The Million Man March 15 years later: A movement or a moment?

It has since been romanticized, revered, criticized, satirized, and emulated, but 15 years ago the Million Man March represented for many an all too rare moment of solidarity among black men from across America. On October 16, 1995, the Million Man March, organized by Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, was held in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall, site of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The goal of the march was to call forth “a million sober, disciplined, committed, dedicated, inspired black men to meet in Washington on a day of atonement.”

The all-day affair featured performances and speeches from various community and national leaders, including Dick Gregory, Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Rosa Parks, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, Marion Barry, Dr. Betty Shabazz, Cornel West, Dorothy Height, and Farrakhan himself. Each of the speakers stressed the call for a “day of atonement,” a phrase that has since become a second name for the march, emphasizing the desire for black men to abandon destructive behaviors and re-dedicate themselves to being stalwarts and leaders in their communities.

This sentiment was eloquently echoed in the speech of then 14-year-old Ayinde Jean-Baptiste (who went on to become a community organizer and motivational speaker) who said at the time: “You must change today so that tomorrow may dare to be different, and when you have fought back, and regained your pride, when you have won some battles, when you are able to tell the stories of your heroism, when you can pass on to your young the tradition of struggle through examples of your having stood up for a better tomorrow.”

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At the culmination of the day’s events, Farrakhan asked all those in attendance to join him in taking a pledge which included vows to “strive to love my brother as I love myself” and “never again use the ‘b-word’ to describe any female. But particularly my own black sister.”

The day, for those men who partook in the march, was an electrifying experience. “There was just excitement in the air,” David Hannah, a Vietnam veteran who attended after being persuaded to do so by a group of friends, says, “It was just amazing to see so many black guys coming together for a cause.” “All the speakers were great,” according to Hannah but it was “the one-on-one conversations” among the men in the crowd that allowed for sharing of stories and moments of bonding that stuck with him the most.

Marcus Smith, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, who was a second grader at the time of the march, recalls being impacted by the enormous outpouring and sheer number of attendees. “Even then I knew it was something special seeing all the people,” Smith says, “Me, my brothers and our father got to see it together. It was a great moment to see as a child.” For him, it was an event that showed what was possible for black people. “It was that moment of black solidarity that is rare in modern times,” according to Smith who feels that the visual beauty of the march has had a lasting impact on him.

For Sharrieff R. De’Johnette, a professor of history at Hampton University, attending the march as an undergraduate was an opportunity to feel connected to the Civil Rights movement and the legacy of the 1963 march held at the same location. “I really wanted to hear what Farrakhan had to say,” De’Johnette says, “and one of the biggest themes that stuck with me was this idea of atonement.”

And it is that idea of “atonement” that causes Marc Lamont Hill, associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of the nationally syndicated television show Our World with Black Enterprise, to criticize the message and intent of the march. “It was politically irresponsible,” Hill says, “the opportunity to get millions of black men together was a remarkable achievement and a necessary one, but we squarndered the opportunity by only focusing on this notion of atonement… I thought the notion of atonement…played right into the hands of conservative right.”

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While Hill is for the ideas personal responsibility that were espoused, i.e. living a clean life and being a good father, he feels it was necessary for the march to address political realities such as the need for a living wage and dismantling the prison industrial complex in addition to the atonement. “We led the first full-scale march against ourselves,” according to Hill.

“It was a moment that never translated into a movement, in my judgment” De’Johnette adds as a historian, because there was “no structure in place that dealt with any of the common issues” that were discussed throughout the day. This idea is shared by Mark Anthony Neal, the author of five books, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy, and teaches black popular culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

“I think the march highlights what I think is a problem that speaks to the community in general is that very often we get engaged in spectacles in which the intent is to present something of substance,” Neal says, “what we didn’t have then and to some extent don’t really have now was a working infrastructure to really act on the kind of goals the march talked about.” Neal also agrees with Hill in regards to march failing to address structural realities that lead to inequities. “There was very little that day that was directed toward the realities of white supremacy, capitalism, and all the ills that folks struggle against,” Neal says.

Neal and Hill also agree that the march focused too much the ideas of patriarchy, and essentially was a call for black men to “return” to the status of head of their household and community and serve as savior, which both men see as problematic.

Still, despite its shortcomings, the Million Man March is a watershed moment for some. Aside from the chilly D.C. weather, De’Johnette has no criticism to offer, and Hannah believes that if it spurred anyone to action to help others then the divine purpose of the march was fulfilled. “I hope each individual there took something from that,” Hannah says, “I just pray to God they did something to effect the community.”