The National Mall, usually home to joggers, vacationing families and street vendors peddling funnel cakes and T-shirts instead echoed with Arabic calls to prayer and black power chants Saturday.
Thousands of Americans from around the country emerged from various Metro stations into the blinding sun, sporting messages such as “Justice or Else,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Killing Us.”
Some were students, sporting trendy clothes and Afrocentric accessories. Others were observant Muslims fully clothed in headscarves. Mixed in were families lugging picnic baskets and lawn chairs with reluctant children in tow.
The common denominator amongst the throngs of different walks of life was the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March.
In October 1995, the head Minister of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, called on black men from around the country to march on the National Mall contesting the negative stereotypes of black men and asking them to take action towards a more racially equal society.
With nearly 900,000 people in attendance, the march was a watershed event in the grassroots movement for racial justice in late 20th century America.
Last Saturday, the 20th anniversary event called to more than just black men. Women were a prominent part of the program’s keynote speakers as well as attendees. The goals for the 20th anniversary event were to confront issues of mass incarceration, economic and education inequality and police brutality.
“I was here in ’95 and it was just a sea of black men as far as the eye can see” said Collin*, from Chicago. “Now we’re here for everyone. Just like Martin Luther King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
While the event combined other racial, religious and political activist groups, Farrakhan and Nation of Islam were the main sponsors. Nation of Islam was founded in the 1930s as an organization to elevate the status of black Americans. Separate in beliefs and practices from mainstream Islam, Nation of Islam uses the basis of Islam while adding black supremacy and separatist teachings. The organization is tracked as a hate group by various government organizations.
Along with the keynote speech from Farrakhan himself, other notable speakers were the parents of young black men and women killed in instances police brutality in recent months, including the father of Michael Brown and mothers of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland.
“This isn’t about civil rights.” Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said. “This is about human rights and knowing we’re not three-fifths of a person.”
“We have to begin to show our love to each other.” said Michael Brown Sr, the father of the late teenager whose death at the hands of a white policeman sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri last year. “That’s the only way we can get stronger through all this.”
Despite the sponsorship by a fringe religious/political organization, people of various beliefs and ethnicities, including Christian clergy, Islamic ministers, Native American and Latino leaders spoke at the event.
“I came out today because I wanted to hear the message and come together with the black community to enact change,” said Washington, D.C. native Antonio*. “We have problems in our community, but success goes beyond race. It’s about the content of your character, and that’s what we’re out here fighting for.”
When Farrakhan took the stage, all went quiet and eyes were on the large screens over the crowd. Farrakhan’s voice thundered as many attendees held their fists aloft in solidarity with the Black Power paradigm.
“We who are getting older,” Farrakhan, 82, said to the crowd, “what good are we if we don’t prepare young people to carry that torch of liberation to the next step? What good are we if we think we can last forever and not prepare others to walk in our footsteps?”
Some attendees said they didn’t feel like much had changed since the historic march of 1995, but this didn’t dampen the spirit. Kimberly*, a young woman bouncing an infant on her leg, radiated hope for the future.
“We’re still dealing with the same problems, but now we have social media so we can reach more people.” Kimberly said. “We’ve brought women into the movement, and other groups. With this new unity, I think we can enact change. Maybe I won’t see it, but my children will.”
Multimedia Editor, Margaret Carmel
Margaret Carmel is a senior broadcast journalism major with minors in international social justice and Middle Eastern studies and a certificate in global education. Her dream job is to make documentaries overseas, specifically in the Middle East. You can usually find Margaret at the movies or looking for more books to read. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Portfolio
Staff Photographer, Julie Tripp
Julie is a junior majoring in photography with a minor in media studies. She is pursuing a career in photojournalism and is taking the spring semester to study photography in Bristol, England. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Portfolio