Million Man March to be commemorated Marylanders inspired to serve communities plan prayer vigil, rally

October 16, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

David Miller, a young man committed to improving lives

around him, used to teach basic life skills to prison inmates. Then he attended Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March -- which celebrates its third anniversary today -- and returned to Baltimore determined to reach black youngsters before they reach the criminal justice system.

"I look at the Million Man March as a historical gathering that I desperately needed to be a part of ," said Miller, who teaches an all-male class at West Baltimore's Calverton Middle School. "I realized that in order for there to be a change in the African-American community, it had to start with

African-American men stepping up to reshape their communities. I had to focus more energy on doing everything I could."

Miller, 30, who holds a master's degree in education from Goucher College, is one of hundreds of Baltimoreans expected to participate in the commemoration, an annual observance that Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan has called "A Holy Day of Atonement."

The theme of this year's observance is respect for the elderly. Local events begin at 6 a.m. with a prayer vigil, led by the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of First Baptist Church of Guilford in Howard County, at the Sun Dial Pavilion in Druid Hill Park.

A rally will be held at noon at War Memorial Plaza across from City Hall, and an address by Farrakhan at Howard University will be carried live by satellite to Baltimore's Muhammad Mosque No. 6 at 8 p.m.

The 1995 march, which gathered hundreds of thousands of black men to Washington. and has since been copied by "million" marches for women and youths, is credited with invigorating activism by African-Americans of all ages, especially those too young to remember the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

Julian Bond, longtime civil rights activist and chairman of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, opposed the Million Man March because of its sponsorship by the Nation of Islam, whose militant racial stances often run afoul of public opinion. He says he now believes it was a good thing.

"Every place I go, I meet somebody who experienced inspiration to get involved in their community or raise their level of involvement," said Bond. "Studies have shown that the only [demographic group] whose voter participation increased in 1996 was black men."

Lorenzo Morris, a Howard University political science professor who has studied the march, attributes the "astonishing 50 percent increase" in black male voting in 1996 to the march.

"All other demographics went down. The only explainable correlate is the Million Man March," said Morris, while noting that march participants tended to be active people.

Miller was not born when Martin Luther King Jr. led his storied 1963 civil rights march on Washington. His heart goes out to his students who missed the 1995 march because no adult cared enough to take them. "Even for a 16-year-old, it's still [incredible] to believe that you could have a gathering of black men of this magnitude," he said.

After the march, Miller helped launch Calverton's Paul Robeson Academic Institute of Scholastic Excellence (PRAISE). The course, which segregates pupils by gender, deals with children who have repeated grades up to three times.

"We named it after Paul Robeson because he was an athlete and a scholar and was gifted in the arts, and a lot of young people have never heard of him," said Miller. "We spend a great deal of time talking about First Amendment rights and, whenever we can, we integrate things like the march into the discussion."

Robert Parrish, 28, a Bowie State University graduate, co-founded PRAISE. Parrish exposes students to Langston Hughes' poetry. It's one way he keeps the promise he made to himself at the march to improve young black men's lives.

"We're trying to implement self-esteem, that no matter where you come from, you can achieve anything you want," said Parrish. "All we have to do is show them."

The march inspired other local initiatives, too.

Ben Hall, a senior psychology major at Coppin State College, showed up with three colleagues in a blighted East Baltimore alley near Rayner Browne Elementary School last week to practice a message friends brought back to him from the march.

"To spread love -- too much in this country is built around greed," said Hall, whose Christian beliefs hold that "faith without works is dead." His most recent good work involved filling 60 large garbage bags with trash from the rat-infested alley Browne students navigate to school.

Hall belongs to Mega Man, a Coppin organization that bloomed after the march to teach poor children computer skills. Its next project is sponsoring a Thanksgiving dinner at Coppin for the homeless. But Hall said finding help on projects, even amid renewed activism on black campuses, isn't always easy. "People give a lot of good lip service," he said, "but I don't see a whole lot of action."

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