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|The Million Man March, Washington, D.C., October 1995|
The Million Man March, considered one of the most important modern events of black 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 twenty-four 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.Media portrayal
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.Program
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
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 commitment to responsibility in personal conduct…and in obligations to the community”.Notable speakers
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)..
The Park Service never retracted its estimate, and other academics have supported its lower figure.
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.