A Decade Later, Marchers Look for More
Thousands of Blacks Gather on the Mall to Show Unity -- and Seek New Inspiration

By Robert E. Pierre and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 16, 2005

This time, a decade later, the people came not just to make a statement, but to look for a little inspiration and guidance.

Aquil Malik brought a handful of teenagers from Newark, N.J., where he is trying to keep them from descending into the life of violence that landed him in prison for robbery and murder. "I came here to see what other groups are doing," said Malik, a car salesman who finished serving his term right after the Million Man March in 1995. "I need to take something back home."

The Rev. George Allen Jr. of Charlotte came to yesterday's event, known as the Millions More Movement, looking for a recharge. He said prostitutes nearly took over his neighborhood before he began knocking on the windows of their clients, catching them in the act. He got the inspiration to do so from the Million Man March, becoming "an army of one," he said. Now, "It's time for things to come together," said Allen, saying he wanted less talk and more action.

On the Mall for the anniversary of the Million Man March, tens of thousands of African Americans came seeking something -- a handshake, a plan, a little encouragement -- to take home with them to help improve their lives and lives in their communities. Recommendations they heard from the dais included pooling their resources, buying from black businesses, mentoring young people and organizing to pressure political leaders.

Families sprawled on blankets and cardboard boxes and sat attentively as dozens of speakers offered advice on how to organize to protest police brutality and to oppose government policies that keep many blacks poor and out of work. Organizers and participants said the success of the event depends on whether black people devote their money and their time to promote lasting change.

"The measure of this day is not today," said Nation of Islam leader and event organizer Louis Farrakhan, who called on people to donate money to help spur change. "The measure of this day will be determined by what we do tomorrow to create a movement, a real movement among our people."

Al Sharpton underscored that theme, saying that the 1963 March on Washington, at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, should be used as a guide. After the Million Man March, voter registration and volunteerism rose but no lasting movement evolved, leaders acknowledged.

"What made the 1963 march is that we passed the 1964 civil rights bills," Sharpton said. "The success of this march will be that we take charge of our communities and make a difference in the [2006] elections."

The 1995 gathering was billed as being for men, although women spoke from the dais and were sprinkled throughout the crowd. But this time, families attended and many groups of women came to the rally without men. The 12-hour event ended with Farrakhan, who spoke about 80 minutes. The Mall was mostly quiet, although the vendors' area was filled with gospel and hip-hop music and people hawking their T-shirts, CDs and other souvenirs.

The crowd appeared decidedly smaller than in 1995, when hundreds of thousands showed up. Participants yesterday who also attended the 1995 event said they hoped to rekindle the spirit of the Million Man March. But there was little of the back-slapping reunion feel of a decade ago, or the constant focus on the number of attendees.

Farrakhan refused to speculate on how many people attended. But authorities at the scene -- who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they do not officially give crowd counts -- said they estimated that about 100,000 people attended.

Police said they made no arrests, and U.S. Park Police Chief Dwight E. Pettiford said his officers experienced no problems. "All we did today was give out information and directions," he said.

For the speakers, a prominent theme was unity among black people. Farrakhan said that when black people fund their own events, as he has, there is no need to ask white philanthropists about who can be involved. As with his previous rallies, there was significant public pressure -- especially from Jewish groups -- for so-called mainstream African American leaders to boycott the event. The controversial leader has been called sexist, racist and anti-Semitic for past comments.

As opposed to the 1995 event, the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women and the Urban League supported this gathering. Speaker Kweisi Mfume, former chairman of the NAACP and a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Maryland, said yesterday that "we understand that any bigotry is bad. We also understand that the time for action is now."

The day was not without dissension. A rift widened between event organizers and members of the gay community. One gay group said it had been promised a coveted speaking slot but was not allowed to speak, and a ruckus resulted in the VIP section where speakers assembled.

A constant of the day was criticism of the Bush administration -- from leaders and from crowd members who held signs that said, "Bush Lied, People Died" and charged that the government is insensitive to the needs of black people. Hurricane Katrina, in particular, drew concern from several black leaders, who contended that the federal response to the disaster would have been quicker if most of the residents waiting to be rescued in New Orleans had been white instead of black.

Farrakhan reiterated questions about whether the government was culpable in the breaching of the levees that flooded 80 percent of New Orleans.

"We charge America with criminal neglect," said Farrakhan, adding that lawyers need to look into filing a "class action suit on behalf of those who have suffered." He also said that as the Iraqi people went to the polls to vote on a new constitution, there should be "regime change" in the United States for lying about the reason for going to war.

Earlier in the day, Malik Zulu Shabazz, chairman of the New Black Panther Party, accused President Bush of "drowning the people of New Orleans and sabotaging the levees" and said that "the real gangsters operate out of CIA headquarters." His comments drew rousing applause.

Speeches and music started about 5:30 a.m. and continued throughout the day. The crowd, initially sparse, grew as the event went on. Metro ridership was slightly higher. As of 6 p.m., there were 331,000 trips on Metro, compared with a typical Saturday ridership of 275,000 to 300,000.

Members of the Nation of Islam's Fruit of Islam stood on the Mall in uniforms, most working at large plastic trash receptacles set up as collection points for people to contribute money for the event's costs and for the planned larger movement.

Farrakhan asked participants to go to the Millions More Movement Web site, sign petitions and sign up to help. The cost to do so is $20, although he said people could give what they want. In addition, he asked attendees and those watching the televised event to donate $1 a week to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina, and he announced a board of advisers to help administer the fund.

"America is for sale, you know," he told the crowd. "All she needs to see is more Benjamins," or $100 bills.

After the speeches were complete, just before 6 p.m., some said they got what they came for.

Mel Gilmore, an advertising executive from Largo, Md., who also was at the Million Man March, said: "Minister Farrakhan's speech was very positive, absolutely. I think his speech will make me go out to do the right thing. It is time for our people to come together."

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company