The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Million Man March: Controversial rally in a watershed year

It is tempting to look back 20 years and think of the mid-1990s as a time of gathering prosperity at home and relative tranquility abroad. Such a characterization, of course, is superficial, incomplete, and even misleading; any serious look back to 1995 will reveal that the year was hardly without controversy.

As I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, some of the most heated public disputes of the year emerged in the runup to the Million Man March, a huge and peaceful assembly on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 1995. The March was the inspiration of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who envisioned the rally in Washington as a “holy day of atonement and reconciliation” and as an opportunity for black men to “straighten their backs” and recommit themselves to their families and communities.

But Farrakhan’s toxic opinions and anti-Semitic remarks  — as well as the exclusion of black women from the event — threatened to overshadow the March and its objectives, I note in 1995, pointing out that neither the national NAACP nor the Urban League endorsed the March.

For many participants, the dilemma was, as one journalist described it, “whether to march for a message they can believe in — unity — without marching to a drummer they may not follow.”

Angela Davis, an activist college professor and a former Black Panther, assailed the exclusion of women, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer a few days before the rally:

“No march, movement or agenda that defines manhood in the narrowest terms and seeks to make women lesser partners in this quest for equality can be considered a positive step.”

The New York Times reported detecting “an unmistakable buzz in black women’s circles about the wisdom of the march. Expressions of exhilaration and frustration can be heard from book groups to church groups, from board rooms to bedrooms. And some of the buzz is downright angry.”

(The Times in an editorial on the eve of the rally said Farrakhan was seeking “to prolong and exploit the nation’s racial divisions,” adding: “Everyone must recognize that only poisoned apples can fall from Mr. Farrakhan’s tree.”)

In the end, the March brought what the Washington Post described as a “sprinkling of wives, mothers, daughters and sisters who mingled among [the participants] to show support and to share in a historical event.”

The rally itself was joyful, almost festive. Participants spoke with awe about the turnout and about a sense that they had participated in a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

“I can’t begin to explain the beautiful sight I saw when I arrived at the Mall that morning,” André P. Tramble, an accountant from Ohio was quoted as saying afterward. “If critics expected the March to be chaotic and disruptive, their expectations were unfounded. I thought, if we could come together in this orderly way and establish some commonsense principals of unity, how easily we could solve half of our self-imposed problems.”

The crowd was addressed by a stream of speakers, including Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou. Farrakhan spoke for nearly two hours, remarks the Washington Post described as “fiery and disjointed.”

According to a transcript of his speech, Farrakhan’s oratory seemed to wander at times; he ruminated at one point about the number nineteen, saying:

“What is so deep about this number 19? Why are we standing on the Capitol steps today? That number 19 — when you have a nine you have a womb that is pregnant. And when you have a one standing by the nine, it means that there’s something secret that has to be unfolded.”

He also pledged “to collect Democrats, Republicans and independents around an agenda that is in the best interest of our people. And then all of us can stand on that agenda and in [the presidential election year] 1996, whoever the standard-bearer is for the Democratic, the Republican, or the independent party should one come into existence. They’ve got to speak to our agenda. We’re no longer going to vote for somebody just because they’re black. We tried that.”

The turnout for the March was enormous but estimates of crowd size soon became a matter of bitter dispute — which the Washington Post revisited in the run-up to a Farrakhan-inspired rally last week in Washington, marking the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March.

Drawing on aerial photographs and applying a multiplier of one person for every 3.6 square feet, the National Park Service estimated that the rally 20 years ago attracted about 400,000 people.

That estimate outraged Farrakhan, who insisted the turnout was 1.5 million to 2 million people. He charged that racism and “white supremacy” had influenced the Park Service’s count. And he threatened to sue the agency to force a revision of the crowd estimate.

A few days later, another crowd estimate was offered by a team of researchers at Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing who applied a multiplier of one person for every 1.8 square feet. They estimated the crowd size at 837,000, within a margin of error of plus or minus 20 percent.

The controversy gradually subsided and Congress soon took the Park Service out of the crowd-counting business, a move received with more relief than disappointment.

“No matter what we said or did, no one ever felt we gave a fair estimate,” J.J. McLaughlin, the official charged with coordinating Park Service crowd estimates was quoted as saying.

“It got to the point where the numbers became the entire focus of the demonstration.”

WJC

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