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- October 30, 1995
- Vol. 44
- No. 18
Pride and Joy
The Fathers and Sons Who Went to the Million Man March Shared An Experience That Was, in the End, Deeply Personal
KEN SYLVAIN SR. STILL REMEMBERS the days when blacks who hazarded a visit to an unfamiliar restaurant often received only a taste of humiliation. In the 1960s, Ken Sr., his wife, Leola, and their children would drive from their home in Washington to his native New Orleans on vacation. When they stopped to eat at a roadside joint, Ken would first go in alone, just to make sure that black customers would be welcome. All too frequently, he would come back to the car, get in and drive on without explanation. "My father pretty much lives by the rule that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," says Ken II, now 33, recalling those trips. "So he would never really tell us much about racism."
Which is not to say Ken Sr., 58, ignored the problem. He still remembers how degraded he was made to feel by Colored Only signs on streetcars, and Leola, now 57, tells of the family's terror when they were once followed for miles in Alabama by a truckload of white men after being refused service at an ice-cream stand. But Sylvain is an optimist by nature, confident that the world could be changed. So whenever there was a civil rights rally in Washington, for instance the Poor People's March, Ken and Leola wrould take the kids. Ken II recalls how seriously his parents took these outings. "I realized that for them this was more than a drive out in the park," he says. "They were saying, 'This is something that's important to us,' that it was important that they stood up for black people."
Ken Sr. is the first to acknowledge that much has improved in the past 30 years. By working two jobs—one at the Washington recreation department and the other as a part-time city bus driver—he was always able to provide his family with financial security. All three of his children attended college. Ken II, who went to Duke University and the University of Maryland, is now an account executive at America Online, the information-superhighway access service. Yet when Ken II walks in Washington's Rock Creek Park during the day, he notices white people often edging away from him on the path, as if fearful for their safety. When he and his wife, Davida, 30, go shopping at suburban malls they may draw wary looks from white merchants. And they worry about the effect of all this on their kids, Trey, 3, and Julia, 2. "You have children growing up in that type of atmosphere," says Ken II, "and it works on their psyches."
And so last week, Ken Sr., Ken II and Trey—more formally Ken III—found themselves on Washington's Mall, part of the Million Man March and perhaps the beginning of a new chapter in black history. "It's so exciting," said Ken II, wading through the crowd with Trey on his shoulders and his father pushing the empty stroller. "It's like going to the gas station, in a way. Sometimes you need more energy just to make it through the day—and this is like a fill-up."
Certainly there was no energy crisis in Washington on Oct. 16, as more than 400,000 black men, who converged on the capital by rail, bus, car and plane, gathered for the rally billed by its organizer, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, as a Day of Atonement. The event was that and more—part revival meeting, pep rally and moving demonstration of pride and solidarity. Again and again, the featured speakers—Stevie Wonder and Jessie Jackson and Maya Angelou—hammered away at the themes of combating drugs and violence in the black community and of taking personal initiative and responsibility. But without doubt the most lasting impressions for participants were found in the shared camaraderie of the men who thronged the nearly two miles of green between the Washington Monument and the Capitol building. "Nobody expected this," says Robert Jones, a counselor in Philadelphia, who brought his 9-year-old son, Brandon. "I wanted him to feel this sense of brotherhood. I hope this is the start of something good."
Amid all the uplift, there was of course the controversy over Farrakhan, whose penchant for race-baiting and anti-Semitism has alienated many whites and blacks. In an interview released by Reuters on the eve of the rally, Farrakhan had referred to Jewish and Asian businessmen as "bloodsuckers" who were plundering the black community. But on the Mall, the assembled marchers were determined to have no one—including Farrakhan—dictate to them. Said Barry-Sermons, 36, a computer analyst for Coca-Cola in Atlanta, who joined five cousins and a group of friends for the day: "We are here to make a commitment to be responsible to our families and ourselves. We set the agenda for this march—no one else."
Indeed, at least a few men professed deep admiration for some of the "bloodsuckers" so abhorred by Farrakhan. Two friends, Errol Tucker, 31, and Daniel Crowe, 33, both businessmen from New York City, hoped the rally would foster the same sort of racial pride and mutual support among blacks that they see as a key to the success of other groups, like Korean-. Americans. "I hear a lot of people complain that the Koreans come over here and they own all these little stores and fruit stands," says Tucker, who runs his own property-management business in Manhattan. "Part of the reason they're able to do that is because they have a tight community. They support each other, they patronize each other's businesses. The black community needs to do that as well."
Both Tucker and Crowe know firsthand the frustrations of trying to make it in the mainstream—meaning the white business world. After graduating from the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, one of Tucker's first jobs was as a salesman for Cellular One, the wireless phone service. He seemed to do well and was named salesman-of-the-month nine times in his year there. But he came to doubt his opportunities for advancement, not so much because of overt racism but simply because of the prevailing old-boy network. "I could see where it was coming from," he says matter-of-factly, "because when I came into the company, I observed there wasn't too much black representation in management." Now he tries to steer as much of his business to black-owned firms as he can. Recently when he needed an exterminator for his offices, he limited his search to black-run firms.
For Crowe, who graduated from 'Northeastern University in Boston, the difficulties have been more subtle. A financial-services adviser at the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, he enjoys his work immensely. No matter how much success he achieves, though, he sometimes feels like an outsider. "I go to my quarterly board meetings, where there are two or three black executives present," says Crowe, who is renovating a Victorian home in the ethnically diverse suburb of Freeport, N.Y., and who, like Tucker, is single. "If there's another black guy around, he has a 50-gallon garbage can and a broom."
But for Tucker and Crowe, traveling to Washington for the rally was not an exercise in self-pity. Far from it. The night before the march they left New York in Tucker's black BMW 325. To Tucker, even that handsome car has become a reminder of a concern he has for the black community. In the name of image, he says, many black Americans feel the need to spend money they do not have on luxury items like expensive athletic shoes and fancy cars, rather than investing. "We're trying to look the part," he says, "without actually being the part." Even though Tucker was able to afford his BMW, he insists that phase of his life is over. "I spent money on junk," he says. "Now whatever money I get, I put back in my company."
The virtues of self-reliance seemed to dominate the buzz on the Mall. Far less in evidence was talk of the evils of racism. That was a relief to Sermons and his cousins. "If you dwell on racism, you hurt yourself," Sermons says. "It's destructive." He almost decided not to attend the march out of concern that the tone might be too extreme. "I was raised on Dr. Martin Luther King and my parents believed in nonviolence," says Sermons, whose mother attended King's landmark March on Washington in 1963 while his father took care of the kids. "When I first heard about this march and the connection to the Nation of Islam, I wasn't going." In the end, though, he decided that the good outweighed the bad—and that the gathering was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unite with his brethren. That sense was one shared by all ages. Terence Lancaster-Williams Jr., 16, who traveled by bus from Chicago with his father, Terence Sr., a telephone repairman, and two brothers, Michael, 18, and Brandon, 10, was enthusiastic. "I think it's a rarity," he said, "when a child gets to go to a historic event."
For the Sylvains and others, the rally was an unfamiliar—almost eerie—experience. "You're so used to being in the minority, and when you come together like this, you realize you're, in a majority," says Ken II. "There's a certain anxiety that you feel daily when you're a black man, a certain jumpiness. Here you get to relax a little, let the walls come down."
All the same, Tucker and Crowe were moved nearly to tears by the spontaneous goodwill they encountered. All around them, men—perfect strangers—were hugging, shaking hands and clapping each other on the back. "At another event, if you look someone in the eye they might say, 'Why are you looking at me,' " says Crowe. "Here you look at someone and say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' " In that sense the march more than fulfilled the major expectation for Tucker and Crowe, who hoped it would provide a jolt of inspiration, the way that Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling in 1938 proved to be a watershed event for blacks of an earlier generation. "Back then people were dancing in the streets, hugging people they didn't know," says Crowe. "And even though when the radio was turned off that night, and the fight was over, and they had to go back to being shoe shiners or house cleaners or whatever, they had a little more bounce in their stride because they knew someone who came up through tough times just like they did. He had made it."
MARY ESSELMAN, SOPHERONIA SCOTT GREGORY, ELIZABETH VELEZ AND MAURICE WEAVER in Washington and bureau reports
- Mary Esselman,
- Sopheronia Scott Gregory,
- Elizabeth Velez,
- Maurice Weaver.
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