Moreover, in 1995, the public debate over school reform still included the wide disparities in funding for rich and poor school districts, and had not devolved into the blitzkrieg against teachers unions that dominates the discussion today.
A more organized and concerted campaign from African-American grass-roots groups to exert greater political pressure on the body politic might have produced solutions that narrow, rather than widen, the racial divide. This has turned out to be particularly important as the nation grapples with a new normal of high unemployment, low wages, and a destabilizing inequality between the rich and everyone else.
For all its stunning symbolic power, however, the Million Man March failed to take the next step, which was converting the rally’s energy into a viable political and social movement to combat the ultraconservatism that was beginning to take hold in the Republican Congress, and deflect a rightward shift in the White House as well as in statehouses across the country.
“There is something very empowering about marshaling that number of people,” says Roderick Harrison, a political science professor at Howard University who attended the march. “The problem is that there was really nothing to do when we got home.”
The Million Man March, Bailey says, really provided the country with its first glimpse of an evolving, post-civil rights generation of black political leaders that is very different from that of A. Philip Randolph, Dorothy Height or Martin Luther King Jr. The leadership during the civil rights era had a very clear vision of the implicit social contract made between citizens and government in a democracy. King or Height or Randolph may have very well reminded marchers of their personal responsibilities to their families and communities, but they almost surely would not have missed the opportunity to remind elected officials that they have obligations to fulfill as well.
“This is what is absent from the leadership in the black community, “Bailey says. “There is no independent analysis of the factors that are largely behind the chaos in our communities. I applaud any effort to prod black people to spend more time with their children, to work harder, pray more, but there’s got to also be some articulation of the fact that we can do all of that, and if we continue to have an economy based on speculation rather than producing goods, we are still going to be holding the short end of the stick.”
Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and, with Robert E. Pierre, A Day Late and a Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama’s “Post-Racial” America.
A previous version of this article misstated the day of the week on which the 15th anniversary of the Million Man March falls.