The Million Man March, organised by Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam group, and directed by Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the former executive director of the NAACP, was to instil a sense of personal responsibility in African American men in improving the condition of their fellow African Americans.
With estimates ranging from 400,000 to nearly 1.1 million, it was one of the largest gatherings of its kind in American history and among the speakers were figures such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, Cornel West and Maya Angelou.
“Let our choices be for life, for protecting our women, our children, keeping our brothers free of drugs, free of crime,” Kurt Schmoke, Mayor of Washington, D.C., told the crowd.
It was reported that in response to the march some 1.7 million African American men registered to vote, and the day was immortalised in Spike Lee’s film ‘Get On The Bus’, which depicted a group of African Americans taking a bus trip across the country in order to attend the march.
However, the event was not without its critics within the African American community. Rep. John Lewis dismissed Farrakhan’s message as an effort to “resegregate America”, while Adolph Reed, a longtime critic of Farrakhan, was even more critical. “The message of Farrakhan's march is fundamentally conservative and blatantly sexist,” he said.
Meanwhile, the activist and academic – and former FBI Most Wanted fugitive – Angela Davis opposed the march because: “Justice cannot be served by countering a distorted and racist view of black manhood with a narrowly sexist vision of men standing ‘a degree above women’.”
Another critic was Clarence Lang, Professor and Chair of African and African-American Studies at the University of Kansas. He wrote:
“The march’s theme of personal “atonement” buried attention to deteriorating black economic conditions, which was a consequence of the political right’s larger assault on the piecemeal legacies of the liberal New Deal and Great Society.
“Black ‘atonement’ not only failed to account for the retreat from the social safety net and civil rights protections that had been happening since the Ronald Reagan presidency, but it also avoided reckoning with an accelerating “war on drugs” that was criminalizing and incarcerating record numbers of black working-class people in the ‘90s.
“Ideologically, the organizing premises of the Million Man March shared far more in common with the ‘Contract with America,’ forged by Newt Gingrich and a Republican-dominated Congress, than it did with the black freedom movement mobilizations with which many observers compared it.”
It didn’t stop there. Black academic Manning Marable was also a vocal critic.
“Instead of ‘atonement’, we should march to Washington to indict the real criminals: the reactionary Republican Congress; the failures of the Clinton administration; a bankrupt two party system; the corporations and wealthy who profit from black unemployment, imprisonment and exploitation”.
Moreover, Marable was scathing about the Nation of Islam’s wider politics: “Farrakhan's racial fundamentalism has unmistakable parallels with fascist and white racist ideologies and organizations.”
Still, the March entered into the national consciousness. Speaking in 2020 about its significance, Martin Luther King, III – the son of Martin Luther King, Jr. – said:
“That probably was one of the largest demonstrations of Black men that had ever been done in terms of the United States. So when you think about the fact that Black men were brought together with a focus on bringing families together, assuming appropriate responsibilities, that was extremely significant.”