Along with most of the stories and recaps of the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. featuring positive images of our community coming together—there were also some poignant points that peaked my interest. Throughout the National Mall, various speakers on jumbo screens delivered their messages of peace, unity and justice for all. For those that viewed the program from the convenience of their homes on C-Span, it felt like a never ending program of speeches and self-proclamations in a new era of civil rights. In the midst of being in one of the most acclaimed and historical moments in my time, I felt something was missing—I just couldn’t put my hand on it.
Since most of us arriving in the heart of Washington, D.C. traveled by the Metra and many by charter bus—we were entering the National Mall grounds by foot. Immediately, people were greet- ed by merchants, some with legal permits—many others without. Buttons, t-shirts, magnets, flags, key chains, pencils and pens—all sporting the theme of ‘Justice or Else’ or ‘Million Man March’. Every fifty feet, people were greeted by the hustle of merchandising before landing on the grass to find a place to enjoy the line-up of speakers and performances. Groups of people from various places, wearing uniform t-shirts with their schools’ organizations and causes emblazoned on their chest. You could feel the energy of these groups showing the necessity of being there to represent their interests. Still something was missing.
The theme of “Justice or Else” established by Minister Louis Farrakhan as a cry emphasizing the importance of Black lives, in a climate where the legal system has failed us in finding reprimand from police injustices across the board. The post- er child of this movement was not one person or one group—it was a multitude of families who lost loved ones at the hands of suspicion and foul play. They all gathered together arriving in town to push the agenda of the anniversary theme, hold- ing up poster sized photos of their slain so that they are not forgotten. The line-up of speakers on the program were familiar faces champion- ing the rights of African-Americans: from Dr. Ben Chavis, Congressman Danny Davis (IL), Mayor of Washington, D.C. Murial Bowser, organizers of Black Lives Matter, the Justice League and Hands Up. A slew of speakers and activists from the Native Indian and Hispanic communities and faith leaders from various denominations abounded. It was a different type of vibe, each speaker stirring up their own interpretation of “Justice or Else” and why it was so important that people of color gather together in numbers.
Being in the thick of the crowd, there were a cross-generation of attendees from fathers who brought their children after sharing their first historical trip as youth themselves during the original
Million Man March twenty years ago. Although, the first march had the largest turnout of one million attendees—baby boomers and post-era Civil Rights activists making history, this second wave of the march brought out less of the original attendees. Upon recognizing some familiar faces that graced the stage on Capitol Hill, we also didn’t see a great deal of AfricanAmerican leaders from: Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Rev. Al Sharpton, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Congressman Bobby L. Rush and U.S. Senator Cory Booker amongst a list of notable faces that were present for the first march. We can easily claim this march wasn’t about them or the spotlight—this march was about the ‘people’ and powered by the Nation of Islam. But, in an age where power lies in how many ‘views’, ‘likes’ and ‘clicks’, the regular presence of our usual suspects didn’t go unnoticed on such a historical day.
Yes, the 20th Anniversary Million Man March was a historical day. A day that despite the low-key coverage that many media outlets down played as just another ‘sound bite’ still brought out a large number of Black people in a positive and communal setting. The faces that many of us had grown up with in the struggle of breaking barriers and paving the path of racial, gender and social equality are now taking a backseat to a new generation of social media ‘go getters’.
The New York based group, Justice League has created a viral movement which has energized the next generation of leaders and millennium ‘thinkers’. Standing on the Capital steps at the podium, a Justice League organizer, poignantly recited his poem, “You can’t expect respect, when you don’t respect yourself. When the ones don’t protect to serve, you have to protect yourself. You can’t expect no one else to love you more than you. That means ‘Or Else’ is totally up to you. What are you willing to sacrifice so that your child is willing to have a life? Let’s take Christmas from Santa Claus and give it back to Christ.”
As a representative of Black Lives Matter and a group of her peers stood by proudly pumping their fists in the air, it gradually started to dawn on me what was missing—the importance of our next generation. As I walked into the thick of the crowd, beyond the metal detectors that allowed entry into the Capitol Hill grounds—there was an energy that could not be captured on the television screens. Young people were in high numbers, many had traveled to the nation’s capitol for the very first time to congregate. Many had never traveled beyond their hometown to be a part of history because when will they be able to witness large numbers of Black people gather in one place in their lifetime? Young adults who weren’t born yet, some the offspring of first generation Million Man March attendees.
Chicago natives, Jonah Jackson, 19 and his cousin, Akim Chatman, both traveled with other family members to the march. They decided to raise funds for their church with an entrepreneurial spirit of selling “Justice of Else” t-shirts. Most importantly, they knew that the trip was much more special than pocketing a profit for a good cause. Jackson said, “I wanted to be with my family and hear Minister Farrakhan speak. At the first Million Man March, I heard there was a lot of unity and it was a time when Black people were together. There wasn’t as much violence between us.”
The spirit of curiosity and intrigue is what brought so many young adults in making the journey to Washington, D.C. for the anniversary of the march. Twenty years ago it was about hope and making a stand—today’s youth see it another way.
“Being from Chicago, it’s hard to get this many Black people together with this much peaceful way. With all of the chaotic things that is happening in Chicago, this is a great way of getting us together. You can’t reach everyone but for the ones that do get the message, it helps us,” Chatman said.
With many lives taken by a racist and broken legal system flooded with police brutality and corruption, the ghost of Emmett Till rings out in each family that has lost a loved one. To the families of Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and many others, “Justice or Else” represented their continual fight in making sure their loved ones lives still mattered.
Standing in uniformity with the other families, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayon Martin wore a red t-shirt. As the others joined her on the Capitol Hill steps, holding up pictures of their loved ones, she said, “This is about knowing that we are not three fifths of a human. We have feelings, and we have families too. We will not continue to stand by and not say anything anymore. We will speak up and speak out. God is watching what is going on and I say to the families that are standing in front of me, ‘Don’t hold your head down as if your child’s life has been lost in vain, hold your head up high. Your child was not the person that shot and killed someone else. Your child was murdered. Stand up for who you are.’”
With so much centered around marketing, branding and hashtag themes–”Justice or Else” became the hashtag to peak the interests of many seeking some type of change. As Minister Louis Farrakhan’s speech rang throughout the nation’s capitol that day, it was clear that at the age of 82, his ability to pull ‘rock star’ numbers is still undisputed. The numbers may have not been as high as the march in 1995, but much has occurred between then and now. We still have a great deal of work to accomplish. This march wasn’t about a sound bite on CNN or having a network which hasn’t been Black owned since 2000 to broadcast in every household—this was about passing the torch.
As the Minister stood there behind the bulletproof glass podium with the protection of his security detail on every corner of the stage— he soaked in the view of thousands of attendees across the National Mall. He acknowledged the young female organizers behind Black Lives Matter, “I love my sister and those standing with her who champion the cause of Black Lives Matter. To hear her and for her to know that she and Black Lives Matter are welcomed. They represent the future leadership.”