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TWO LABOR DAY MARCHES GIVE YOUNG BLACKS CHOICE BETWEEN RADICAL AND MAINSTREAM PATHS

Call it a fork in the road, literally and figuratively.

One branch leads to Atlanta, where traditional civil-rights groups are backing a Labor Day weekend march to confront the problems facing young blacks on the eve of a new millennium.

The other leads to New York City, where Khalid Muhammad, former minister of insult for the Nation of Islam, has been joined at the lip with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani while generating attention for his own march the same weekend.

With Muhammad the visible face of one, and the other sanctioned by mainstream groups like the NAACP and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the ingredients are present for those who want to turn the scenario into a morality play, with the New York organizers wearing black hats. And the sad part is that their event will probably siphon off most of the publicity.

Giuliani certainly did his part to keep the headlines there, playing to his conservative base by denying Muhammad's Million Youth March a permit to troop through Harlem. You can't go wrong in New York by posturing against a black man best known for insulting Jews.

Muhammad likewise burnished his radical image. He grabbed the Constitution on his way to the courthouse to fight the abrasive white mayor over blacks' First Amendment right to hold a gathering that includes gangsta rappers and what he called "radical revolutionary youth."

Both men got what they wanted: lots of ink.

Meanwhile, plans for the Million Youth Movement in Atlanta, though far more substantive, proceed without nearly as much notice because they lack such a quotable villain.

But if the choice were as simple as it will be portrayed in much of the media, who could blame young blacks for picking the more radical road?

When GOP members of Congress conspire to dilute their voices by making sure that people who look like them don't get counted -- or represented -- in the census, shouldn't they get a little angry? And when a federal court puts its imprimatur on a plan it knows will make minorities statistically disappear, shouldn't black youth get downright radical?

Or when states and courts conspire to block access to universities, jobs and business contracts by gutting affirmative action programs, wouldn't it be understandable if militancy beckons?

Or if it beckons when prison for black males is unofficially designated society's growth industry? Or when efforts to spend for education, job training and the like get trampled, despite a looming federal surplus? Or when police racism seems rampant yet Congress won't even let the Justice Department count the abuses?

Add it all up, and you have the motivation for a radical youth gathering in the wake of the Million Man and Million Woman marches.

But anger can just as easily be channeled into more mainstream avenues -- provided young people still believe in the efficacy of those approaches.

Organizers of the Atlanta event are banking on that belief to draw what they hope will be at least 200,000 to three days of workshops, forums and town hall meetings. The event is being pulled together by Black Youth Vote, a project of the Washington, D.C., based National Black Voter Participation Project.

The workshops and forums will deal with everything from police brutality to black entrepreneurship and getting into the stock market. The event also will tackle what organizer Dennis Rogers calls the "digital divide," that critical gap between black and white on-line access in the information age. And it will register attendees and try to increase the voter participation rate of young blacks, which Rogers says was a paltry 17.8 percent in 1996.

Atlanta organizers say their ambitious program was begun before the New York event was announced, and pointedly note that they've long had the required permits in hand. In fact, they contend, Muhammad only tried to organize the New York event after finding he couldn't control the Atlanta program, and they think uncertainty about it may push more people to Atlanta. Still, Rogers wishes the New York event well.

Are two marches too many? Considering the problems still facing blacks, they're probably not enough -- provided that they draw from different bases. The problems are so important that they can be attacked from more than one angle.

Nevertheless, comparisons between the "good" march and the "bad" march will be inevitable when the head counts come in. Categorizing blacks like that is part of Americana.

But those who do the categorizing should remember: It's also typically American to push blacks to the fringes with policies that make traditional political approaches seem pointless to the hopeless.

The New York march is getting publicity because of Muhammad. But if it gets a big turnout, it will be because of socioeconomic conditions far more difficult to ignore -- and ultimately far more dangerous -- than one loud-mouthed bigot.

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