Million Man March - March on Washington

  • On October 16, 1995, an estimated 850,000 African American men from across the United States gathered together at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to rally in one of the largest demonstrations in Washington history.  This march surpassed the 250,000 who gathered in 1963 for the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.  

    The Million Man March was the brainchild of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, and was organized by the National African American Leadership Summit and a number of other groups. The march was largely a response to the politics of the time—with a Republican-controlled Congress and a conservative-leaning Democratic president, Bill Clinton, Washington was gripped by a desire to lower taxes and cut government spending on education, housing, and social programs. Organizers also expressed a desire to change the public’s image of African American men in response to high-profile scandals like the O.J. Simpson trial and Mike Tyson’s rape conviction, arguing that Black men were often treated by the government and media as “sacrificial lambs” for the sins of all American men.

    The march took place in the context of a larger grassroots movement that set out to win politicians' attention for urban and minority issues through widespread voter registration campaigns. On the same day, there was a parallel event called the Day of Absence, organized by women in conjunction with the March leadership, which was intended to engage the large population of Black Americans who would not be able to attend the demonstration in Washington. On this date, all Blacks were encouraged to stay home from their usual school, work, and social engagements, in favor of attending teach-ins, and worship services, focusing on the struggle for a healthy and self-sufficient Black community. Further, organizers of the Day of Absence hoped to use the occasion to make great headway on their voter registration drive.

    Besides the keynote address by Minister Louis Farrakhan, several prominent speakers addressed those gathered at the Washington Mall including civil rights activists Benjamin Chavis, Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, and Dick Gregory.  Stevie Wonder entertained the gathering with his songs while Maya Angelou used her poetry to offer advice to the men at the rally.  The message of most of the speeches called for black men to “bring the spirit of God back into your lives.”  These marchers were also encouraged to register to vote to build black political power.

    March participants took a public pledge to support their families, refrain from violence and physical or verbal abuse toward women and children, and renounce violence against other men “except in self-defense.” They also pledged abstinence from drugs or alcohol and to concentrate their efforts on building black businesses and social and cultural institutions in the communities where they lived.  The march participants were then asked to “go back home” to implement the changes they had pledged.

    Although many of the changes pledged in Washington on October 16 to revitalize African American communities were not prominently in evidence in the years that followed the march, organizers claimed two notable successes.  In the year after October 16, over 1.5 million black men registered to vote for the first time.  There was also an upsurge in the number of black children adopted by African American families.

    The U.S. Park Police estimated that 400,000 people had attended, angering the Million Man March’s organizers. A later estimate put the number at 870,000 with a 20 percent margin of error, just high enough to leave open the possibility that a million men had attended.