At March, N.J. Youngsters 'Take First Step in a Million Steps'

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For three busloads of high school boys from Camden, N.J., traveling to the Million Man March here last week was a chance to live something that another generation likely will read about in a history textbook.

They were out of bed before dawn for the four-hour bus ride and spent the day engrossed in speeches, music, and spiritual reflection focusing on black men in America.

Last week's event, organized by controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, drew hundreds of thousands of black men to the nation's capital in what was called the largest civil-rights gathering since an estimated 250,000 blacks attended the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

The students from Camden were not even born then and know of Dr. King's words secondhand--only through their history books. But this day, they wanted to hear the words of prominent African-American leaders firsthand.

As Woodrow Wilson High School student Dwaun Harris and his classmates approached the Capitol's west lawn at 11 a.m. on Oct. 16, he said they already had accomplished something just by being there. "Unity is here; I feel our purpose already."

Of the estimated 3,000 residents of Camden who attended the march, 140 were students from Wilson and Camden high schools. The students traveled here in buses paid for with private funds raised by local march organizers.

The entire Camden school system closed for the day because of expected low staff attendance.

Although there apparently were few organized school groups present here, thousands of school-age youngsters, mainly boys, attended the march with their fathers, other relatives, or other adults.

The event's impact was felt most keenly in Washington-area schools, where attendance dropped considerably. But school districts across the nation also felt its effects.

Schools in Chicago reported increased student and faculty absences. And the Philadelphia public schools canceled bus service after more than half of the district's drivers took the day off to attend the march. (See story, this page.)

In Hartford, Conn., where Jewish groups had criticized a proposal--later rejected--to close school the day of the march and denounced Nation of Islam leaders for derogatory remarks about Jews, whites, and homosexuals, about 200 teachers were absent. No schools closed as a result, a district spokeswoman said.

Beginning With Prayer

The U.S. Park Police estimated the crowd at 400,000, while march organizers pegged attendance at 1.5 million to 2 million. But the large discrepancy in attendance figures wasn't of much concern to 11-year-old Arthur Scandett III of Washington. "The number doesn't matter," Arthur said. "We came together."

Arthur and his father met 10-year-old Daniel Bellamy and his father as they rode the bus to the Mall. The two boys captured the day's events by interviewing march participants with a hand-held tape recorder, asking passersby why they decided to come and what it meant to them.

The event began with a prayer service at dawn and an African drumming ceremony. Throughout the day, a host of African-American luminaries addressed the crowd, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X; singer Stevie Wonder; poet Maya Angelou; and civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks.

Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago education consultant, noted that many black boys have never had a black man as a teacher in school and called on march participants to volunteer in their schools and neighborhoods.

The event culminated in the late afternoon with a two-hour speech by Mr. Farrakhan. In an extended commentary on the persistence of racism in America, he asserted that white supremacy was at the heart of many of the nation's troubles. He also sought to extend a hand to Jewish groups, saying, "Maybe it's time to sit down and talk, not with any preconditions."

Earlier in the day, in an address on race relations at the University of Texas at Austin, President Clinton praised the march as a positive response to a "great divide" tearing America apart. "The great potential for this march today, beyond the black community, is that whites will come to see a larger truth: that blacks share their fears and embrace their convictions."

But in a clear reference to Mr. Farrakhan, whom he did not name, the president said the massive participation in the march should not be seen as an endorsement of what he called "one man's message of malice and division."

"I personally can separate the messenger from the message," said Larry Brown, who came here with his son, Kenny Williams, and 9-year-old grandson, cq ms Mr. Brown, who attended the 1963 March on Washington, said he saw a broader purpose in this march. "I believe it's the unity brought about by the cause; it's not important who brought it together."

But Quinzell Merritt, 13, and his brother, Malik, 10, of North Philadelphia, said they came specifically to hear Mr. Farrakhan. And Stanley Ash, who organized the Camden high school group, said that Mr. Farrakhan deserved credit for pulling off the event.

Detroit Delegations

Although many school districts were aware that the march was scheduled on a school day, Monday, some were caught by surprise at how many employees requested time off.

In Detroit, a sizable number of students and staff were absent, according to Steve Wasco, a spokes-man for the district, but schools were open. Two schools sent official delegations to the march. Schools Superintendent David L. Snead attended with his sons David II, 16, and Brandon, 15, along with several school board members. One school, Macomb Elementary, hosted a local "Million Boy March," with students marching down a main thoroughfare on the east side of Detroit.

In the Baltimore city schools, nearly 40,000 of the system's 113,000 students were absent as were a considerable number of teachers, according to schools spokesman Nat Harrington.

The effects were less apparent in other cities. Attendance was about average for the Norfolk, Va., schools, as it was in school systems in Cleveland and Dade County, Fla. It was down only slightly in Boston and Atlanta.

Lasting Impressions

Although the Camden students had a day off from school, they didn't get a day free from homework: The young men who attended the march will prepare written reports or oral presentations when they return to school.

No girls accompanied the Camden students to Washington. Although they were not forbidden to attend, Mr. Ash said he discouraged them from coming along because the march was aimed at bringing black men together.

For the young men, the end of the march was just the beginning of something else.

While senior Gary Welds said it was just the "first step in a million steps," he felt the inspiration it generated was an important achievement. "I think it's definitely going to stay strong," he said.

"If it can be that there are certain things that are indescribable, this is one of them," said Mr. Ash, an administrative assistant in the attendance and discipline office at Wilson High School. "I hope it will change the young men and all the young men they come into contact with."

Vol. 15, Issue 08, Page 10-11

Published in Print: October 25, 1995, as At March, N.J. Youngsters 'Take First Step in a Million Steps'
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