Million Family March draws thousands to Mall

As Ernestine Buck sat among thousands of people from all walks of life on the National Mall Monday for the Million Family March, she reflected on the same sense of enthusiasm she experienced as an activist in the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights.

Now, almost 40 years later, the Northwest D.C. grandmother says she is trying to capture the spirit of community and purpose that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fostered in his day.

In the year 2000, it seems like nothing is coming together, Buck said as she listened to Monday afternoon’s speeches. People are just not close and I wish they were.

Like Buck, many families came to the nation’s capital to reaffirm the importance of family and unity in the black community. Organizers expected a million people to attend, but U.S. Park Police reported the crowds reached a peak of 400,000. The number of marchers at the 1995 Million Man March, which also spanned the National Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, was estimated at 400,000 to 800,000, according to the Washington Post.

The program started early in the morning with an official welcome by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. By mid-afternoon, families lounged on the grounds of the Washington Monument as children played with miniature Million Family March flags and musical performers entertained on a nearby stage. Street vendors hawked T-shirts and official $30 Million Family March athletic shoes.

For sisters Marilyn Richardson of Memphis, Tenn., and Kelmer Muhammad of Phoenix, Ariz., Monday’s march was the first time they had seen each other in 10 years.

This is a great time for us to come together, said Muhammad, who came with her 15- and 17-year-old daughters. I wanted to show my children that they have family.

Reunification of family and friends was a common theme for the day.

Tamequa Muhammad traveled four days from Tulsa, Okla., to attend the March.

It’s beautiful to see the families coming together in peace with no violence, the 25-year-old Oklahoman said. I came with my family and it’s just beautiful to be amongst family.

Onstage, speakers included Farrakhan, Martin Luther King III, W.D. Muhammad, who is the son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and New York City activist Rev. Al Sharpton. Throughout the day, celebrities like Regina Belle, Macy Gray and members of Boyz II Men entertained the crowd.

The Million Family March was an outgrowth of the Million Man March that took place in Washington in 1995. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, a black religious organization combining practices and beliefs of Islam and black separatism, coordinated the events. Farrakhan has come under fire in recent years for his attacks on white society and anti-Semitic remarks. He was once quoted as calling Judaism a gutter religion and praising Adolf Hitler, statements he said were taken out of context, but never retracted.

But according to the Million Family March Web site (www.millionfamilymarch.com), Farrakhan has a new purpose, broadening the Nation of Islam’s scope from blacks to all groups that have been marginalized.

While public controversy still surrounds Farrakhan’s teachings, the Million Family March was geared to be a day of family unity, although a clear political message came from the main stage.

We must stand up because our conscience tells us it’s right, Martin Luther King III said. That’s why we’re here today.

Speakers called for reform in everything from the economy to healthcare and warned the presidential candidates that the demonstrators’ voices would not go unheard.

Al Gore and George W. Bush – take a look, a speaker said. We will vote our interests. Never again will we be marginalized, undervalued and underestimated.

Aside from political agendas, Ann Hoover, a mother from Ithaca, N.Y., said she participated for the pure value of family.

For me, it (the March) is to stand up for God-centered families, she said. The family is a unit in our society that needs to be healed.

The 48-year-old mother brought her husband and four children, ages seven to 17. Although she did not necessarily agree with Farrakhan’s political agenda, Hoover said she supports bridging cultural barriers.

I appreciate the fact that Farrakhan has broadened the scope and he wants to embrace the white human family, she said. I think whether it’s Allah or God, it is important for people to go beyond their own narrow vision. The more we can find a common base, the more we can begin to understand each other.

Although Washington braced for hoards of people expected to clog the Metro system and area roadways Monday, commuters were greeted with an easier drive than most mornings. Area roadways had less congestion than normal rush hours, although segments of the Metrorail system reported a slight increase in passenger usage. By the evening rush hour, there were no reported traffic problems on metropolitan roadways and Metro trains were running smoothly.

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