Marching again with Farrakhan

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A decade after the Million Man March comes the Millions More Movement, scheduled for this October, commemorating the 10th anniversary of what may have been the largest march on Washington in history. Ten years after the Million Man March, it’s hard to see how much better off black people are as a result — or if they’re better off at all. So what exactly can a Millions More Movement realistically hope to accomplish that the Million Man March did not?

Last year, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, organizer of the Million Man March as well as the upcoming Millions More Movement, said he was considering the merits of a 10th anniversary follow-up. This is some of what he had to say in response to a journalist’s question:

“I am right now reflecting on that. I’m not so much interested in a march. I’m not so much interested in gathering 1 million or 2 million men in one place, unless it is to direct those men to do that which will liberate our people, unless it will direct those men to direct their dollars so we can build institutions.

“And so I don’t see any reason to call 2 million men again unless we’re calling them for serious work.”

In a March interview with BET newsman Ed Gordon, after Farrakhan had made the decision to move forward with the Millions More Movement, this is what he had to say in response to a question about whether he believed black leadership had failed black America:

“In a real sense, all of us have failed if the report card is the strengthening, the empowering and the improvement of the quality of life of the masses of our people. We have more elected officials now than we have ever had, over 10,000. We have more millionaires and a few billionaires, more executives in corporate America, more blacks in science and technology, but the quality of life of the masses of our people has not significantly improved. In fact, the quality of life of the masses is deteriorating, so in that sense, all of us, as church leaders, political leaders, educational leaders, economic leaders, cultural leaders, have failed.”

I attended the Million Man March with a van full of buddies, and I can honestly say it was one of the most moving and emotionally powerful occasions I’ve ever been involved in. Just the sheer numbers alone were overwhelming, and the fact that we had all come together for a common purpose. To know that so many hundreds of thousands of like-minded brothers had responded to the call was truly amazing — and encouraging. I couldn’t help but think that maybe something was really going to come out of this. I was well aware that there were those who would consider such optimism naïve, but I really didn’t care. I wanted to feel good about this thing.

On the ride back, all of us in the van were pretty much high off the experience, and, at 37, I was probably the youngest one of the bunch. This wasn’t a group of gullible kids. These were grown men who, collectively and individually, had experienced quite a bit of life. But none of us had ever experienced anything even remotely like this.

Even though it was a serious occasion, I still can’t forget an incident on the road back to Detroit. We pulled off at a KFC about an hour outside the city to get some chicken. Man, I swear every brother from the march must have had the same idea. We were shoulder-to-shoulder inside — all of us charged up from the march. Staring wide-eyed and almost speechless were two very young, very nervous white kids who I’m quite sure had never seen that many black men in one place at one time in their lives, let alone at their job.

Black Power visits KFC. I had to grin and wonder what Farrakhan would have said about so many of us, directly following the revolutionary occasion, patronizing the fried chicken establishment of an elderly white Southern gentlemen called “The Colonel.” Talk about the need for atonement. ...

Anyway, not long after returning home, I read a number of stories criticizing the march, saying nothing measurable would come out of it as opposed to the earlier civil rights movement which prompted historic, lasting change on the social, political and economic level. In addition to that came the predictable attacks on Farrakhan as a dangerous and evil demagogue who was supposedly leading us black people astray. There was anger that so many had chosen to listen to such a man, but I believe there was even more anger that Farrakhan was the only national black leader on the scene who could have pulled off such an event. What did this say about the condition of black America if a racist, anti-Semitic demagogue was its most popular and charismatic leader? Had black folks lost their minds?

Some of the most respected black intellectuals have sounded off on Farrakhan, labeling him everything from a fraud to a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur. But after all these years, Farrakhan still draws standing-room-only crowds wherever he goes, much like the first time I saw him in Chicago nearly 20 years ago. I have since heard him speak in Los Angeles, Miami and, last week, at Fellowship Chapel in Detroit. I have heard him say some bizarre things, and I have heard him say some things I considered offensive and borderline nuts, but he is also one of the most naturally gifted speakers I have ever heard; he’s obviously brilliant, has a great sense of humor.

If Farrakhan is such a nutcase, then why do so many black people turn up whenever he speaks? If he is so irresponsible and dangerous, why is the Congressional Black Caucus endorsing the Millions More Movement? Why was Rep. John Conyers on stage with him last week? Why do all these “mainstream” black leaders feel it’s important to be seen when he’s around? Are they all racist, anti-Semitic and crazy too? After all these years in the spotlight, and after just as many years of being criticized and demonized, if Farrakhan is still eliciting the type of response I saw last week, then perhaps these leaders have figured out that it makes more sense to work with the man than against him.

And if the Millions More Movement, which this time is much more inclusive and is open to both black women and black gays, draws anywhere near the size of the crowd that descended on Washington 10 years ago, then that feat will once again cement Farrakhan’s position as black America’s most effective mass leader. But what will that mean for the masses of black people, who even Farrakhan admits are no better off than they were 10 years ago?

Farrakhan said when he was in Detroit that the term “movement” implies this is about more than simply showing up in Washington. He has spoken of reaching out to black leaders everywhere to put aside their differences and come together to work toward the benefit of African-Americans. There has even been talk of a covenant that is being drawn up to be signed by black leaders, pledging their commitment to the betterment of the black community. During his interview with Gordon, Farrakhan said, “All of us are going to sit down and craft words for a covenant that we can sign with each other in the presence of our people, and this covenant is not only with each other, but it is a covenant on behalf of the struggle of our people for improvement of their quality of life. And once our people see us committing ourselves to make our word our bond, then we can reach to our people to assist us programmatically and systemically in providing those kinds of services and building those kinds of institutions that will serve our people’s needs.”

Sounds great, but vague, and Farrakhan sounded great 10 years ago too. Setting a goal is one thing, but achieving that goal is something else altogether, because that involves work.

The time for marches alone is past. This one will only matter as much as the movement that follows.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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