I don’t know if there really were a million men at the Million Man March in Washington D.C. I do know that I’ve never been in a crowd that big. Times Square on New Year’s Eye felt like a small, intimate gathering by comparison. And I’m pretty sure that if Louis Farrakhan gets even a tiny fraction of that turnout this weekend for the march’s 10-year anniversary, I will be amazed.
If you weren’t there at the National Mall on that flawlessly clear fall day, you can’t imagine the electricity that was in the air. When I read descriptions of what it felt like to be at Woodstock, I get an approximation of how it felt to be picking my way through that crowd, which stretched from the Capitol well past the Washington Monument. But it wasn’t a hedonistic or celebratory mood. All those men were there because they wanted something better, and if coming together at this place and at this time was the way to find it, no matter who was the sponsor, then the day would be well spent.
The mood was palpable as soon as I stepped off the train. The Nation of Islam had placed guides — many of them women, even though the day was billed as a strictly-male gathering — all through Union Station, and you could hear them gentling steering people in the right direction. Their voices were a steady, reassuring undercurrent throughout the building: “Good morning, thank you for coming,” over and over.
The phrase I heard most often that day was “Excuse me, brother,” which was only to be expected — the crowd was packed that tight. The Jumbotron screens placed along the Mall gave everything a slightly surrealistic air — even when the stage was out of sight, the voices of the speakers were loud and clear. Some of the speeches were vitriolic — this was a National of Islam event, after all — and some of them were uplifting, but the mood of patient attentiveness hardly ever wavered. The only static I got came when some NOI guy on the stage told everybody to pony up a dollar bill, including the media people gathered around the stage. “That means you too,” some guy called over to me, taking in my laptop and notepad and sussing me as a member of the press. “We ain’t playing.” My dollar stayed in my pocket and the exalted feeling of the afternoon went untroubled. At one point, a speaker called out the Muslim greeting As salaam alaikum (peace be unto you) and we all shouted back, Alaikum salaam. It went on like that for about 20 minutes, the waves of greetings rippling back and forth through the huge crowd.
A week or so before the march, columnist Clarence Page was on WNYC promoting his book Showing My Color, and he was asked why, after years of dismissing Farrakhan as a bigoted crank, he would publicly support the Million Man March. “Because Farrakhan doesn’t have a second act,” Page said. He argued that Farrakhan had nothing to offer beyond the ability to get a big rally together.
Farrakhan’s big speech was teased and trumpeted all day — Just a little longer, brothers, and you will hear from Minister Farrakhan, he’ll be here shortly, hang on a little longer. When he finally did take the stage, very late in the afternoon, the silence deepened all along the mall. We all wanted to hear what he had to say.
The redneck Jew-baiting and bigoted rhetoric was absent, but what he offered in its place was a stew of numerology and other crackpot psuedo-science, a long-discredited “letter” from a plantation owner purporting to show the way to keep slaves at odds, and rhetoric that sounded emptier by the minute. The crowd had already shrunk considerably by that point, and as I listened I saw more and more people peeling away from the fringes. They had buses to catch, and the speech clearly was not going anywhere. It’s true that Farrakhan has worthwhile things to say about how black people can improve their lives. It’s also true that this advice — stay clean, stay sober, look after your family, start a business to better your station in life — is not exactly revolutionary or even original, and it is also espoused by people who don’t have the baggage of race-baiting speeches, and vengeful fantasies about the white race being created by an evil scientist, or a giant spaceship that will one day send smaller spaceships to ethnically-cleanse the world’s cities.
A few weeks later, Farrakhan delivered on his promise to reach out to the Jewish community by sharing a podium with a representative from a splinter sect that believes the Holocaust was God’s punishment for all Jews.
Clarence Page nailed it. The day was a tonic for everyone who attended. You could see it in the faces of the men boarding the trains home and gathering for their chartered buses. I remember heading back through Union Station and noticing that a news stand seemed to be very prominently displaying the current issue of the Weekly Standard, which had a caricature of Farrakhan on the cover and the headline SWAMP OF HATRED. But there was no feeling of hatred that day. Everybody took home something different, I’m sure, but I don’t think Farrakhan garnered anything more than the acknowledgement that he had made the day possible.
And you know what? That’s true. He did make it possible. For all the uglies you can lay at Farrakhan’s feet, there’s no denying him the credit for bringing about that remarkable day. He created something bigger than himself, something that almost instantly slipped beyond his control. In a lifetime built on ineffectual speechifying and demagogic posturing, Farrakhan can point to having helped create something exalted. While I won’t credit him for much, I can credit him for that.
Originally published in The Opinion Mill. ED/PUB:LM