Among the many feelings from 20 years ago, perhaps the most striking was defiance.
Nothing like a “Let’s burn the National Mall down” defiance (even though anger was in much heavier supply back then, as it is now), but more of a “We’ll show them” defiance gassing our post-teen, boom-bap-hip-hop-soundtracked Gen X awe with the concept of a Million Man March. Even as mainstream media simultaneously mystified and slandered it in the months running up to that blue-skied, chilly October 1995 day, the wonder of an omnipresent mass of a million brothers triggered its adrenaline.
The purpose 20 years ago was something like a spiritual reclamation project. “The black male image remains the most demonized yet commoditized image in America,” said Kimberly Fain, author of Black Hollywood: From Butlers to Superheroes, the Changing Role of African Men in the Movies. “The justice system profits from the surveillance, scrutiny and fear associated with black skin.”
“Activism, awareness and diligence is the only way to combat centuries of state violence and society’s attempts to desecrate and pillage the black man’s image with distorted and malignant representations of himself,” the book notes.
That the 1995 march was on a weekday and that it drove most (if not all white people) insane energized the national black psyche even more. Getting there could be an easy lift, even if from a distance: Communities were meticulously planning chartered bus trips and car pools, some long, untold miles of walks from wherever their point A was to Minister Louis Farrakhan’s spectacular point B. Car broke down? Can’t scrape the dollars for a trip? Folks you didn’t know had you covered: You would go to the march. However, for most, showing up would be one of the most difficult decisions in a young black man’s life.
With ubiquitous social media, thousands of cable channels and access to infinite streams of information still almost a decade away, we watched news coverage with furious disapproval and anxiety. Taking that day off work, telling your disagreeable white boss that you’d be there, or even calling in sick when he knew what you were up to, was a decision between employment and unemployment. Few, of course, wanted the latter, the black male unemployment rate officially 11 percent at the time (meaning it was more than double that, considering all factors). Still, Spartanly Nat Turner-like rejection of the status quo found many making that jump and countless others wrongly fired. I have personal recollections of a few just quitting.
It was our marching order. A Glory movie re-enactment, our generation’s all-black 54th Massachusetts storming Fort Wagner in a way, minus the short, commanding white guy with his sword.
“Back then, what a powerful statement the march made,” Henry Sanders, publisher of Wisconsin-based Madison365 and a former candidate for lieutenant governor, tells The Root. “A lot has changed over those 20 years. We have seen the beauty of what it looks like to have black man lead this country as president of the United States.
“And sadly, we have also seen what happens when parts of our society is forgotten,” he adds.
Twenty years later, the feeling is frustration.
Of course, historic-march re-creations can be a very tricky business. Even Minister Farrakhan, “bold and free” as he can be, is still a pragmatist. Expectations for the 20th anniversary were much lower than the first. Calls for a million were downsized to “10,000 men.” Organizers, out of caution and a need to control message, almost exclusively promoted this march through a much friendlier black press and the hope of viral social media.
That decision rose from a good place—but it may have strategically blunted branding and the hope for something much bigger. The first black president—whose presence at the first one more than likely had a slight impact on his political trajectory—didn’t even bother making the anniversary or openly acknowledging it. West Coast fundraisers took priority; we’ve got an election on the way. After all, this is what we fought for, right?
This weekend, comfortably scheduled 20 years later to mitigate the risks of showing up, the goals seemed scattered. And if goals were present, they were somewhat unsure of themselves. Where to go next?
Objectives were varied, the group and individual agendas as diverse as that collection of 1 million (and arguably more) who peacefully brought the world’s most powerful city to a temporary standstill that chilly October day 20 years ago. There were those who were absent in 1995, either out of fear or simply due to youth, catching up for a chance to finally check bucket list boxes. Others were among the usual set of protesting, pundit and black political or celebrity elite typically visible during such gatherings, some pushing for access on the main stage and others chirping away on social media, mainstream media and underappreciated smaller black media outlets.
The one question that understandably emerged was “What next?” Where would this march go from here? Even as Minister Farrakhan was being introduced as the “man of the hour,” would he be the man of the next election cycle? Despite his graying age, his street cred perhaps still intact, but his relevance mired in doubt. What role would this event play beyond its choreography? Many were asking about “the plan.”
Some who were there for the original MMM 20 years ago could be caught looking for the energy from that day. Many not sure if it was there. Many certain it was. And others who simply argued that it didn’t matter. Clear divides on the meaning of this weekend’s commemoration could be sensed according to the generation, with much younger millennials either not born then or just babies in 1995.
With this march, somewhat unlike the first, there was abundant anger at progress unseen. There was consensus on the very high stakes. Yet, even in this event’s alignment with Black Lives Matter, it was much deeper than that. If 1995 was defiant and full of promise, in the event postscript, there was a hint of grieving resignation in 2015 amid a lack of game change and the minister’s marathon-long keynote. Systemic issues continue, there’s a whole lot more going on than just hostile cops: blighted communities, spreading poverty, bad schools, violent crime, unemployment and underemployment. No moment can be expected to solve them, as speaker after speaker suggested.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.