AS THE CONTROVERSY continues over the Million Youth March that its conveners concede will draw only a small fraction of that number, one has to ask: Is marching overrated these days?
The question is all the more relevant because we just marked the 35th anniversary of the mother of all marches, the one that took place in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. Originally called by labor leader A. Philip Randolph to demand "jobs and freedom," it eventually became a demand that the president and Congress enact civil rights legislation then languishing in committee.
In search of a purpose
The March on Washington had a clear purpose and attracted more than 250,000 people from all walks of life, all races and many religions. By contrast, a few days before the Million Youth March that New York is supposed to play host to, we New Yorkers still find ourselves asking: What is its purpose?
More than anything that young people truly care about, the New York rally (the only marching will be the hoofing one has to do to get there) seems calculated to steal the spotlight from a four-day youth gathering in Atlanta sponsored by the NAACP, the Nation of Islam and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/Push Coalition.
The New York march will be led by Khalid Abdul Muhammad, one-time disciple of Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam. Mr. Farrakhan dismissed Mr. Muhammad as spokesman four years ago after he made a typically vile statement about Jews and Catholics.
So the rally is really about the elevation of Mr. Muhammad, whose press release promises "a fiery oratory that leaves none who hear the message unchanged." He hopes to lure young people by capitalizing on his ties to both gangsters and the rap world -- though it remains to be seen whether the big names will actually show up.
The youth are being told that march objectives include "the support of our God and our ancestors," "full and complete reparations for the atrocities of slavery and the Black Holocaust," "mentoring partnerships to build a bridge between information technology and our young computer-illiterate masses," "financial aid to black students," "unity and love among our youth and people" and "white corporate social responsibility."
In other words, there is nothing so concrete as the message of 1963, which could be reduced to banners proclaiming: "WE MARCH FOR JOBS FOR ALL NOW!" and "WE DEMAND VOTING RIGHTS NOW!" and "END SEGREGATED RULES IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS."
A picnic atmosphere
If the rally is like prior massive gatherings, including the Million Man March and the Million Woman March, audience members near the front will tune in for the music, poetry and the most fiery or famous speakers. Those farther away will trade buttons or other souvenirs, picnic, party and generally treat the messages of the day as background noise. Hey, they're just glad to "be a part of history," as people interviewed at such assemblages usually say.
At least the event in Atlanta seems to realize that a daylong get-together does not a movement make. The Atlanta four-day gathering is called a Million Youth Movement, with a Labor Day march following three days that feature a town hall meeting, workshops and an interfaith celebration.
Still, the goal in Atlanta is no less nebulous than Mr. Muhammad's in New York: "To lay a foundation for universal change and the development of youth and communities."
Marching -- or rallying -- for the sake of being seen is a monumental waste of time. There are better ways to have fun. Marches can be an effective tool to register demands. But even then, they might go unheeded.
Recalling the immediate aftermath of the 1963 march that he helped lead, John Lewis writes in his autobiography "Walking With the Wind": "A mass march for 'jobs and freedom' had, when the singing stopped and the cheering was over, done little to actually achieve either."
E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News.
Pub Date: 9/01/98