By Vernon A. Williams
Twenty-five years ago this weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., with Mark Powers, Eric Johnson and about 999,999 other brothers for the heralded “Million Man March.”
I remember spending the night before at the home of Kappa brother Dennis C. Hayes, who then was Corporate Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the position held by the legendary Thurgood Marshall as he led the iconic Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court.
On that October 16, in 1995, we were approaching another page out of history.
I remember our waking up early to catch the rail shuttle from Columbia, Maryland, into the nation’s capital. We were startled to see notes on the window as we approached the entrance. It read something to the effect that trains would not be running that morning, and there was an apology for any inconvenience.
Dennis had taken his car in for maintenance the day before, so we only had one means of transportation in mind. He shared that there had never been any such impromptu shutdown of the commuter service in memory. It was an ominous start to a day that filled us all with anticipation.
As we stood in front of the building thinking aloud, a brother about our age from Ghana knew our dilemma and rolled down the window of his taxi. In that smooth accent he said, “That is unfair. I will drive you all into D.C.” We smiled with a ‘thanks but no thanks’ response envisioning some whopping fare for the 35-mile ride from Maryland.
The good brother offered a flat rate that was far less than the drive warranted and decided to cut off the meter to accommodate our needs. I thought to myself, this day is off to a good start for a Black man, despite the obstacles tossed in our path. We took him up on the offer and spent half the ride celebrating the impromptu demonstration of Black Power.
I clearly recall that not everyone was down with the program. Some African Americans who considered themselves enlightened days earlier were quoted in the media saying, “There is nothing wrong with the general concept. But I would not support anything organized by the leader of the Black Muslims [Minister Louis Farrakhan].”
Then there were Negroes put in front of the camera from so-called civil rights organizations that no one heard of before—or after their 15-minutes of shame—decrying the entire notion, suggesting that it is racist and separatist for people to spearhead any movement based on race.
And yes, there were intellectual, well-intended Black women in the news who denounced the event from what they perceived as a sexist perspective. “Why does it have to be men only? When has there been a time that excluded females from the Civil Rights Movement?”
Wading through it all, there was never any doubt in my mind that I NEEDED to make that trip from Gary, Indiana, to the nation’s capital; that this was a moment that should not be missed. I allowed my daughter Bridget to stay home from school and get her History lesson in real time on this particular occasion.
As we winded through the neighborhoods of Chocolate City off the interstate, we were stunned and heartened to encounter a reception no one expected.
Lining both sides of the small neighborhood streets leading to the mall, there were women and children waving and smiling and jumping up and down with messages to greet us.
One handwritten sign read, “Thank You Brothers!” Another read, “Sisters Proud of You!” One in the back of the crowd read, “Real Men.” And a small boy had apparently been handed a sign as tall as he was by some conscientious mother—held as high overhead as his tiny arms could stretch. It read: “My Role Models!”
Our mood was ebullient, high-fiving each other and our brother from the Motherland as we exited his cab. The landscape that met us was indescribable—an ocean of Black men as far as the eye could see. From teenagers to young adults to middle-aged Black men to those slightly more mature to seasoned, gray-haired sages – men showed up in force!
The Million Man March was more than a “feel good” event. The day full of compelling speeches addressed critical issues of the day, such as an African-American unemployment rate twice that of whites; a nationwide poverty rate of 40 percent for Blacks; Congressional cuts of $1.1 billion from the poorest schools in urban America.
While white homicides at that time were 9.3 deaths per 100,000, the rate for Blacks was 72 killings for that same number of citizens. There were 200,000 more Blacks in prison than in college. Inner-city hospital closings jeopardized the health of men, women and children throughout the Black community. It was a serious point in history.
And yes, Black men were urged to atone for their personal shortcomings and return to their hometowns with a renewed commitment to excellence. Some say the feeling of victory was superficial and short-lived. There will always be cynics. For some who attended, it was an inspiration, to others affirmation, and to yet others—revelation.
What is indisputable is that it was a milestone in Black America, comparable to the March on Washington in 1963. And despite the violence in the vitriolic South that followed that momentous occasion, the lasting impact of such a show for unity, strength and moral direction had an impact that has lasted for generations. So did the Million Man March!
It was the right thing for the right time. While Bill Clinton and his government cohorts were busy enriching the penal industry with an oppressive “three strikes” program (for which the former president has since apologized) the Million Man March was there to remind us of our legacy of royalty, define our purpose and direct greater destiny.
There won’t be much celebration in media and large institutions of this nation because the last thing they care about is Black men celebrating themselves and their position. But we don’t need their validation. Blacks need only to teach our children that there was such a day, and that even now they need no one’s permission to gather in force to speak their own agenda on their own terms!
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.