Marching to make a change

Participants get ready for Millions More Movement


When participants gather today on the Washington Mall for the sequel to the 1995 Million Man March, they intend not only to mark the historic occasion, but to emerge with a national agenda on such issues as crime, education and health care.

A decade ago, the gathering of African-American men ignited a spirit of unity among participants. But when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan convenes the Millions More Movement, bringing people together won't be the only objective. He will push for action.

"We will make demands from our government, but we know those demands will fall on deaf ears unless and until we are mobilized, sensitized and extremely organized," Farrakhan said at a Washington news conference leading up to this weekend's event.

Locally, groups have been planning for the occasion since January. The logistics are set: Four free buses will leave Baltimore at 6:30 a.m. bound for Washington. In recent weeks, organizers have taken to the airwaves, plastered posters around the city, and met with high school and college students.

A decade ago, march organizers claimed nearly 250,000 of the participants were from Maryland.

"If ground zero is Washington, D.C., Baltimore is in the thick of it," said Raymond Winbush, a member of Baltimore's organizing committee and director of Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research.

The 40 members of the march's Baltimore organizing committee -- who include civil rights activists, city employees and scholars -- are focusing on what will take place when they return from Washington.

"We are calling to put systems in place to make change," said Lewis Andrews of Columbia, who is a member of the local organizing committee and a mathematics professor at Sojourner-Douglass College. "There may be organizations out there, but there are no systems in place to really deal with the problems confronting African-Americans."

Andrews' plans are ambitious. He said the organizing committee has founded a nonprofit group and will work to halt crime, transform dismal schools and stop gentrification in Baltimore, which he says is pushing black homeowners out of the city. He wants to adopt three days of action each month -- a concept Farrakhan has pushed in local communities.

The second Friday of every month would be known as "Black Friday," where African-Americans would be encouraged to withhold commercial spending and invest in their communities instead. The next Saturday would be devoted to supporting political candidates who have the best interests of black communities. And Sunday would be designated for spiritual renewal.

So far, it's difficult to gauge how many people will attend this weekend's event or if they will become involved in trying to meet the long-term goals.

But participants such as Winbush believe in the power of a single gathering. Not long after the 1995 Million Man March, Winbush called his ex-wife with an urgent request: He wanted full custody of their 13-year-old son.

Although the couple had a good relationship and were sharing custody, Winbush was moved to do more after he experienced something he described as "spiritual" in the black unity that blanketed the Washington Mall that October day.

"People always ask, `What did the march lead to?'" he said. "But it was an experience so profound, you can't describe it. On a very personal level, it renewed my relationship with my son."

The couple agreed their son would benefit from living with his father. Several months after the march, Winbush's son, Faraji, moved from his mother's home in Atlanta to join Winbush, who was living in Tennessee. They took a trip to Africa shortly after and grew closer. Winbush said he knows other men who were motivated by the march to become more involved fathers.

Winbush is hoping to find a similar experience when he attends this year. But the march will be distinct from its predecessor. This year, Farrakhan expanded invitations beyond black men, encouraging women, children, gays, and people of all ethnicities and faiths. The event's Web site includes translations into Spanish.

Ten years ago, Farrakhan was known in mainstream America for his divisive rhetoric, and some high-profile blacks dismissed his efforts. But this year's event has been embraced by a spectrum of prominent African-Americans, including Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus and hip-hop star Kanye West.

Still, the months leading up to the event have not been without disputes. The Anti-Defamation League has criticized some of the invited speakers, such as New Black Panther Party leader Malik Zulu Shabazz.

And the Rev. Willie Wilson, executive director of the Millions More Movement, offended gay advocates when he said during a sermon at his Washington church that "lesbianism is about to take over our community." Gay leaders demanded that gay speakers be included at the march, and although Farrakahn initially refused, he later agreed.

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