Million Man March
The Million Man March, considered one of the most important modern events of African-American civil rights, was a gathering of social activists, en masse, held on and around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on October 16, 1995. The National African American Leadership Summit, a leading group of civil rights activists and the Nation of Islam working in conjunction with scores of civil rights organizations including many local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (but not the national NAACP) formed the Million Man March Organizing Committee. The founder of the National African American Leadership Summit, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr. served as National Director of the Million Man March.
The committee invited many prominent speakers to address the audience, and Louis Farrakhan delivered the keynote address. African American men from across the United States converged on Washington in an effort to “convey to the world a vastly different picture of the Black male” and to unite in self-help and self-defense against economic and social ills plaguing the African American community.
The march took place within the context of a larger grassroots movement that set out to win politicians’ attention for urban and minority issues through widespread voter registration campaigns. A parallel event called the Day of Absence, organized by female leaders in conjunction with the March leadership, occurred on the same date, and was intended to engage the large population of black Americans who would not be able to attend the demonstration in Washington. On this date, all blacks were encouraged to stay home from their usual school, work, and social engagements, in favor of attending teach-ins, and worship services, focusing on the struggle for a healthy and self-sufficient black community. Further, organizers of the Day of Absence hoped to use the occasion to make great headway on their voter registration drive.
Although the march won support and participation from a number of prominent African American leaders, its legacy is plagued by controversy over several issues. The leader of the march, Louis Farrakhan, is a highly contested figure whose biting commentary on race in America has led some to wonder whether the message of the march can successfully be disentangled from the controversial messenger. Two years after the march, the Million Woman March was held in response to fears that the Million Man March had focused on black men to the exclusion of black women. Finally, within the first 24 hours following the March a conflict between March organizers and Park Service officials erupted over crowd size estimates. The National Park Service issued an estimate of about 400,000 attendees, a number significantly lower than March organizers had hoped for. After a heated exchange between leaders of the march and Park Service, ABC-TV funded researchers at Boston University estimated the crowd size to be 837,000, plus or minus 20%.
One of the primary motivating factors for the march was to place black issues back on the nation’s political agenda. In the aftermath of the Republican Party’s victory in the 1994 Congressional election and the continued success of the party’s campaign platform, the Contract with America, some African American leaders felt the social and economic issues facing the black community fell by the wayside of policy debates. March organizers believed that politicians were failing the black community by “papering over the most vital dimensions of the crisis in international capitalism” and blaming urban blacks for “domestic economic woes that threatened to produce record deficits, massive unemployment, and uncontrolled inflation.”
At the time of the march, African Americans faced unemployment rates nearly twice that of white Americans, a poverty rate of more than 40%, and a median family income that was about 58% of the median for white households. More than 11% of all black males were unemployed and for those aged 16 to 19, the number of unemployed had climbed to over 50% Further, according to Reverend Jesse Jackson’s speech at the March, the United States House of Representatives had reduced funding to some of the programs that played an integral role in urban Americans’ lives. “The House of Representatives cut $1.1 billion from the nation’s poorest public schools,” and “cut $137 million from Head Start” effectively subtracting $5,000 from each classroom’s budget and cutting 45,000 preschoolers from a crucial early education program.
Environmental hazards were also seen as making the lives of urban blacks unstable. Black men were murdered at a rate of 72 per 100,000, a rate significantly higher than the 9.3 per 100,000 attributed to the white male population. Some black activists blamed aggressive law enforcement and prison construction for leaving “two hundred thousand more blacks in the jail complex than in college” and devastating leadership gaps within black communities and families. Event organizers were further infuriated by a perceived gap in prenatal care for black women and children caused, in part, by the closing of inner-city hospitals. Event organizers were of the view that urban Blacks were born with “three strikes against them”: insufficient prenatal care, inferior educational opportunities, and jobless parents. Instead of providing young children with the means to succeed, they believed the government instead intervened in the lives of its black citizens through law enforcement and welfare programs that did little to improve the community’s circumstances.
In addition to their goal of fostering a spirit of support and self-sufficiency within the black community, organizers of the Million Man March also sought to use the event as a publicity campaign aimed at combating what they perceived as the negative racial stereotypes in the American media and in popular culture. March organizers were dismayed by the sweeping stereotypes they thought white America seemed to draw from the coverage of such figures as Willie Horton, O. J. Simpson, and Mike Tyson. Believing that “black men have been designated by the culture as the sacrificial lambs for male evil”, event organizers asked black male attendees to make a public display of their commitment to responsible and constructive behavior that would give the mass media positive imagery to broadcast.
Although various organizations, charities, and vendors had booths and displays at the rally, the focal point of the day was the stage set up on the west front grounds of the United States Capitol building. The day's events were broken down into several sessions: Early Morning Glory (6 am-7:30am), Sankofa: Lessons from the Past Linkages to the Future (8 am–10:30 am), Affirmation/Responsibility (11 am–2 pm), and Atonement and Reconciliation (2:30 pm–4 pm).
I. Early Morning Glory
- Rev. H. Beecher Hicks of Washington, D.C. and Minister Rasul Muhammad – Masters of Ceremonies
- Sheik Ahmed Tijani Ben-Omar of Accra, Ghana and Rev. Frederick Haynes, III from the Friendship West Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas - adhan and invocation
II. Sankofa: Lessons from the past
- Rev. Wayne Gadie of the Emanuel Baptist Church, Malden, Massachusetts – Opening prayer
- Dancers and drummers from the village of Kankoura, Burkina Faso
- Greetings from the African Diaspora from the continent of Africa and the Caribbean
- Greetings from Black American leaders such as George Augustus Stallings, Oscar Easton (Blacks in Government), Henry Nichols (Hospital Workers Union), Dr. Niam Akbar (Florida State University), Zachery McDaniels (National African American Leadership Summit)
- Rev. Willie F. Wilson, of Union Temple Baptist Church, Washington, D.C., and Minister Ishmael Muhammad, of Mosque Maryam, Chicago, Illinois – Masters of ceremonies
- Rev. Al Sampson, Fernwood United Methodist Church (Chicago) - "A Declaration of Purpose"
- Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, Chief Curator, Goree Island (Senegal) - "The African Diaspora"
- Congressman Donald M. Payne, Chair, Congressional Black Caucus - "The Congress"
- Former Congressman Gus Savage - "The Statesman"
- Kurt Schmoke, Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland – "The Cities"
- Marion Barry, Mayor of Washington, D.C. – "Mayor's Welcome and Official Statement"
Affirmation of Our Brothers
- Cora Masters Barry, First Lady, District of Columbia - Mistress of Ceremonies
- Dr. Betty Shabazz - remarks
- Martin Luther King, III - remarks
- Tynetta Muhammad- remarks
Mothers of the Struggle - Behold Thy Sons
- Faye Williams, attorney - Washington, D.C. coordinator Million Man March
- Rosa Parks
- Dorothy I. Height
IV. Atonement and Reconciliation
- Rev. Willie F. Wilson and Minister Ishmael Muhammad - Masters of Ceremonies
- Bishop H. H. Brookins of the 5th Episcopal District, AME in Los Angeles, California - the prayer for atonement
- Rev. James Bevel of Chicago - the theological foundation for atonement
- Dr. Cornel West - Statement of Atonement
- Rev. Joseph Lowery - Statement of Atonement
- Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., national coordinator of the Million Man March - the Healing of a People
- Minister Louis Farrakan
Structure of speeches
The organizers of the event took steps to lift the march from a purely political level to a spiritual one, hoping to inspire attendees and honored guests to move beyond “articulation of black grievances” to a state of spiritual healing. Speakers at the event structured their talks around three themes: atonement, reconciliation, and responsibility. The Day of Atonement became a second name for the event and for some came to represent the motivation of the Million Man movement. In the words of one man who was in attendance, Marchers aimed at “being at one with ourselves, the Most High, and our people”. Beyond the most basic call for atonement leaders of the March also called for reconciliation, or a state of harmony between members of the black community and their God. Speakers called participants to “settle disputes, overcome conflicts, put aside grudges and hatreds” and unite in an effort to create a productive and supportive black community that fosters in each person the ability to “seek the good, find it, embrace it, and build on it.” Finally, the leaders of the March challenged participants and their families at home to “expand [our] commitment to responsibility in personal conduct…and in obligations to the community”.
- Minister Rasul Muhammad - Master of Ceremonies
- Reverend Benjamin Chavis - National Director of Million Man March- Call to Purpose
- Mr. Martin Luther King III - Affirmation of our Brothers
- Rosa Parks - Mothers of the Struggle Behold Thy Sons
- Maya Angelou Appeal to Our Brothers
- Reverend Jeremiah Wright - Prayer for Hope
- Senator Aldebert Bryan - Senator, Virgin Islands
- Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. - National Rainbow Coalition
- Minister Louis Farrakhan - The Message and Vision
- Reverend Addis Daniel - The light.
Day of Absence
While male leaders took primary responsibility for planning and participating in the events in Washington, female leaders organized a parallel activity called the National Day of Absence. In the spirit of unity and atonement, these leaders issued a call for all black people not in attendance at the March to recognize October 16, 1995 as a sacred day meant for self-reflection and spiritual reconciliation. All black Americans were encouraged to stay home from their work, school, athletic, entertainment activities and various other daily responsibilities on the Day of Absence. Instead of partaking in their usual routines, participants were instructed to gather at places of worship and to hold teach-ins at their homes in order to meditate on the role and responsibility of blacks in America. Further, the day was intended to serve as an occasion for mass voter registration and contribution to the establishment of a Black Economic Development Fund.
Crowd size controversy
Because of the name of the event, the number of attendees was a primary measure of its success and estimating the crowd size, always a contentious issue, reached new heights in bitterness. March organizers estimated the crowd size at between 1.5 to 2 million people, but were incensed when the United States Park Police officially estimated the crowd size at 400,000. Farrakhan threatened to sue the National Park Service because of the low estimate from the Park Police.
Three days after the march, Dr. Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University released a controversial estimate of 870,000 people with a margin of error of 25 percent, meaning that the crowd could have been as small as 655,000 or as large as 1.1 million. They later revised that figure to 837,000 ±20% (669,600 to 1,004,400).
After the Million Man March, the Park Police ceased making official crowd size estimates. Roger G. Kennedy, the Director of the National Park Service, said that his agency planned to study the possibility of no longer counting crowds, noting that most organizations that sponsor large events complain that Park Service estimates are too low. When it prepared the 1997 appropriations bill for the United States Department of the Interior, the Committee on Appropriations of the United States House of Representatives stated in a June 1996 report that accompanied the bill that the Committee had not provided any funding for crowd counting activities associated with gatherings held on federal property in Washington, D.C. The report further stated that if event organizers wish to have crowd estimates, they should hire a private sector firm to conduct the count.
Controversy in the media
Minister Louis Farrakhan stirred up religious controversy among the Christian and the Jewish Communities. The great majority of controversy lies with Louis Farrakhan and the presence of many Christian speakers and organizers this was cause for some expected tension. He had acquired unfavorable attention from African American Christians and “was compared to Adolf Hitler” by the Jewish Community by using anti-Semitic rhetoric and views. Louis Farrakhan was “against those Jews who have sacrificed their deep moral-religious heritage for a set of values grounded in capitalist exploitation and oppression.” Many critics had considered that supporters of the march were approving Louis Farrakhan and his Islamic traditions. There emerged concern about Farrakhan’s hidden political agenda in registering black males to vote as non-affiliate or independent parties.
Farrakhan may have organized the march to “simply prove that he was the man who could make it happen; he would then capitalize on the prominence he hoped it would confer.”
The feminists also had issue with the lack of female participation in the march that was labeled an “all male” event. “The entire purpose of this march is to encourage and stimulate black men to overcome apathy and resentment and start making a difference.” This lack of representation of females in the march for social and economic change was problematic for feminists. Creating a separation in the movement became a topic of great controversy. Although it has been argued that, “Organizers excluded women from the march to send a two-part message” that men need to improve their character and women need to recognize their place “in the home.”  Although the movement sought to unify urban black populations this massive exclusion supported antiquated expectations of gender normatives and social constructs about race, class, and gender. To collectively recognize social inequalities pertaining to racism and then to turn around and label the family dynamic troubles as caused by distant black men is emasculating and problematic.
- Million Man March National Organizing Committee (January 1996). "Million Man March Fact Sheet". In Madhubuti, Haki R.; Karenga, Maulana. Million Man March / Day of Absence; A Commemorative Anthology; Speeches, Commentary, Photography, Poetry, Illustrations, Documents. Chicago: Third World Press. p. 152.
- Nelson Jr., William E. (1998). "Black Church Politics and The Million Man March". In Best, Felton O. Black Religious Leadership from the Slave Community to the Million Man March; flames of fire. Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press. p. 245.
- Karenga, Dr. Maulana (January 1996). "The Million Man March / Day of Absence Mission Statement". In Madhubuti, Haki R.; Karenga, Maulana. Million Man March / Day of Absence; A Commemorative Anthology; Speeches, Commentary, Photography, Poetry, Illustrations, Documents. Chicago: Third World Press. p. 147.
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- Nelson Jr., William E. (1998). p. 244. Missing or empty
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- McIntyre, Ph.D, Charshee (January 1996). p. 115. Missing or empty
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- Million Man March National Organizing Committee (January 1996). "Million Man March Official Program October 16, 1995". In Madhubuti, Haki R.; Karenga, Maulana. Million Man March / Day of Absence; A Commemorative Anthology; Speeches, Commentary, Photography, Poetry, Illustrations, Documents. Chicago: Third World Press. pp. 159–166.
- Karenga, Dr. Maulana (January 1996). p. 146. Missing or empty
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- McKenna, David (2009-01-29). "The 3 to 5 Million Man March: Crowd estimates could lead to post-swearing-in swearing, history shows.". Washington City Paper. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
- Janofsky, Michael (1995-11-21). "Federal Parks Chief Calls 'Million Man' Count Low". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-14.
- McPhail, Clark; McCarthy, John (Summer 2004). "Who counts and how: estimating the size of protests". Contexts 3 (3): 12–18. doi:10.1525/ctx.2004.3.3.12. "The Million Man March of 1995 was neither a march nor did it attract a million men. However, the dispute over how many hundreds of thousands assembled that day remains one of the most widely publicized disagreements over a mass demonstration in American history."
- Leef Smith, Wendy Melillo. If It's Crowd Size You Want, Park Service Says Count It Out; Congress Told Agency to Stop, Official Says Washington Post: Oct 13, 1996. pg. A.34
- Regula, Ralph, Committee on Appropriations (1996-06-18). "House of Representatives Report 104-625: Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 1997, to accompany H.R. 3662". p. 28. Retrieved 2010-11-30. "The Committee has provided no funding for crowd counting activities associated with gatherings held on federal property in Washington, D.C. If event organizers wish to have an estimate on the number of people participating in their event, then those organizers should hire a private sector firm to conduct the count.". Note: The Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 1997 (H.R. 3662), was incorporated into the "Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, 1997 (Public Law 104-208, Sept. 30, 1996)"., at 110 STAT. 3009-181.
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