ON A TRAIN TO WASHINGTON – Before traveling from Baltimore to the Million Man March, Clarence Mitchell IV tiptoed into his son’s bedroom, knelt down beside him and gently nudged him awake. In the darkness of 2 a.m., it was barely even a new day.
But Mitchell hoped by marching to make it a starting point for his people to build a better black community for his son.
“Do you know what daddy is going to do today?” he asked.
“Yes, dad,” 7-year-old Malik said sleepily. “I think I do.”
With that, Mitchell slipped into the morning and headed to Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station, “to go in united with my brothers.” He took the special 5:15 a.m. MARC train to Washington for a chance to bond with other black leaders, he said. For they had much to discuss.
“We as elected officials must recognize our roles in this event,” said Mitchell, a Democrat who represents Baltimore in the Maryland House of Delegates.
But in this march, it seemed, everyone was a leader, or at least had the chance to become one. The event – which had drawn both praise and criticism – was a day of atonement, prayer and inspiration for black men. Women were told to stay away and all blacks were asked to mark the day with absences from school and work.
Mitchell said the negative attention focused on event organizer Louis Farrakhan, a controversial Nation of Islam leader, had threatened to derail the overriding concept of the march: Unity.
“We have some serious problems in the black community. We have men leaving their children and families, we have drugs, sure we have a lot of things we have to work on,” Mitchell said. “But that is what I believe we are here to change.”
Women flanked Penn Station’s doorways as men of all ages poured in. “Go with God, our brothers. We are so proud of you,” they said.
The sendoff brought tears to the eyes of Del. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, who saluted the women as he passed by.
“See, people were saying that women opposed this march. When they are truly behind it all the way. They want their men to be united,” Cummings said.
The train pulled out of the station. They were on their way.
An official in a railroad uniform stood up and said, “I’m supposed to let everyone who has a ticket ride and charge everyone $6.75 who doesn’t have one.” He looked around the car. “But it looks like everyone has one.”
Despite the early hour, many of the estimated 1,200 people aboard were singing gospel songs and playing African drums.
“It was for once, truly a pleasure to get up this early in the morning,” said Lawrence Hailey, a landscaper.
Hailey rode in with his best friend Phillip Keemer. Both are single fathers.
“We never would have had the chance to see each other if it weren’t for this march. I think that’s what it is all about,” Hailey said.
As the two did their catching up, the slow rhythmic rocking motion of the train lulled others to sleep.
For many, it was no ordinary train ride, but a pilgrimage.
“When I was 1 year old, my father marched on Washington with Martin Luther King,” Mitchell said. “Now it is my chance to do something like that.”
His father was seated beside him. Both wore blaze orange baseball caps, the better to find each other should they become separated.
Clarence Mitchell III said he had the same feeling as on that day with King in 1963. “It a pride and an incredible spiritual connection to others,” he recalled. “There are truly no words that could describe it.”
As the train pulled into Washington’s Union Station, there were claps and cheers. “We have arrived!” some shouted.
A young woman stood shyly in a glass entryway, watching the crowd stream off.
“Hello sister,” they said to her.
Judea Lawton, 33, of Philadelphia, hadn’t thought she’d be able to witness the march. She went to the Philadelphia bus station even though she couldn’t afford a ticket, and said Greyhound let her ride for free.
Lawton said she would return home and tell her worried mother, “Mom, there is hope!”
The passengers filed out. Del. Cummings was rendered speechless by the sight of thousands of men pouring together onto the Mall. “Look who has nothing to say,” one of his traveling companions wryly observed.
That loosened Cummings’ tongue.
“This is the most beautiful sight in the world,” he said.
Then a young white woman walked hesitantly over to him. “You are welcome, my sister,” he told her.
Elysa Diamond, 24, a George Washington University student, just wanted to ask about the event.
“I must say I was a bit afraid of all these young black men gathered together but this experience has taught me a lot,” she told Cummings. “Today I rode the Metro and I was the only white person on the train. It was such a change to be the minority.”
Against the backdrop of the Capitol, the two strangers – one a young Jewish woman, the other a black community leader – had a candid exchange. “If you represent the future of our country, then I feel good. Young lady, you have truly made my day,” Cummings said. -30-