Black men, embittered by their past but hopeful for their future, are expected to gather by the tens of thousands on Washington's Mall tomorrow to make a vow of self-reliance and to demand that the nation accord them some respect.
The Million Man March, brainchild of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, will be an unusually inward-looking Washington demonstration by brethren long consigned to the bottom of America's social ladder, organizers say.
"We're going to lay some demands on the government and corporate America, but the primary demands are the demands we're making on ourselves as black men to take greater responsibility for our families and communities," said the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the march's national director.
If the march succeeds in drawing more than 250,000 people to Washington, as insiders expect, the size of the rally will reflect the enormity of the problems facing black men in America and the toll those ills have taken on the African-American family.
Clearly, many black men have prospered in the generation since the civil rights movement opened greater opportunities to African-Americans. In Maryland alone, about a quarter of black households -- nearly 100,000 -- had income of $50,000 or more, according to the 1990 census.
But by almost any group measure, black men in America are in trouble:
* Black men live eight years less on average than white men (64.5 years and 72.7 years, respectively).
* Black men are eight times as likely as white men to be homicide victims; more than 10,000 are killed every year.
* Black men are twice as likely as white men to be jobless (9.6 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively, last month) and, on average, earn only 70 percent of what white men do.
* More black men are in prison cells than in college classrooms. Black men, who make up 6 percent of the U.S. population, account for 30 percent of all arrests but less than 2 percent of all newly minted Ph.D.'s.
The ef-fects on the African-American family are devastating:
* Nearly 70 percent of all black babies are born to unmarried women; more than half of black children live with their mothers only.
* About a third of black families live in poverty, more than three times the rate of white families.
* Black families have, on average, barely one-tenth the assets -- savings, stocks, bonds, property -- of white families. Fewer than half of black families are homeowners, compared to more than two-thirds of whites.
The statistics only partly explain why the march, with its emphases on racial pride and self-help, has struck a resonant chord.
"A lot of it has to do with dignity," said Ronald Walters, chairman of Howard University's political science department. "The black male has been vilified to a great extent in terms of job opportunities, education, image, you name it.
"On the whole, black males have attempted to assume their responsibilities. This is a way to recommit them to that."
Darryl R. Matthews, executive director of Alpha Phi Alpha, a Baltimore-based national fraternity of black collegians, said: "When the only images you see of African-American men at 6 and 11 o'clock are of them being arrested, on the ground being handcuffed, and you don't have much exposure to groups like mine or other role models, you might paint the race with sweeping generalizations.
"When you walk down the street in a white shirt, suit and tie, and the elderly white ladies grab their purse and move out of the way, you get the message that there's little difference between you and that criminal," he said.
Jacques Dorsey, 35, who lives in Baltimore County, said he was treated better by whites when he lived in Europe while in the military.
"Black men in this society are dogged, looked down upon," said Mr. Dorsey, a security supervisor. "White America thinks we're inferior. This is largely because of the media. All they see of black people on TV is crime."
Devron Moten, 23, of Pikesville said black men are unjustly feared by society.
"They look at crime, and they think we're the basis of crime. And we're not," said Mr. Moten, a barber at Parker's Barbershop on Reisterstown Road.
Current events add up
Dr. Chavis said political events -- Republican attacks on social programs, Supreme Court rulings against majority-black congressional districts and minority set-asides, and the O. J. Simpson trial -- "created a historic setting where the ethos of the Million Man March has been embraced by a broader segment of black Americans."
The all-day gathering is billed as "A Holy Day of Atonement and Reconciliation." While speakers will defend affirmative action and promote voter registration, Dr. Chavis said the event would be more spiritual than political, a sort of heart-to-heart, man-to-man talk.
"What's going to excite the crowd is talking about God, talking about atonement, talking about reconciling differences," he said.
It will be a day in which black men will affirm their responsibilities to black women and children.