Justice or Else!
That is the provocative name Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has given Saturday’s rally marking the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March.
The title alone suggests a gathering far different from the event two decades ago, when Farrakhan summoned black men to Washington for a day of atonement and reconciliation. Hundreds of thousands of black men heeded that call, riding in cars, trains and overnight buses to gather on the Mall and bathe in the soothing warmth of brotherhood.
Organizers say black men registered to vote, joined churches and community organizations, and recommitted themselves to their families in unprecedented numbers as a result of the march, even if evidence of that is hard to pin down.
What is unquestionable is the march’s symbolic importance. It has become a cultural touchstone, like the much smaller March on Washington was for an earlier generation. The difference is that the Million Man March was not a demand on government but a call for introspection, one that many black men continue to cite as a seminal moment in contemporary history.
At the time of the march, race relations were either bad or improving, depending on how you viewed them. White and black America were divided by the O.J. Simpson acquittal. The economy was strong, yet the black jobless rate was 9.9 percent, more than double that of whites. Just days before the march, Jonny Gammage, an unarmed black motorist, was killed after being stopped by police while driving his cousin’s Jaguar in a Pittsburgh suburb, prompting outrage among many African Americans.
At the same time, many political observers were convinced that Colin Powell had a good shot at being elected the nation’s first black president.
Much has changed since, an evolution perhaps best symbolized by the trajectory of one man who attended the Million Man March: Barack Obama. Then, he was a fresh-faced Illinois state Senate candidate; now, of course, he occupies the White House.
Yet black unemployment remains double that of whites, and the repeated instances of unarmed black men being killed by police have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It is because of continued injustice that people are crying out for justice,” said Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the former NAACP chief who directed the Million Man March and is serving as a consultant to Saturday’s rally. “It would be incorrect to say we have made no progress. But it would be equally incorrect to say all is well.”
Long before the Million Man March, Farrakhan had established himself as a polarizing figure in no small part because of his racially separatist views and anti-Semitic asides. But it was another part of his message — the idea of black self-help — that formed the rally’s central pillar.
The idea was for black men to come together in dignified defiance of the ugly stereotypes that have too often defined them since the first Africans arrived in Jamestown nearly 400 years ago.
That, they did. The mammoth assemblage was remarkable not only for its historic size but also for its order and discipline and spirit of goodwill. Despite fears of violence that otherwise rendered downtown Washington a ghost town, there was little sign of drinking or smoking or disruption. When it was all over, the Mall looked as if the gathering had never occurred.
The stunning paradox posed by Farrakhan was also on full display that day. His two-hour address, delivered from the west front of the Capitol, ricocheted from a stinging critique of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln to a journey through numerology, to an angry denunciation of the continuing scourge of white supremacy.
He also lectured black men to clean up their lives and become better fathers, husbands and neighbors.
“All we’ve got to do is go back home and make our communities a decent and safe place to live,” Farrakhan said. “And if we start dotting the black community with businesses, opening up factories, challenging ourselves to be better than we are, white folk, instead of driving by using the N-word, they’ll say: ‘Look. Look at them. Oh, my God — they’re marvelous.’ ”
It was the kind of message that some activists denounce these days as blaming the victims of the nation’s checkered racial history for their plight. But it also resonates with black Americans across the political spectrum, from Clarence Thomas — who has praised Farrakhan — to Obama. Not for a moment would they endorse Farrakhan’s separatism, or his anti-Jewish rhetoric, or the Nation of Islam’s dizzying cosmology. But for them and many others, his self-help message hits home.
“What I saw was a powerful demonstration of an impulse and need for African American men to come together to recognize each other and affirm our rightful place in the society,” Obama said in an interview with the Chicago Reader after the 1995 march. “There was a profound sense that African American men were ready to make a commitment to bring about change in our communities and lives.”
It remains to be seen what sentiments will be evoked by Saturday’s march. Will people be moved to turn out in large numbers? Will it leave a legacy anything like the 1995 rally? Will it bring something more tangible?
This time, women are invited and the families of black men killed by police have been asked to appear before the gathering. One question hanging over the rally is how the youthful Black Lives Matter movement, which presents itself as leaderless, will jibe with the exhortations of the 82-year-old Farrakhan, who presents himself as a messianic force.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, who is pastor at a Baltimore megachurch and was a prominent figure during the city’s April riots, is one of the conveners of the rally. In 1995, he was a young seminarian and a “conscientious objector” to the Million Man March. At the time, he could not understand why a Christian minister would march behind a Nation of Islam leader.
“Now the whole world has changed,” he said, explaining that he admires Farrakhan’s ability to reach the grass roots.
He said there is little chance that Black Lives Matter adherents would view Farrakhan as a leader of their movement. But, he added, they are likely to identify with his “authentic rawness.”
Part of that appeal is captured in the edginess of the march’s name. Farrakhan’s call for justice is vague — he is demanding of the powerful a new era of “fair dealing” with blacks and others who have been historically mistreated.
And what does “‘or Else!” mean?
That is “left to ambiguity,” Bryant said.
Farrakhan was asked the same question in a recent interview on Howard University’s WHUT-TV by former boxing impresario Rock Newman.
Farrakhan said he will call on black consumers to withdraw economically, refusing to buy nonessential items, to “redistribute the pain” being felt by so many. He added that he is trying to raise an army of 10,000 “fearless men” to quell the violence that plagues many communities.
Newman noted that the call was misunderstood by some to mean that he wanted to raise an army to wage a race war.
“I am passionate,” Farrakhan replied. “But I am not stupid.”