Marchers recall moment of unity

Ten years ago the Million Man March took place in Washington, DC. Yet there is still controversy over what America's largest demonstration actually achieved.

BBC/October 13, 2005
By James Coomarasamy

At the foot of the Capitol Building in Washington, a stage is being constructed for the events marking the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March.

Political scientist Michael Fauntroy surveys the view and recalls the scene a decade ago.

"When we started marching down Seventh Street," he says, "The reaction we got from people was incredible.

"People we'd never seen before were honking their horns and offering encouragement. It was great. It was absolutely fabulous."

The numbers may be disputed, but it was without doubt the largest gathering of African American men in Washington, outnumbering even the famous civil rights marches of the 1960s.

It was a moment of unity, led, ironically, by a figure who was seen as divisive.

'Malice and division'

Rev Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation Of Islam, has been accused of homophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, and criticised, not least by the then President Bill Clinton.

"One million men are right to be standing up for personal responsibility, but one million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division," Mr Clinton famously remarked.

Although the military disciplines of the Nation of Islam played a prominent role, the vast majority of marchers were not disciples of Minister Farrakhan, but were sympathetic to his message of atonement and personal responsibility.

It was a message that resulted in a pledge made by thousands: "I pledge that from this day forward, I will never raise my hand with a knife or a gun."

These days Fred Wardlaw is teaching his own son personal responsibility.

He was a soldier serving in Texas at the time - one of those who made a long physical and spiritual journey to the nation's capital.

'Wasted opportunity'

He told the BBC: "That day means everything to me. It's monumental.

"I've got it recorded in my heart and recorded for my archives. In my heart and spirit it'll be there forever."

Fred says it changed his life. He left the army and ditched his plans to aim for sporting success. Instead, he came to Washington to study. Now he's a systems analyst at a big legal publishing company.

"Blalck men continuing their education - I took it to heart. Black men taking care of their kids - which you shouldn't have a march to do - I took it to heart."

"It focused me on economics and being an entrepreneur. 1995 and the Million Man March were the seed for that. "

But Michael Fauntroy is one of the marchers who believe that the seed should have been better cultivated.

Black adoption and black voter participation both briefly rose in the wake of the march. He says the organisers should have done more to make those changes permanent.

"They took the march as an event when actually that event should have spurred some organisational activity to take place indefinitely and I never saw that happen."

Asked if he sees it as a wasted opportunity, Mr Fauntroy replies: "To a large extent, yes."

Even one of those who organised the march - Dr Benjamin Chavis - tacitly agrees that the tangible results were less than impressive.

"We have more people in America living in poverty in 2005 than we had in 1995, so - in one sense - we have more reasons to march today than we did 10 years ago."

Now Dr Chavis is one of the organisers of the Millions More Movement. It's more overtly political than last time round - calling for economic justice.

It's also more diverse - including women and other ethnic minorities.

With Hurricane Katrina there is now a rallying point for those talking about the racial divide in America.

Dr Chavis hopes the numbers will be similar, but the momentum will be different.

"Ten years ago it wasn't envisioned that we would stay today. This time, this movement that's been built must stay together. That will be the litmus test.

"Not just how many come, what will happen a day after, a month after a year after. Will we be together? That will measure our effectiveness."

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