On the Friday afternoon before the “Justice or Else” gathering marking the twentieth anniversary of the Million Man March, I stood among excited Black out-of-towners, scores of early arriving members of the Nation of Islam (and a scattering of confused tourists), across from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. The sound of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” boomed from the speakers now aligning the National Mall. Wonder, for many years a global cultural ambassador of “conscious” Black music, was an appropriate choice for testing the sound system.
Approaching a cheerful knot of suit and bowtie-clad brothers, I bought a Final Call, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam, the eighty-five year old Black Internationalist organization whose best-known living member is its current leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan.
The Final Call is the last of our truly national Black newspapers. The heroic Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Tribune and New York Amsterdam News remain both active and relevant, but no longer circulate across the Black nation as they did at their apogees. The Final Call, heir to the (still publishing) Muhammad Speaks, in contrast, can still be found in physical form wherever there are Fruit of Islam soldiers on street corner posts to sell them, which is just about everywhere Black people live in any appreciable number in America.
I imagined that a copy of this particular issue would find its way into the collection of the Museum of the American Indian’s sister museum now rising on the other end of the Mall, the soon to be completed National Museum of African American History. It, and the event it announced, would be that historic. The Nation of Islam remains a well-known and respected presence across African America. It is likely the only organization that could bring hundreds of thousands of us together at any time, based simply on a request.
Twenty years earlier, I arrived from Union Station with a contingent from Philadelphia in the pre-dawn hours of October 16, 1995, joining a flood of Black men surging toward the National Mall at a quickening, electric pace. The river of Black humanity swelled into a flood that had already subsumed the Capitol lawn as the dawn broke. I will never forget how the Muslim daybreak prayer call sliced the air and knit hundreds of thousands of men in complete silence. And the men kept coming. Elders. Children. Teenagers. Some accompanied by Black women, each of whom radiated an aura of respect as brothers parted a sea of maleness to absorb and reflect their clear joy.
Shortly after dawn, a phalanx of male students from Howard University marched into the crowd in an American Toyi-Toyi, a single file line of their women classmates marching alongside them on either side, their fists in the air. Thirteen days earlier, the nation had watched many of these same young people erupt in euphoria as they cheered the “not guilty” verdict announced in the O.J. Simpson trial. The Black nation remained awash in subdued satisfaction from the verdict. O.J. had somehow become a proxy for every wrongly convicted African. His escape from punishment defied the wishes of the majority of a White America still in shock that it did not hold in this instance its long-assumed power of life-and-death over any Black body it chose to punish.
On the afternoon of that October day twenty years ago, Benjamin Chavis Muhammad announced from the podium on the U.S. Capitol steps that there were approaching two million Black men on the Mall. The subsequent undercount of the “official” tally was—and remains—of little consequence. I was there. All told, countless millions of men who could not attend and women and children who had been asked to do so in family solidarity, stayed home from work and school all over the country. The Million Man March/Day of Absence was an unqualified success. Few present that day would remember Farrakhan’s closing speech, but the climax of the day had been the perpetual embraces, exchanges of contact information, and our collective pledge to return home to renewed commitment to the uplift of our communities.
The institutional children of those Howard students of 1995 hosted a contingent of college students from across the country on the Friday night before the 20th anniversary convening. A panel, moderated by EBONY magazine’s Senior Editor, Jamilah Lemieux (herself a daughter of Howard), raised and engaged in straight talk about the nature, purpose and direction of Black movements in America, the Nation of Islam, and the “Justice Or Else” concept. How could love transcend differences in age, sexual orientation, social and economic class, even ideology and desire? The impassioned and stirring dialogue was suffused with the type of shared commitment that eludes every corner of the Eurostream media when it comes to capturing the pulse of African life in the U.S..
The next morning, these same students joined together and recreated the 1995 march from Howard to the mall. I joined the stream in Chinatown, choosing to travel at a slower, trailing pace to record as many threads in the tapestry as I could bear witness to. At the corner of 7th and Pennsylvania, I watched a little Black girl on her knees, having placed her little brown doll lovingly at the corner of a drawing of Martin Luther King Jr. so that she could sign the poster. The hand-drawn rendering of Dr. King was midway down a line of drawings on the ground, including portraits of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Just beyond this makeshift Ancestors’ Row stood the home of the National Council of Negro Women, willed into existence by Mary McCleod Bethune and entrusted for several generations to Dorothy Irene Height, who attended and spoke at the 1995 march. The little girl signing in the building’s shadow didn’t know that, in adding her name to that drawing, she was connecting to a genealogy of women who occupied time and space in that same place before her. This time, her presence was encouraged, even demanded, by the conveners of the event.
For months, the “Justice or Else” coalition had been forming across the nation. A shot of national adrenaline coursed through the veins of planning in the wake of the funeral of Freddie Gray and the subsequent Baltimore insurrections. At mass meetings, many street leaders from Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, Detroit and other battlefronts in the war on anti-Black state violence joined a human rainbow of First Nations leaders, Latino organizers and social justice fighters from all backgrounds and races. Many of these same figures spoke from the podium at the D.C. convening. Dominican and Haitian youth striving for peace on the island once known as Hispaniola pledged to stop the xenophobic killing set into motion by colonialism centuries earlier. Palestinian and Mexicans spoke of self-determination and solidarity, causing right-wing bloggers to go predictably apoplectic on social media.
Sybrina Fulton, the heroic mother of Trayvon Martin, described the gathering as necessary for the elevation of all humanity. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, having complicated and enhanced the face and sinews of Black social justice, in part by absorbing and organizing elements of a resurgent Black LBGTQ community, spoke from a place of prominence just before Minister Farrakhan himself. This tapestry was certainly different from 20 short years ago, its coalition and trajectory clearly impacted by new technology and the public emergence of long-marginalized or silenced discourses. A sea of individuals, knitted by a common enemy and common grievances, now grappled with the implications of unity without uniformity as two teepees sat on the South Capitol lawn and Native America was recognized as the most aggrieved of all in the former settler colony of the U.S.A.
To be sure, Farrakhan pursued several well-known themes during his long speech. He revisited the murder of Malcolm X and introduced the sons and daughters of Elijah Muhammad, born of several women who were not Mother Clara Muhammad, the founding First Lady of the Nation of Islam. He introduced these now-middle aged children as those who helped him rebuild the Nation, unlike, he said, the children of Elijah and Clara.
Shortly thereafter, he called an imposing line of Black women, clad in a colorful array of slightly paramilitary variations on Muslim dress, accentuated with heels. They were described as masters of the full range of professional and academic pursuit, and mothers and “masters of food science” as well. The emphasis on heterosexual normativity was palpable. Most in the crowd are not members of the Nation of Islam and would undoubtedly find its cultural and social rules stifling; there should always be critical voice in social movement, and social media allowed space for that to happen in real time.
As he concluded his speech, Farrakhan called for ten thousand fearless Black men and ten thousand fearless Black women to create, populate and spread a series of “ministries” (e.g. “education,” “agriculture,” “justice,” “health,” “arts and culture”), He indicated that we wanted to meet with some of the vanguard of this ostensible vanguard the next day at the J.W. Marriott near the Washington Convention Center. The next day, a follow-up “action” meeting was hosted by 100 Black Men of America. Near the end of his remarks, the Nation distributed copies of “The National Agenda,” a public policy document developed for the “Million Family March” of fifteen years earlier. Farrakhan noted that this plan had been created after the Million Man March in partial response to critics like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who observed that there had been no actionable agenda coming out of the initial gathering. The minister took the moment to tie Jackson and the president who his 1984 and 1988 campaigns helped to elect, Barack Obama, who wrote that he had been inspired by that same March.
Part of the source of the strong reaction that Farrakhan evokes in many is the deep and visceral discomfort America has with Blacks who are both unpoliced and unpolicable. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his book Between the World and Me, White Americans have a unfettered ability to detain and erase the Black Body. Farrakhan boasts that he cannot be killed, at least not by the “wicked.” Speaking to a community of Black people who are largely Christian and Muslim, he strikes a resonant chord that Coates cannot.
When the people who began and sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott declared their intention to exact financial pain—the “or else” most frequently mentioned by Farrakhan and others in the current movement—as the response to the injustice of segregation laws, they had only their faith that they would triumph. Twenty years later, the major federal civil rights laws that this country relied on to inch closer to justice were a full decade old. Twenty years later, one million Black men met on the National Mall in response to a call from the Nation of Islam. Twenty years after that, the same leader of that Nation spoke from the steps of a U.S. Capitol, with a Black man and his Black family in the White House and a rate of Blacks caught in the criminal justice system that has reached the worst levels in the history of the experiment called “the United States of America.” Anyone predicting what will happen over the next twenty years is taking a pure guess. The “or else” that will come in the wake of sustained injustice may very well be, as Coates’s literary hero James Baldwin wrote, “the fire next time.” That, it seems to me, is entirely up to us all.
The ideological and political formations that have fueled Black progress are not unlike those that fuel any coalition movement. They are messy with the particulars of each person’s lived experience and beliefs. They are frequently incongruent, from one person to the next. When forged in operational unity, however, it has been exactly these asymmetrical formations that have been the most terribly effective. Nostalgia for a pristine past can smooth the rough edges. People forget intergenerational tensions and the terrible silencings of contrarians. The attempt of non-Black media and institutions to influence movements, identify leaders and shape spokespeople-as-interpreters leaves the public beyond Black communities perpetually perplexed by the “attraction of the Nation of Islam” in those communities. Explaining the respect Blacks have for the Nation of Islam is simple. If nothing else, the Nation is there. Present in the streets. Present in Ferguson. In Baltimore. In your city, selling The Final Call. On the streets of Washington, D.C., demanding “Justice or Else.”
Gregory Carr, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Chair of Howard University’s Department of Afro American Studies