On October 10, at the National Mall, Minister Louis Farrakhan will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the historic Million Man March. While the original event was solely dedicated to gathering at least 1 million black men to atone for their "failure as men" and take responsibility as the family head," tomorrow’s has a broader dictate. Billed "Justice or Else," this march will call for land, an immediate end to police violence and "justice" for a range of constituents—"Blacks in America who have given America 460 years of sweat and blood to make her rich and powerful," "the Native American Indians," "the Mexican and Latinos,""Women,""the Poor," "the Incarcerated" and "Veterans." (Noticeably absent from that list are black LGBTQ folks. And the theoretical split between "women" and "Black Americans" should have been resolved with 1982’s "But Some of Us Are Brave" and the growing popularity of "intersectionality.")
But to me, the biggest difference between October 16, 1995, and October 10, 2015, is, for lack of a better way to put it, electricity. While the crowd size for the first Million Man March was bitterly disputed, no one can deny that it drew hundreds of thousands of black men across, class, education, religion, locale and criminal-justice status. Keep in mind that organizers accomplished this at a time when cell phones, the Internet and e-mail weren’t widely available and social media didn’t even exist.
Last time, mainstream media essentially double-dog dared black men to show up by almost unanimously vilifying Farrakhan, giving conservatives the mic, and framing black feminist critique as a deep fissure between all black men and women.
The first march tapped major black organizations, churches and beloved figures to spread the word. Local organizing committees did the essential work of coordinating caravans to the National Mall. (Spike Lee’s "Get on the Bus" dramatizes one such trip.)
In 2015, key organizers from the leading, most digitally sophisticated movement for black lives haven’t said, "This is what we’re all doing." Many politically involved black men in my orbit who relished the first march are staying home. Those who were toddlers in October 1995 don’t even know what the Million Man March is.
I do have one friend and mentor committed to going: writer, activist and Rap Sessions founder Bakari Kitwana. Here’s what he wrote about why he’s getting on that figurative bus. —Akiba Solomon
The news of a march to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March conjured up a great deal of skepticism in me. Against a backdrop of commemorative marches and historic dates—the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation—the contemporary collective preoccupation with past milestones sometimes feels like a substitute for new victories.
But I’m still going.
In making my decision, I’ve been thinking about the realities that led black people to embrace the original Million Man March. In 1995, it was common to hear that "most black boys would not live to reach the age of 30." In equally heavy rotation was the expression that black men were "an endangered species."
The rise of hip-hop amid the crack cocaine explosion and the devastating war on drugs had given a new generation of black males hope, but the rhetoric of the previous generation still held sway over black political life.
I think of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns and Louis Farrakhan’s rebuilding of the Nation of Islam as demonstrations of the dominant streams of that period’s black political thought. This tendency was underscored by the university-based debate between Afrocentrists and European Classicists. Within that context, Farrakhan’s call for a million black men to descend on the nation’s capital not only made good sense, it was a logical progression.
So in this climate I, along with hundreds of thousands of black men, attended the Million Man March. Moving in hip-hop and black political circles of that day, it was nearly impossible to find a black man who wasn’t going. And despite some discord across the gender divide, countless sisters supported the idea of this black male-only space.
Our enthusiasm was the result of intense, cross-movement organizing. The leader of the so-called "new NAACP," Benjamin Chavis, united with major civil rights and social justice organizations including the National Black United Front, The Rainbow Coalition and National Action Network. Leading activists and scholars such as Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Dorothy Height, Ron Daniels, Bob Law and Haki Madhubuti also threw their weight behind this march. It was a time to set aside petty differences for the larger common good.
On a personal level, the October 16, 1995, march did not disappoint. It was a spiritually moving, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the presence of black men from all walks of life. In that moment, there was a complete breakdown of the distinctions between everyday people, celebrities, activists, self-described leaders, elders—and everybody else. We honored our history and felt rejuvenated about moving forward.
While these memories matter, the primary reason I’m going to “Justice or Else” is that the black condition in America has arguably worsened since October 1995.
There are many statistical indicators of this: Today, black Americans have more college degrees, but less income and wealth, and more poverty. Of the 46 million Americans living in poverty today, 11 million are black, versus 10 million 20 years ago. White wealth in 1995 was seven times more than blacks‘; today it’s at least 12 times more. Additionally, since the last march, blacks have continued to experience dismal unemployment rates. It was 11.1 percent in September 1995; it’s 9.2 percent today.
The unspoken-but-clear message from the U.S. government to its black citizens is this: Your education may benefit you individually, but it is not going to save us collectively. Likewise, we have witnessed a thriving conservatism that tells us daily that our problem is cultural inferiority rather than a failed economic system that government economists now proclaim is in recovery.
As the first black president, who has too often looked past a black agenda, prepares to exit the White House, all signposts point to darker days for black folks if business as usual prevails. Yet, we are so far beyond a wait-and-see approach that most Americans with their backs to the wall are looking for answers beyond lawmakers who suggest, by their inaction, that only cataclysmic intervention will change the equation.
Yes, it is past time for celebrating old victories and high time for claiming new ones. But at this stage in my life, anyone who has arrived at a “Justice or Else” mindset has earned my unwavering support.