Message and Messenger: The Million Man March

Article excerpt

POLITICAL THEORIST Jean Bethke Elshtain has pointed out that most scholars in the field have ignored the substantial religious references that are part of the work of early modern political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. By the time of John Stuart Mill, political thought had become thoroughly secularized, and it was widely assumed that religion had no place in serious discourse. I thought of Elshtain's comment while digesting reports about the Million Man March in Washington. References to God abounded on the taped segments relayed by CNN and CSPAN, but God was rarely mentioned in the media analysis.

The conventional approach by the media was to contrast the message and the messenger. According to the media, the march's message of responsibility and black unity was good, but it was undercut by the person of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and the originator of the march. The drumbeat of criticism regarding Farrakhan prior to the march was so intense that many black leaders stayed home--a decision they may come to regret, since the march ended up sounding a note of promise and harmony.

Farrakhan's past statements certainly deserve condemnation; he has made harsh and divisive remarks about whites, Jews, Christians, and American culture in general. But Farrakhan was largely on his best behavior at the peaceful march, which was, by any standard, a huge success. Those who made dire warnings about the march have to be a bit embarrassed now. Whether the crowd exceeded the park district's figure of 400,000 is hardly important; the important thing is that the event took place and that an enormous number of black men found it to be affirming and inspiring.

The occasional critic who deplored the male-only nature of the gathering missed the point: the focus was on men because men needed what the march offered. This was not an event that excluded women; it was an occasion for men to assert that the black community needs their presence, their atonement and their leadership. It was also an occasion undergirded by a positive religious message for a community which naturally uses religious language in addressing its fears and despair. To his lasting credit, Jesse Jackson undeterred by the criticism of Farrakhan, delivered one of his ringing sermons, concluding with a call to fathers to take charge of their children's education.

Farrakhan described himself as the messenger who created the march because God wanted him to. Who gets credit is not nearly as important as the fact that thousands of black men went home from Washington feeling better about themselves and pledging to do something about conditions that have undermined them and their communities. …