It’s been 23 years since hundreds of thousands of African-American men from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March, which addressed problems plaguing the Black community, what role Black men played in it and how they can atone for them.
The march, which took place Oct. 16, 1995, was organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in conjunction with local chapters of the National Association of Colored People and featured speeches from Farrakhan along with civil rights activists and leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks.
“We cannot continue the destruction of our lives and the destruction of our communities,” Farrakhan said in his speech, according to the Los Angeles Times. He also called for an end to violence in Black neighborhoods that led to the “death of the babies by the senseless slaughter.”
The Million Man March was often compared to the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his rousing “I Have a Dream” speech in front of 250,000 people.
The number of people who attended the march varies depending on who you ask. Farrakhan and other organizers claimed that more than 1 million Black men showed up, while the National Park Service released an official estimate of 400,000 people.
“The Million Man March was one of the most historic organizing and mobilizing events in the history of Black people in the United States,” Chicago-based Dr. Conrad Worrill told the Nation of Islam.
U.S. leaders at the time sharply criticized Farrakhan for rhetoric that they deemed divisive. President Bill Clinton, who didn’t attend the march, gave a speech on race relations on the day of the march, condemned the nation of Islam leader.
“One million men do not make right one man’s message of malice and division,” Clinton said. “No good house was ever built on a bad foundation.”
Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Farrakhan “an unrepentant bigot” who used the march for legitimacy.
For years, Farrakhan was seen as a controversial figure. In December 1964, two months prior to Malcolm X’s death, he said “the die is set and Malcolm shall not escape… such a man is worthy of death,” in the Nation of Islam paper Muhammad Speaks, he called Judaism a “gutter religion,” adding that people who supported Israel were criminals.
He sued President Ronald Reagan and State Department officials claiming that economic sanctions against Libya (he accepted a $5 million interest-free loan from Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi in 1985) and a travel ban, were violations of his freedoms of speech and worship, per CNN.
Women also attended the rally, despite calls from Farrakhan to stay home and watch their children.
Famed poet Maya Angelou took the podium and read her poem “Still We Rise,” where she said that Black men must “draw near to one another” to “save your race.”
“You have been paid for in a distant place.
“The old ones remind us that slavery’s chains
“Have paid for our freedom again and again.”
Many of the topics that Farrakhan spoke about in his two-hour speech is still viewed as relevant today. He sharply criticized White supremacy and said that racial divisiveness was ruining the country.
“We’re not here to tear down America. America is tearing itself down. We’re here to rebuild the wasted cities,” Farrakhan said. “We have gathered here today to collect ourselves to move this nation toward a more perfect union.”
In 2015, Farrakhan organized a rally to honor the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March called Justice of Else.
His message, while more inclusive of women, echoed some of the same sentiments he shared in 1995, that it is up to the Black community to help one another.
“We who are getting older… what good are we if we don’t prepare young people to carry that torch of liberation to the next step?” he said. “What good are we if we think we can last forever and not prepare others to walk in our footsteps?”