The Million Man March was a large gathering of African-American men in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 1995. Called by Louis Farrakhan, it was held on and around the National Mall. The National African American Leadership Summit, a leading group of civil rights activists and the Nation of Islam working with scores of civil rights organizations, including many local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People formed the Million Man March Organizing Committee.
A History of Mistreatment
Since their arrival in the country, black Americans have faced unfair treatment ‐ often based on nothing other than the color of their skin. In the 1990s, the unemployment rate for black Americans was nearly double that of whites. Additionally, the black community was plagued by high rates of drug use, along with the high rates of imprisonment that can still be seen today.
According to Minister Farrakhan, black men needed to seek forgiveness for allowing extraneous factors to come between them and their position as leaders of the black community and providers for their families. As a result, the theme for the Million Man March was “atonement.” Though this word has multiple definitions, two of them, in particular, illustrated the aim of the march. The first was “reparation for an offense or injury,” because in his eyes, black men had forsaken their community. The second was the reconciliation of God and humankind. He believed that black men had been ignoring the roles bestowed upon them by God and needed to restore that relationship.
A Shocking Turnout
On October 16, 1995, that dream became a reality and hundreds of thousands of black men showed up to the Mall on Washington. Black community leaders were so touched by the image of black men making a commitment to their families that it was referred to as “a glimpse of heaven.”
Farrakhan explicitly stated that there would be no violence or alcohol present. And according to the records, there were zero arrests or fights that day.
The event is reported to have lasted 10 hours, and for each of those hours, black men stood listening, weeping, laughing, and simply being. Although Farrakhan is a controversial figure to many black and white Americans alike, most agree that this display of commitment to community change was a positive action.
Those who did not support the march often did so based on accusations of a separatist agenda. While there were white people and women in attendance, the call to action was specifically targeted at black men, and some men felt this was both sexist and racist.
In addition to perspectives that saw the movement as separatist, many did not support the movement because they felt that while black men striving to do better was a good idea, there were many factors that were out of their control and no amount of effort would overcome. The systemic oppression that black Americans have experienced in the United States is not the fault of the black man. Farrakhan’s message lightly revisited “The Bootstrap Myth,” a common American perspective that believes we are all capable of rising to higher financial classes with hard work and dedication. However, this myth has been dispelled time and time again.
Nevertheless, estimates of how many black men were actually in attendance that day range from 400,000 to 1.1 million. This is due to the difficulty of counting how many people are present in a wide area that is geographically structured like the Mall on Washington.
A Potential for Change
It’s difficult to measure the success that sort of event has over the long run. However, it’s believed that well over a million black Americans registered to vote shortly after and rates of adoption for black youth increased.
Though not without criticism, the Million Man March was a significant moment in black history. It showed that black men would show up in droves to initiate efforts to support their community.
In 2015, Farrakhan attempted to recreate this historic event on its 20th anniversary. On October 10, 2015, thousands gathered to attend “Justice or Else” which had core similarities to the original event but put increased focus on the issue of police brutality. It was also said to be directed to the black community as a whole instead of just black men.
Echoing the message of two decades prior, Farrakhan emphasized the importance of guiding the youth. “We who are getting older.… what good are we if we don't prepare young people to carry that torch of liberation to the next step? What good are we if we think we can last forever and not prepare others to walk in our footsteps?” he said.
It’s hard to say how the events of October 16, 1995 changed the black community. However, it was, without a doubt, an act of solidarity and commitment in the black community that has been difficult to replicate.