Hurricane Katrina thrust racial disparities onto the nation’s political agenda and top civil rights leaders, fueled by outrage over the disaster, headed to Washington Oct. 15. The occasion was the 10th anniversary of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March, a long-planned event that shaped up as a stage for Black America to respond to the devastation in New Orleans.

“Because Katrina put it out there, no one can play the pretend game any more that there isn’t poverty and inequality in this country,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told The Associated Press. “The Millions More Movement — Katrina gives it added significance.”

Images of chaos and death as Katrina’s floodwaters engulfed Black neighborhoods shocked many Americans: poor New Orleans residents, many Black, pleading for rescue; corpses on the street. Opinion-makers from the president on down suddenly talked about poverty and racial inequality.

Though Farrakhan has long stirred controversy — and lately has speculated that New Orleans’ levees were bombed to destroy Black neighborhoods — his broadening of the call to the Millions More Movement united a wide array of prominent social justice advocates, members of Congress, hip-hop artists, civil rights activists, media pundits, academics, business and religious leaders.

Neither the organizers nor the police offered numbers for the crowd, but the Chicago Defender newspaper estimated more than 100,000 people attended the event, with even more watching at home on cable television.

With the U.S. Capitol serving as a backdrop, Farrakhan implored the crowd to change the direction of America, placing the burden on African Americans, other people of color and the poor to organize. “I know that the power to end the pain is not here,” he said pointing to the Capitol. “The power to end the pain is with those of us who are here and those of us who are watching.”

Even with a broader message coming from Farrakhan, not everyone was supportive. Jewish groups and Black gay and lesbian leaders were wary of Farrakhan because of his past anti-Semitic and anti-gay statements.

But the march came at a pivotal time, as race and class have burst into the national debate, after years of the Bush administration keeping these issues on the sidelines.

“The poor and the working poor have been locked out of the nation’s consciousness, even by the media and by many ministers,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. “Katrina washed away the debris that was covering the locked out and left behind.”

Some rally speakers tied the war in Iraq with Katrina and the human needs crises here at home. Jennifer Reid, chief of staff for the Atlanta University Center who spoke during the youth segment, said, “The weapons of mass destruction is a lack of education. The weapons of mass destruction is a lack of health care. The weapons of mass destruction is the apathy for our Black people in New Orleans. That’s the weapons of mass destruction,” she said.

Damu Smith of Black Voices For Peace told the crowd, “Katrina revealed the contradictions of our nation and how its priorities are out of whack. We can drop bombs on Baghdad very quickly, but we can’t drop food and medicine into New Orleans five days into a catastrophe.”

Many said they came to the march for spiritual renewal and strength to continue the fight when they get home. What is paramount, Eddie Read of Chicago told the Defender, is “to return to our cities and get busy” and “organize, organize and organize.”

Reports from the Chicago Defender, The Associated Press and Final Call contributed to this article.

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