As African-Americans grappled with a growing gang problem, the devastating effects of the influx of crack during the late 1980s and early 1990s and draconian drug laws that criminalized addiction, The Hon. Minister Louis Farrakhan called for Black men to gather in Washington, D.C., to reflect on their roles in their households and beyond. On Oct. 16, 1995, the Million Man March saw hundreds of thousands of men from across the United States line the National Mall for a day of peace, solidarity and recommitment to family and community.
Although the Nation of Islam and its charismatic, controversial leader organized the march, it was attended by men of all faiths—including those who might not typically attend protests. Gangbangers marched with fraternity men, police officers and firefighters joined clergy, entertainers walked alongside teachers to reframe America’s narrative around Black manhood—and all this just days after the polarizing not-guilty verdict in the trial of O.J. Simpson.
The Nation of Islam assembled a group of prominent political, civil rights and faith leaders to address the massive crowd. Among them: Benjamin Chavis, Cornel West, Rosa Parks, Betty Shabazz, Congressman Donald Payne, Dorothy Height, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and the then newly reinaugurated D.C. mayor, Marion Barry.
During a day of songs, prayers, chants and speechifying, attendees were charged with strengthening their relationships with their children and partners, and getting active in their communities upon returning home. Some criticized the event because women were asked to stay home. (Said activist Jewell Jackson McCabe at the time, “How dare anyone ask us to show unity by silence? What price for our own dignity and what price for our community’s dignity?”) Meanwhile, others felt that growing hostility toward Black men in the public discourse and a need for Black men to “atone” for their lack of leadership and responsibility in their families and beyond demanded a male-centered moment of reflection.
We will never know exactly how many people attended the march. Reported figures range between 400,000 to well over 1 million; the United States Park Police no longer estimate the number of people at such events as a result of the controversy that ensued when they were accused of underreporting march attendees. The significance of seeing so many Black men, however—of all creeds, colors and backgrounds —united for a day of peace, love and brotherhood is not something that could be easily discounted.
In a series of photos and quotes from brothers who were there, we look back at one of the most poignant moments in contemporary Black History.
Simon Muhammad, 43, Bloomfield, N.J.
• You had a sea of Black men of all ages, all religions, in a state of peace with each other and in tune with God. No fighting, no guns, no beef, just a state of peace. That day was a glimpse of heaven!”
Ramel Werner, 26, Chicago
• “The politics of it all got in the way when we got back to our cities and neighborhoods. I personally felt that there was a need for less discussion and more doing. We accomplished something, however, that was missing among ourselves as men: a spirit of peace, atonement, reconciliation, unity and renewal. We have to get back to that.”
Jeffrey Page, 36, Washington, D.C.
• “My mother encouraged a group of men from our family church to attend. I went largely because they thought the march was a historical and important moment. As a kid, I likely did not grasp all that it meant until I arrived in Washington, D.C. Once we arrived, the gravity of the day sunk in. The next day at school, many of my classmates were proud that I went. The march showed up in our conversations and discussions I
have had at college, grad school and law school.”
Thabiti Boone, 50, New York City
“[After the march,] I personally saw the change and shift in fathers, men and boys. I saw the visible presence of men in churches, schools, joining organizations, being more productive in the community, starting mentoring organizations, stepping up.”
Ashahed M. Muhammad, 44, Chicago
• “I made a commitment on that day to be a strong Black man, father and mentor, and to work effectively as a contributing member of my community.”
Benson George Cook, 62, Washington, D.C.
• “The Million Man March was effective on many fronts, especially in initiating a newfound sense of collective racial and cultural pride, ownership
and personal responsibility concerning our capacity for self-empowerment.”
— Jamilah Lemieux