A million men prepare to march in a climate of uncertainty

October 13, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Thirty-two years ago, trepidation filled Washington as the city braced for a massive march predominantly of black Americans demonstrating for civil rights and greater job opportunity. Fears were openly expressed of mayhem in the streets, but it didn't happen.

What did happen was an overwhelmingly peaceful march of an estimated 200,000 blacks and whites, joyously clapping and singing in a festive celebration of racial unity. The highlight was the historic ''I have a dream'' speech by Martin Luther King Jr. preaching that unity.

"Marvelous militancy"

''The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community,'' he said that day, ''must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers as evidenced by their presence here today have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.''

Not a single marcher was arrested and no incidents laid to any of them were reported. Four arrests were made for isolated cases of minor harassment of the marchers.

The march was focused on passage of pending civil-rights legislation, discussed by 10 march leaders directly with President John F. Kennedy at the White House during the day-long demonstration.

Afterward, Kennedy said ''the cause of 20 million Negroes has been advanced'' by the march, and that he was impressed by ''the deep fervor and the quite dignity'' of the marchers. The following year the Civil Rights Act passed, the year after that the Voting Rights Act.

A million men

Now, another march on Washington is scheduled for Monday, billed as the Million Man March, but with significant differences from the earlier one. That one was numerically more modest in objective and biracial in composition. It had active support of 200 religious leaders, black and white, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish. The black leaders came from such mainstream groups as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Urban League.

This one, which has no specific legislative agenda, is solidly black by intent and led by the flamboyant Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., removed last year as executive director of the NAACP.

Some other prominent black leaders, like Jesse Jackson, have signed on, but many others including several big-city mayors, wary of the march's leadership, have not.

Again as in 1963, there is trepidation in Washington as the march date approaches. It is of a lower level of intensity than the mood of concern that gripped the city then, in the midst of the great civil-rights movement then raging and often resulting in violence in the Deep South. Since then, the races have learned to live in a greater degree of harmony, outwardly at least.

Nevertheless, the Million Man March comes at a time of particular racial uneasiness, demonstrated more in national and neighborhood debate than in pitched battles, over the sharp differences in white and black perceptions about justice in the United States.

An open dichotomy

First the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and now the murder trial and acquittal verdict of O.J. Simpson in the same city, have laid open the dichotomy between the races in judging the quality or lack of it in law enforcement in dealing with African Americans.

Monday's march, therefore, will go forward in a climate of renewed uncertainty among both whites and blacks about the progress the nation has made in racial relations. The presence particularly of Mr. Farrakhan, with his history of blatant anti-white, anti-Semitic rhetoric, at the helm of the march unsettles not only whites but also many blacks, in politics especially, who seek advancement in racial solidarity but not racial isolation.

Blacks and whites alike must hope that Monday's march will emulate that memorable earlier one in mood and responsibility if not in the makeup of the marchers and their agenda. Nothing will do more to calm the latest trepidation over racial relations than a similarly peaceful demonstration.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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