On the 25th Anniversary of the Million Man March, Lessons Learned and the Work That Remains

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I remember 1995 vividly. I was a 15-year-old, super skinny, high school sophomore that had a penchant for writing rhymes in composition notebooks. I was a struggling student at an academically advanced magnet high school in Baton Rouge. I was the son of an ailing mother, a hard-working but emotionally distant father and the youngest of my parents' three boys.

I was also quite the hip-hop head. The mid-90s was a flourishing time for rap culture. Artists like Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg and others were selling records at a blistering pace. Hip-hop was ascending to eventually becoming the number one musical genre in the world and its creatives were becoming millionaires.

As a kid who was single digits in the 1980s, I watched the evolution of hip hop culture go from a message-based artform rooted in rebellion to one that began centering itself in aspirational wealth and opulent lifestyles. By the mid-90s, rap acts such as Public Enemy, X Clan and the Poor Righteous Teachers’ messaging around revolution and liberation were being washed away by rap’s champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

At the same time, drugs and violence were decimating Black communities all around the country. The narrative of Black men as absentee fathers and irresponsible members of society permeated mainstream media. There was a need for a collective reset and re-establishment of values within the community. There was also a growing cry for Americans to atone for its crimes against Black humanity, specifically in its dealings with Black men.

On October 16, 1995, Black men from across the nation converged upon Washington, D.C. for the first-ever Million Man March. Today is the 25th anniversary of that historic moment.

The 1995 March

The original Million Man March of 1995 was inspired and led by Nation of Islam’s honorable minister, Louis Farrakhan with a goal of gathering Black men from across the nation “to declare their right to justice to atone for their failure as men and to accept responsibility as the family head.” It is estimated that over a million Black men gathered for roughly ten hours of fellowship that included prayer, fasting and general camaraderie.

The march crossed socioeconomic and religious barriers as Black men from every sector of American life came together for a day of “atonement, reconciliation and responsibility.”

In his speech to the massive crowd, Farrakhan outlined the history that brought Black Americans to the country:

“Right here on this mall where we are standing, according to books written on Washington, D.C., slaves used to be brought right here on this mall in chains to be sold up and down the eastern seaboard.”

He gave a vision for the future:

“I want to say, my brothers, this is a very pregnant moment, pregnant with the possibility of tremendous change in our status in America and in the world.”

Farrakhan set a new standard of expectations for the participants of the march:

“Now brothers, there’s a social benefit of our gathering here today. And that is, that from this day forward, we can never again see ourselves through the narrow eyes of the limitation of the boundaries of our own fraternal, civic, political, religious, street organization or professional organization.”

Million Man March 2015

In 2015, the Million Man March commemorated its 20th anniversary with another massive gathering of Black men and boys in Washington, D.C. Farrakhan once again led the convening on to the nation’s capital under the theme “Justice or Else,” a response to the growing Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown.

“I plan to deliver an uncompromising message and call for the government of the United States to respond to our legitimate grievances,” Farrakhan said in a press statement leading up to the 20th anniversary march. Several family members of Black men and women who were killed by police were on hand at the 20th anniversary march, actively engaging the audience to speak out against police violence.

In contrast with the original Million Man March, the 20th anniversary was attended by women as well as people of other ethnicities. Minister Farrakhan notably widened his talking points at the anniversary march to include issues such as abortion, politics and self-respect.

The anniversary gathering reportedly saw a considerable decrease in size from the inaugural 1995 edition but was said to be more inclusive, which could largely be attributed to the expanded conversation around the movement for Black lives.

Reflections from Inaugural Attendees

I recently had the opportunity to interview three Black men who attended the 1995 Million Man March to get their takeaways from the historic date and their opinions on some of the work Black men still must do in order to manifest the best intentions of the march.

Jason Roberts, 46, Baton Rouge, LA

Takeaways from the inaugural march: “I would say that one of the main takeaways from the march was that there is a brotherhood of positive and caring Black men who want a better life and community. We saw, firsthand, that we are not the lazy, dangerous, unconcerned men that we had been portrayed as.”

On what has yet to manifest: “We have yet to hold ourselves and our brothers accountable for the many negative things that we had/have embraced. We have not forced ourselves to reckon with the destructive behaviors that affect our relationships, our children, and our communities.”

Amoja Sumler, 45, Washington, D.C.

Reflections from 1995’s march: “I remember going out there with my dad, we always had an estranged relationship, but this was something we were all 100 on. It was my dad and my brother and another Black male friend of the family. It was my first time in D.C. and coming into the town was crazy. You couldn’t get a hotel anywhere, everywhere was booked up. I remember being out there in the (National) Mall and they were doing the counts when the day got started and I remember when it crossed a million and Farrakhan saying the press saying it’s only 300,000, but y’all can look out here and see. I ain't never seen that many Black men together and it was inspirational.”

A Hope that Persists 25 Years Later: “I guess 25 years later, thinking about it as a person that lives in D.C. now, I still have hope that we can as a people that come from a lot of diverse backgrounds, a lot of diverse heritage, a lot of diverse approaches to anti-oppression, that if we can distill down to one or two principles that there is hope that we can start to make some progress... That will move Black people in America in a progressive way.”

Travis Rose, 45, Atlanta

Lessons Learned from the Inaugural Million Man March: “A primary lesson I learned from the Million Man March (conception, planning, and the actual event), was the power of initiative and unity for a common cause. The organizers saw vacuums in the Black community where black men might play a unique role in the remedy and acted upon it.”

A Continuation of Collective Impact: “I think that mindset remains viable within Black America. Despite those instances where systemic and institutional racism exists, there are also many spaces where people of goodwill and pro-action can effect change and impact their communities positively through direct action. The work of grassroots organizations, religious organizations, established groups, and the individual agency provides evidence of how change agents can and do help the Black community to flourish.”

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.