It was a tremendous honor for me to participate in the Million Man March.
Throughout the summer I heard men on the street, in the barber shops and at their places of work talk about the Million Man March. Many debated whether they would attend and whether it was worth all the effort.
As the march drew closer, there seemed to be a growing consensus that this was going to be a historic event and one of the most positive developments for African-American men in this century. I decided to go because I sensed the march's potential to renew the spirit of self-determination that is often an overlooked hallmark of our history. I was especially pleased when my son, Gregory, who is now 24 years old, called me up to let me know he would like to attend the event with me.
Around 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 16, I joined about 250 city employees and public housing residents in front of a city office building near City Hall.
Once we got on the bus, Councilman Melvin Stukes came to the front and said a prayer for the journey. Then we were off. When we arrived in Washington, we parked at a lot behind Union Station and began to walk, joining hundreds of African-American men coming out of subways and getting off of buses.
Lines of African-American men and boys merged and then converged on the Capitol grounds. It was humbling to see the size of the crowd. As we walked across the park to the west side of the Capitol, I began to feel somewhat like I was joining a huge family reunion, where you know everyone is your cousin, but you don't know everyone's name. People were shaking hands, introducing themselves and talking about what they intended to do when they returned home with the spirit of the Million Man March.
Around the country
As Gregory and I, and a small group of Baltimoreans, made a huge looping U around the crowd, we greeted many Baltimore residents who had not come with us. We also talked to men from around the country. Some students from Morehouse College in Atlanta came up to me and told me that they knew about my brother's death in South Africa and offered me their condolences. Another group of students from Bethune-Cookman College asked us to take pictures with them.
Earlier that morning, I was surprised to be invited to speak. Before going to the staging area, however, we stopped on a hill that was parallel to the speakers' platform and looked out across the west Capitol lawn and down the Mall so that we could get a good view of the crowd for the very first time. Hundreds of thousands of African-American men stretched from the Capitol down the Mall almost to the Washington Monument.
The atmosphere was peaceful yet brimming with excitement. I don't think the crowd was waiting for any one particular speaker or message. It was if we were holding onto one another, enjoying the moment, waiting to make sure we could pull off this gigantic event together.
Gregory and I finally made our way through the Capitol security and out onto the main stage. There we were greeted by a few local faces such as Rep. Kweisi Mfume, LaVan Hawkins of Inner City Foods/Checkers, and Minister Carlos Mohammed. I also found that my colleague Dennis Archer, the mayor of Detroit, was on the platform.
When I began thinking about what I wanted to say, my mind wandered back to church services at Bethel AME where my brother, the Rev. Frank Reid, often calls on his congregation to turn to one another and say "Neighbor, oh neighbor, let's pray together" or "let's work together" or simply, "let's get busy."
I had not heard any speaker formally ask the march participants to greet one another. So when I got up on the podium, I invited the whole assembly to turn at once to the right and introduce themselves and turn to the left and hold hands, and repeat after me, "Brother, my brother, let's get busy."
To strengthen our community, I believe some things can only be done by African-Americans, while other problems require partnership with others. Well in advance, I knew that some people, both black and white, would question this march because of the man who called it, Minister Louis Farrakhan. And I accept that. I also knew that some would condemn those who participated in the march, solely because of Minister Farrakhan. I understand too, but to me such rejection masks a larger truth.
I believe to my core in equal justice and equal opportunity, and I am committed to building an inclusive spirit of community out of Baltimore's diversity. Before this march, and throughout my public life, I have denounced anti-white, anti-black and anti-Semitic language as the divisive rhetoric of hate. But we will make too little progress in our public dialogue about race if all we do is attack and denounce.
To focus obsessively on one man is a paralyzing mistake. It obscures the positive experience of the Million Man March, and helps us avoid the more difficult task of healing. I encourage Baltimore citizens to debate the next steps with each other, and with me.
There was an aspect of the day that I did not share with others who traveled with me. I accepted the invitation of ABC-TV to participate in a special news program that was broadcast live at 1 p.m. The host was Peter Jennings. The other persons being interviewed with me were Rep. Gary Franks of Connecticut and David C. Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. Gregory accompanied me to the studio along with my press secretary, Clint Coleman, and his son, Clint III.
The show went by quickly. When we were off the air, Mr. Friedman, Gregory and I became engaged in a lively discussion about the significance of the Million Man March and the concerns of the Jewish community. At some point in the discussion, I became a marginal player as Gregory and Mr. Friedman took the conversation to a different level, focusing on issues of emotions, symbolism and the arts. They at one point agreed that our communities may not fully understand each other's pain, flowing from separate histories of oppression and discrimination.
Finding the best
At the end of their conversation, Mr. Friedman invited Gregroy to visit the Holocaust Museum, and he agreed with Gregory that it would be good if a similar type of facility is built in Washington to capture the essence of the black experience in America. Watching and listening to my son in that discussion was an uplifting experience.
As I was leaving the march, I felt a strong connection with the hundreds of thousands of African-American men and their sons who had gathered so peacefully together. They were busy meeting and talking to each other, making clear that the most important messages conveyed that day were the ones that they spoke to one another -- not the ones they heard from a distant stage.
I believe that many have returned home recommitted, or perhaps committed for the first time, to taking greater responsibility for their lives and for the health of their communities. If we listen more to their voices, and engage them, we can find the best in each other.
Kurt L. Schmoke is mayor of Baltimore.