Memories and lessons from the Million Man March

By News | Last updated: Oct 12, 2012 - 8:37:46 AM

What's your opinion on this article?


This year will mark the 17th anniversary of the Million Man March on Washington convened by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and backed by grassroots leaders, activists, pastors, imams and religious leaders across the country.

It was one of the most powerful events in the history of this country and lifted a ceiling off of what was considered possible for popular participation in public events. If you have heard of or participated in “Million”-anything from the Million Hoodie March, Million Mom March, Million Father March, Million Mom Challenge, Million Gun Challenge, Million T Shirt March, Million Mustache March, Million Letter March, Million March for Jesus, Million Marijuana March, Millions Musicians March for Peace, Million Big Gulp March, Million Pound March, Million Worker March, Million March Against Child Abuse, Million Youth March, Millions for Mumia, Millions for Reparations, to the Million Woman March, none of these events would have happened without the Million Man March. None of these events were challenged to actually produce one million anything as the Minister was challenged to fulfill the impossible task of having one million Black men at one place at one time.

Many who have heard the term “Million” don’t know where it comes from, nor the power the first march represented. The Million March concept has been duplicated in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Rome, Brazil, India, Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico.

When Min. Farrakhan called for the Million Man March on Oct. 16, 1995, it was during an inspired moment at the 369th St. Armory in Harlem in January 1994.

Even the genesis of the march is telling: In 1993, Min. Farrakhan wanted to speak at Yankee Stadium in New York, but the event would have been three days before voting in a tight mayoral race between Black incumbent David Dinkins and challenger Rudy Giuliani. Black leadership asked that the Minister not come to the stadium, which held 65,000 people, saying Mr. Dinkins’ chances of winning could be hurt. Min. Farrakhan humbly honored this request but the leaders did not make good on a promise to support him in a future speech at the Javits Center. Mayor Dinkins also lost by some 65,000 votes. Only the Rev. Al Sharpton supported the Javits Center event in December 1993.

During his lecture, the Minister asked if he came back to speak to Men Only would the brothers come back. The crowd roared, “Yes!” In January 1994, some 14,000 men turned out for the 369th St. Armory meeting.

As he spoke about the harrowing plight of the Black community and asked Black men to stand with him against violence, he essentially said he wanted to take a million men to Washington, D.C. The Minister quickly went to work to make his word bond by holding Men Only Meetings across the country. The idea spread as Black nationalists, Muslims, Christians and Hebrews and ordinary Black men and women heard the call. It also followed efforts at Operational Unity embarked upon by then-Congressional Black Caucus chair Kweisi Mfume and NAACP head Ben Chavis, who was ousted for having the audacity to invite Farrakhan to dialog with Black leadership on Black problems. The ouster led to the civil rights leader eventually becoming the executive director of the Million Man March.

While most major and so-called established Black leaders, and many Christian denominations and groups kept away, or outright condemned the march call, the White media ridiculed the idea. But Black newspapers and radio hosts supported and pushed the concept and billionaire Robert Johnson, then owner of Black Entertainment Television, came out in support of the march. Despite withering attacks, unbridled opposition and even charges that Min. Farrakhan was the anti-Christ, on a crisp Monday morning in Washington, D.C., some two million men gathered on the National Mall. Congress shut down for the day, though Black lawmakers spoke to the men assembled. President Bill Clinton left town. Prior to the peaceful spirit that pervaded the day, there were real concerns about what would happen when Black men converged on the Nation’s Capitol. They had walked, flown, and drove to assemble for the mighty march. Black law enforcement officers had manned buses that came down highways and motorcycle clubs had provided escorts.

But this was a different kind of march, a Holy Day of Atonement was declared for Oct. 16 by Black religious leaders and a process of atonement was offered as a way to heal wounds in homes, in organizations, in communities, in the nation and in the world.

The reason for the march was Atonement, Reconciliation and Responsibility, with the men appealing to God Himself for forgiveness for their shortcomings and for the strength and commitment to do better. There were no appeals to government here, but demands placed on the men by themselves. The men pledged to harm no one except in self defense. They pledged to support their families and respect their women. They pledged to build businesses and rebuild communities. Black men hugged and cried. Generations of men stood together. Fraternity brothers embraced. Strangers became friends. Estranged fathers who had shown up at the homes of long forgotten children stood with their sons in a major transformational moment. Amazingly Black mothers handed over their sons for this journey, despite painful experiences with the fathers. Men of every faith and no faith at all were welcome; it didn’t matter what age, skin color, hair texture, sexual orientation or station in life. Men who were sick or needed to use the bathroom were hoisted high by their army of brothers and gently handed over the sea of humanity until their needs could be attended to. There was no room to walk anywhere. Celebrities crowded the stage. Onetime detractors and opponents of the march spoke to the crowd.

The day was a glimpse of heaven with no crime reported and the men left the Mall cleaner than when they arrived. Much credit and respect is due to then-Mayor Marion Barry, a strong Black man who opened the resources of the city to his brothers, and his wife Cora Masters Barry, who was among Black women who strongly backed the men.

On the Great Day, the voices of Black women were heard—Dr. Dorothy Height of the National Council for Negro Women and Dr. Betty Shabazz spoke and words were read from a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou. Civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks was there to see her sons and other women stood proudly with their men and addressed the huge crowd.

At the 1963 March on Washington, only men spoke and gospel great Mahalia Jackson sang, but at the great gathering of men, women spoke and the Minister issued a major statement condemning violence against women, rape and incest.

After the march, crime went down in the Black community, thousands of children were adopted—which was one of the march platforms—while businesses opened and Black men flocked to Black organizations and houses of worship. An additional 1.7 Black men participated in the 1996 presidential election, beating back a Republican onslaught in Congress and returning Mr. Clinton to office.

These reflections on the march are ignored by the majority press and why should they care? This was an independent effort which signaled an independent path for Black America. Pharaoh’s magicians always seek to keep the people blinded from the truth and divine men—in this era, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his modern Aaron, Min. Farrakhan.

It is up to us to recite the history of that glorious day in 1995 and to stand on its principles. Reciting the stories from that day should remind us of what our unity can do, despite the efforts of those who oppose us. All of the tenets of the march are necessary today: We still need atonement, reconciliation and responsibility. We still need to respect and protect our women. We still need to build our communities. We still need peace in the ‘hood and operational unity. We still need the favor of God and his blessings.

Let us not ignore our own great history, nor live in the past. Let us recover the vision of the Million Man March, embrace its principles and build on a 17-year-old foundation. The victory is ours if we are willing to claim it.