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    Getting on the bus changed lives, say '95 black marchers

    On the eve of the Million Family March, participants in the march five years ago say it energized their work in the black community.

    [Times photo: Andrea Bruce Woodall]
    E. Ajamu Babalola, who changed his name and visited Africa after the 1995 march, teaches Swahili to children Thursday at his Ebony & Ivory Cafe in Clearwater.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- The Million Man March made a new man out of Ervin Harris.

    Inspired by the sight of the seemingly endless rows of African-American men on the Mall of the nation's capital, Harris returned to Clearwater determined to better himself and to do more in his community.

    A month after the march, Harris changed his name to E. Ajamu Babalola. Six months later, Babalola made his first trip to Africa. Two years after the march, he and his wife, Aseelah, bought a vacated movie theater on N Greenwood Avenue, in the heart of the business district of the city's black community, and renamed it the Ebony & Ivory Cafe. It's a place where neighborhood children are taught character-building skills and ways to become self-sufficient.

    Babalola has powerful memories of the march that changed his life.

    "As I talk about it, I relive it and think about how great things were," said Babalola, 53, who, along with his wife and their family, run Ervin's All-American Youth Club, a youth enrichment organization in Clearwater.

    Five years later, Babalola and others from this area who made the trek to Washington on that brisk autumn day speak wistfully of the march. At times they sound like men reflecting on glory days as high school football stars, or a mother reliving the memories of her child's first steps.

    Today, the fifth anniversary of the Million Man March, organizers of the event will try to recapture its spirit by holding a Million Family March in Washington.

    In varying ways, local men who attended the Million Man March say it changed them for the better, inspiring them to become more active in their communities. They think, for the most part, that African-American men are better off now than they were five years ago and that the energy from the march deserves some of the credit.

    But some say they wish march organizers had done more to keep the agenda of the march alive by coordinating grass-roots efforts to help the black community.

    "I expected to have some more information," said Jonathan Wade, 45, of Clearwater, a training specialist for a job-training program who participated in the 1995 march. "Some more followup. Some conferences. Maybe some lobbying to champion African-American causes."

    Babalola agrees.

    "I don't feel like we put together a mechanism to keep it together," he said.

    Others said it was not the responsibility of organizers to continue working with those who attended the march.

    "If you're waiting for somebody else to get something done, you're never going to get it done," said Darryl Brown, 37, a graduate student at Troy State University who lives in Brandon. " You've got to do it yourself. You've got a lot of organizations out there now. It's not that you need to search for something. Aid an organization that is already there."

    Brown and some friends from his fraternity rented a bus and drove to Washington. He can remember standing on a wall and looking in awe at the vast crowd, whose numbers still are disputed. U.S. Park Police officials estimated the marchers at about 400,000. Organizers said about 2-million people showed up that day.

    The numbers dispute doesn't matter to Brown. The fact that such a gathering among black men took place without any problems still stands out in his mind.

    "Everybody was getting along," he said.

    March served to renew commitment as activist

    The march was a strong cup of coffee for Brown, a man who had grown weary of community activities. Before the march, Brown had participated as a volunteer through his church and Habitat for Humanity. After the march, he helped children as a volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club. He spent more time with his three young nephews, talking to them about the importance of college. He has become more involved in mentoring, voter registration drives and the Toys for Tots program.

    "It renewed my strength," Brown said of the march. "It renewed the fight I had in me."

    At the time of the march, Brown was a student at the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. There, he was part of a group of African-American men called the Foundation. It was created about two years before the march as a group to dispel negative stereotypes about black men. Another member of the Foundation, James Harris, 25, of Tampa went to the march with the group.

    "It really fit into the ideals of the group," said Harris, then a sophomore at the university. "And I just wanted to experience something that would probably come once in a lifetime. I felt like I wanted to be part of it."

    Although Harris and the group had to leave before the day's keynote speaker, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, addressed the audience (they had classes the next day), Harris said the march awakened his sense of civic activism. Harris, a mass-communications major at the school, joined the Student Broadcasting Association. He became president of the university's Association of Minority Communicators. He joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

    "It helped me realize how important this was. How (black men) are almost in a state of desperation. How I need to step up. How we all need to step up," said Harris, who is the marketing and communications specialist for Largo's Recreation and Parks Department.

    Have black men stepped up?

    "I think we have," Harris said. "I don't hear as much, "The white man is holding me down.' I hear a lot more "We need to improve. I need to get my education. I need to take care of my family.' "

    Babalola answers the question: yes and no.

    "I don't see where we came away from the march with a real agenda or how are going to empower ourselves," he said.

    However, Babalola does not see as many young black men hanging out on street corners in North Greenwood selling drugs.

    Progress made in some areas but not in others

    U.S. statistics on black men show there have been some improvements for black men in some areas. But in other areas, the news is not so good.

    Between 1990 and 1995, there was a 32 percent rise in the percentage of African-American men placed in Florida prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections. From 1995 to 1999, that number increased by 5.6 percent, according to the agency's statistics.

    The number of black men in Florida in whom AIDS had been diagnosed has dropped since 1995, according to statistics provided by the state's Health Department. In 1995, there were 2,051 reported cases of AIDS among black men. Last year, that figure dropped to 1,660.

    Still, the percentage of black men getting college degrees lags behind black women, according to the National Urban League.

    Although Washington officials are expecting hundreds of thousands of people in that city for the Million Family March, none of the men interviewed said he planned to attend the march.

    Babalola said he needed to work with the kids at Ervin's. Brown's wife is expecting a baby, and he did not want to leave the area. Wade, who was in Washington last week to attend a conference, said he was not sure whether he would go to the march. Harris said he didn't plan to go, expecting that like most sequels, it won't have the same punch as the original.

    "I wish we could do it again," said Harris. "It was so much fun. We made history."

    - Information from Times files was used in this report.

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