So, speaking of the Inauguration … did I ever tell you about being the white guy at the Million Man March?

A million men and me

A million men and me

Now be quiet — you are not my offspring and you have NOT heard this story a hundred times before.

Okay, so it was 1995, October. I’d been living in Maine for seven years, but that week I was down in Arlington, Virginia, taking care of my 10-year-old son Matthew, whose mom was on a business trip.

I had no plans to attend the March. I mean, it’s not like I was invited. Like most people — black and white — I had some doubts about Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who’d organized the event. Nonetheless, after getting Matt off to school, I took the Metro into DC , as I always do when when I’m down there. I lived in the city for many years, a couple of blocks off Dupont Circle (as noted obliquely in the poem below) and I still sometimes miss the place. This particular day, for reasons now obscure, I had it in mind to buy a Canadian flag. My destination was a flag shop near Union Station, a few blocks north of the Capitol.

There was a certain energy in the air. There always is, when something big is going on. It’s not a left/right thing — I remember feeling the same kind of energy around “Washington for Jesus” in the early 80s and then around a big gay-rights march one year later.  It’s irresistible, this energy.  So from the station I meandered south and sort of fell in with the flow of people drifting toward the Mall. Vendors had set up their booths along Constitution Avenue, near the grand marble halls of the Smithsonian. I bought a t-shirt: an African graphic with the motto “Knowledge and Power.” Eventually I made it to the heart of the March.

To me, it didn’t look like a million people.  Wikipedia reports that the exact size of the gathering remains in dispute.  But it was a big crowd, and for the couple of hours I spent wandering among them, mine was usually the only white face in sight.  I ended up about midway down the Mall, somewhere around the Museum of Natural History.  Big screens had been set up so you could follow what was happening on stage, somewhere up near the Capitol.  Everything seemed well organized but not oppressively so.  Young men dressed like Brother Mouzon on The Wire stood at evenly spaced intervals, impassive as the guards at Buckingham Palace.  But out on the Mall, the mood could not have been more peaceful, nor more embracing.

Several times, people came up to chat with me — where had I come from, where did I get the t-shirt, where was a good place to eat.  I discerned a pattern:  most of the guys with whom I chatted were roughly my own age — which is to say, old enough to remember an earlier version of the Civil Rights movement, when it was about black and white together.  Arm-in-arm, marching for justice, “We Shall Overcome.”  I guess they might have felt themselves to be at a certain remove from the new, monochromatic Farrakhan style.  I guess maybe they liked seeing a white face in the crowd.  A guy their own age, with life experience separate but equal to their own.  Someone they might, back in the day, have stood arm-in-arm with.

Up on the screen, Rosa Parks was introduced.  She stepped out, tiny and frail.  The crowd exulted; everyone looked happy; I remember a young father with his little boy on his shoulders, pointing and trying to explain.  I had to leave then to meet my own little boy after school.  When we got home, Jesse Jackson was finishing his speech; we caught the end of it on television.

So that was my day at the Million Man March.  Nothing dramatic — but it felt good to be there, just part of the crowd, a witness to some kind of history.  I can begin to imagine what it will feel like on Inauguration Day … but only begin.  My son Matt plans to be there, and someday perhaps he’ll bore his own kids by over-telling the story.