is that of Vanessa Davis-Harper, a Temple Hills woman whose husband died a year ago. Standing with a hand on each of her young sons, Orlondo, 6, and Joseph, 10, she turned misty-eyed looking the gathering of black men before her. "I want them [her sons] to understand what this means this coming together of our black men, finally."

?3 Marilyn McCraven writes editorials for The Sun.

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