One youth march too many N.Y., Atlanta events leave many confused

September 03, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

In the beginning, the plan was to attract teen-agers and young adults to one civil rights march.

But when young people meet at competing marches Saturday and Monday in New York and Atlanta, they will gather against a backdrop of conflict spawned by organizers' philosophical differences.

The split has left many -- particularly the youth whom many hoped to galvanize -- confused and cynical even before the first busload of activists arrives in either city.

"I really don't like the way they split it up in two places," says Murad Ferguson, 20, a third-year telecommunications student at Morgan State University who will go to New York but said he would attend both events if Atlanta were not a 13-hour drive away.

"It shows division and, for some people, it's confusing," he said. "The two groups have got the same basic goal, but they've got two different views. It's all politics."

The New York event is called the Million Youth March; Atlanta's, the Million Youth Movement.

The spotlight has been harshest in New York, where the question of a permit for the event has sparked a public dispute between the city's mayor and admittedly militant march organizers. This week, hearing an appeal on the permit issue, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan decided Saturday's event could go on but reduced the time and space allotted to marchers in Harlem.

The weekend's events are expected to highlight a wave of activism among youth and a long-standing split among civil rights leaders: The Atlanta group is perceived as mainstream and pro-integration, havinginvited youth of all colors, while the New York group is viewed as more extreme and separatist (it has not invited white participants).

Some call the differences healthy, but others are not so sure.

"It is always embarrassing when people who are trying to do positive things can't see eye to eye," said Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The two different groups of people had the same idea and were not

willing to yield on ideology."

Some question the need for any rallies.

"If you're going to march, why don't you march a million strong to the polls?" asked Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. "Why do we continue to put so much faith in racial browbeating?"

The Atlanta organizers include the National Urban League, the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and, improbably, the Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan.

Their platform calls for a spiritual focus, political involvement, economic development and improving public education.

The New York group is led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Khallid Muhammad, a former NOI official ousted two years ago for, among other things, unapologetic anti-Semitic remarks. More recently, Muhammad has organized the New Black Panther Party, members of which toted guns and spoke of black power at memorial services for James Byrd Jr., a black man slain in Jasper, Texas.

In a letter to Muhammad and a statement in the NOI publication Final Call, Farrakhan said he also supported the New York March, which plans to bring together former and current gang members, black entertainers and rap artists to focus on such issues as winning reparations for slavery and freeing political prisoners.

In recent weeks, both events have captured the attention of young people in greater Baltimore, many of whom plan to attend.

"I'm real frustrated," said Latrice Edwards, 19, a student who lives in Seton Hill and plans to attend the New York march. "The main reason I want to go goes back to our black people [disproportionately] being in prison and dying of AIDS. You can help make a difference in people's lives before they even start in the wrong direction."

Although many involved in the marches echo such activist leanings, New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, in heavy press coverage of his city's event, has called Muhammad's gathering a "hate march."

March organizers counter that, despite Muhammad's appearance in Jasper, there will be no guns or talk of violence.

"We are telling young people, if someone steps on your toe, apologize first and move on," said Craig Muhammad, a #i coordinator for the New York march.

However, heavy publicity about the New York march -- in recent weeks, New York and national media have written extensively about the controversy and Muhammad -- has led some to predict that that event will attract more crowds than Atlanta, and possibly more problems.

"Sanity never sells in the American media," said Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, national director of the NAACP's youth and college division.

Which march was planned first is a matter of debate.

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