Big civil rights march may be trickle, not flood Hopeful leaders expect the best

August 20, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Eight days before the commemoration of the 1963 march on Washington that helped galvanize support for civil rights legislation, organizers are fighting what appears to be lukewarm interest and the prospect of a disappointing turnout.

Nevertheless, organizers still hope to rekindle the spirit of the march that produced Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" oration, perhaps the most famous speech of the civil rights era, and to use the commemoration as a catalyst for pressing a broad legislative agenda.

Under the slogan "Jobs, Justice, Peace," march organizers have a series of goals ranging from statehood for the District of Columbia to abortion rights and health care reform, from promoting a cleaner environment to opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement and family violence.

At a press briefing yesterday, organizers dismissed as false reports of a lack of interest in the march. The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., executive director of the NAACP, refused to predict a turnout, saying, "We are not going to play the numbers game."

Walter E. Fauntroy, the march's national director and one of the organizers of the 1963 march, would only say that organizers expect "tens of thousands" to participate next week. In contrast, he noted that 250,000 people participated in the 1963 march and said 500,000 took part in a 20th anniversary commemoration.

During the briefing, which was made available by satellite to television stations across the country and broadcast on a number of radio stations, Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, issued what he termed "an urgent call" for participation in the march.

Later, Mr. Chavis and other organizers met with Washington-area clergymen to urge them to promote participation. "We must mobilize," said Mr. Chavis.

The appeals came amid indications that Washington is not preparing for the kind of influx that large marches bring. U.S. Park Police said that 300,000 turned out for a gay-rights march last April, an estimate that organizers of that event said was insultingly low.

Hotels were booked solid weeks before that march. Amtrak knew weeks in advance that passenger volume would increase substantially for that weekend and put extra equipment into service.

An Amtrak spokesman said yesterday that the rail passenger carrier has seen no signs of increased volume for the August 28 march. Gaynelle Henderson-Bailey, the president of a travel service that a special march newspaper recommends, said special "freedom trains" from various cities had been canceled for lack of interest.

Checks with a half-dozen hotels recommended by march organizers showed that many rooms remain available and that bookings are not especially heavy for the march weekend.

Reservations "are surprisingly slow," said Michael Morgan, sales manager for the Royal Master Hosts Inn in Bladensburg, noting, "We are only talking a week away." In contrast, he said, "for the gay rights march, you couldn't find a hotel room within 50 miles."

At the Washington Convention and Visitors Association, spokesman Tom Murphy said there had been little indication that the march would be a major event.

"We probably have had less than a dozen phone calls," he said. "Most people I talk to have never heard of it."

But, he added, "August 28 could roll around, and we could be real surprised."

Organizers -- which include the AFL-CIO, National Organization for Women and dozens of other civil rights and ethnic groups -- hope so.

They insist the response has been good.

Janette Hoston Harris, director of operations and logistics, said requests for parking information indicate 800 buses will be rolling in for the march. Ms. Henderson-Bailey, the travel agent, said "last-minute" calls are coming in.

And, in Baltimore, the Rev. Michael Watson, who is handling arrangements for the march for the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, predicted that 200 buses would go to Washington from the Baltimore area for the March.

"We have a pretty good response -- a lot of youth," said Mr. Watson.

DETAILS OF MARCH

What: 30th anniversary civil rights march on Washington

When: Saturday, Aug. 28

Time: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Washington, the Mall, between 14th St. and the Lincoln Memorial

For information, call (410) 366-3300

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