“Everybody wanted to be there,” he said.
“We were shoulder-to-shoulder . . . It was a spiritual event.”
Twenty-five years ago Friday, hundreds of thousands of Black men gathered in Washington for the Million Man March, the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was the chief organizer of the march, which called for Black men to take more responsibility of their lives.
Men traveled from across the nation, many fathers bringing their sons as they sought to bring attention to both their triumphs and struggles. The exact number of men who gathered has been disputed, but for many the significance of the event is what mattered.
For many, the gathering became a cultural touchstone — referenced in movies and books, and moments that begin with “Remember when . . . ”
Clark was then a security guard working at Georgetown University Hospital, living in Takoma Park. The D.C. of 1995 that he remembers was known for its homicide rate. So when the father of three decided he would take his oldest child to the march, Clark said he was not sure what to expect. But as waves of Black men began flowing onto the Mall — working-class men, professional men, grandfathers and little boys — a calmness set in.
“It was an unusually pleasant atmosphere,” he said. “It was togetherness.”
Looking back, and looking forward, too, Clark said the march changed his life. He’s 60 now and living in Atlanta with his wife of 36 years, Greta. He sees the longevity and success of his marriage as an outgrowth of the march’s emphasis on improving the lives of Black men to improve the lives of Black people.
March participants were asked to make a pledge that day:
I, [name], pledge that from this day forward I will strive to love my brother as I love myself . . . from this day forward, will strive to improve myself spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, politically and economically for the benefit of myself, my family and my people. I pledge that I will strive to build businesses, build houses, build hospitals, build factories and enter into international trade for the good of myself, my family and my people.
Like a lot of men, Clark said, it was time for him to make a change.
One year later, he would begin a family tradition — taking the anniversary of the march off and spending the day with Cecil Jr., daughter Ciarra, then 8, and youngest son Cedric, then 2, to explain the significance of the march. And even though the children are now adults, Clark said the tradition continues. They all still acknowledge the change it brought to their lives.
Clark said he and his wife joined the Nation of Islam shortly after the march. While they are no longer affiliated with the Nation, they continue to practice their Muslim faith. Their oldest children are out of the house now, living and working on their own. The youngest lives at home with them.
When he looks at the protests across the nation in support of Black Lives Matter, Clark said he is encouraged that so many young people have been willing to embrace the movement. But he says more people need to be involved, and they need to be strategic with their efforts. “This generation has to really unite, and we have to support them,” Clark said.
He also said that he would like to see more of a focus on stemming crime that he said is still far too prevalent in low-income Black neighborhoods. “We can’t [ask] the police to stop brutalizing us when we are brutalizing one another,” Clark said.
Commemorations of the anniversary of the Million Man March have been held online throughout the week, and organizers will hold a gathering on Zoom at 7 p.m. Friday called “Living the Pledge.”
The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who was the national director of the Million Man March, said the Black Lives Matter demonstrations show “that the spirit” of the march is still alive. And Chavis said there is more evidence the march had an impact.
“We registered 250,000 men to vote that day, and we envisioned that one day there would be a Black president,” Chavis said.
In that crowd of men on the Mall 25 years ago was a young man from Illinois named Barack Obama. Two years later, he would become a state senator. In 2008, he would become that first Black president.