Posted on October 17, 1995 in Washington Watch

The Million Man March on Washington promises to be one of the most significant events in recent African American political history. Whether or not it succeeds in its goal to bring one million African American men to the steps of the U.S. Congress, the event has already succeeded in shaking up both the white and black political establishments.

The March is the brainchild of Minister Louis Farrakhan, current leader of the controversial sect which calls itself the “Nation of Islam” (NOI).

The NOI has never grown beyond 10,000 to 20,000 members. By contrast, more than one million African Americans are orthodox Muslims who reject the racial separatism of the NOI. Farrakhan and others have long argued that his influence is much greater than the size of his group might indicate. Without much advertising, Farrakhan can attract more than 20,000 African Americans to rallies he organizes on a regular basis in most major U.S. cities.

The reason for his appeal is clear. As an extension of its belief of black racial separation, the NOI preaches black pride, self-reliance and anger at both the condition of the black man in America and the negative role of the white power structure on the black community. This is black nationalism with a theological twist and it strikes a resonant chord among many in the African American community.

Farrakhan’s call more than ten months ago for a “million man march” ended up energizing African American activists nationwide. The March is to be a march of men who are atoning for the failure to honor their families and their community. Further, by calling on African Americans – even those who do not march – to absent themselves from work or even shopping, the march is to serve as a call to the black community to realize its social and economic power and its responsibilities for self-improvement.

Initially dismissed by most of the U.S. media, political leadership and even established African American leaders, the March and Farrakhan are now drawing significant national attention.

It appears that Farrakhan has succeeded. At least hundreds of thousands appear to be coming to Washington and the March and its goals have drawn tremendous support in all segments of the African American community.

The success is not Farrakhan’s alone. Although the March was his idea and its message is clearly inspired by his philosophy, the March has become the possession of a network of African American “nationalist” activists who have been laboring in their communities for over 30 years.

While the mainstream African American civil rights leaders have formed coalitions with liberal whites (especially American Jews), have participated in Democratic party politics and have been accommodating to compromise, the “nationalists” have been more militant in their demands. They have formed the bedrock of grass-roots action of the urban African American community, but have been largely unrecognized in the nation’s media.

It is important to note that as conditions for African Americans have worsened over the past few decades, a generation of young African Americans have been more responsive to the message of the nationalists than that of the mainstream civil rights liberals.

Arab Americans have long known and worked with the black nationalists. It was they who first supported Palestinian rights in the 1960’s and who sided with all of our community’s struggles during the 1970’s and 1980’s to fight political exclusion. But as relations soured between inner city Arab American merchants and the African American communities they served, it was some of these same nationalists who organized against the Arab merchants.

While the more mainstream civil rights leadership saw the route to African American power through integration in and accommodation with white society, the nationalist ideologues were inclined to independence and self-reliance.

This comfortable fit between Farrakhan’s message and that of the black nationalists is what helped to build support for the March in many U.S. cities.

The first hostile reaction to the March came from the of the most prominent American Jewish organizations., the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL). The ADL has long been concerned with Farrakhan’s statements about Jews. Some of the NOI leader’s comments have been taken out of context (his speeches are long, complex, and rich in metaphoric imagery and rhetoric – making it quite easy to quote him out of context); but there should be no doubt that Farrakhan has had harsh and crude words to say about whites in general, Jews included.

But there are serious questions being raised within the American Jewish community about the wisdom of the ADL’s decision to place full-page advertisements in many of the nation’s leading newspapers equating the Million Man March with a march by Nazis or white racists.

First, there is the concern the issue could degenerate into a general black-Jewish conflict. Second many American Jewish leaders, while uncomfortable with Farrakhan, have watched as African Americans support for the March has grown and felt it best to say that while they disagree with the March’s organizer, they support its goals.

This reaction is a recognition of the March’s success. By creating such a tidal wave of support for the March, the event itself has added more endorsers and at least muted some of the its potential opponents. It remains easy for some to criticize Farrakhan, but in fact the March has become larger than its organizers.

Even before the March occurs several of its accomplishments can be noted.

There is in the effort to organize this event a virtual “African American Declaration of Independence,” at least for those who have labored to build it. While past civil rights marches have also been successful (Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 March drew 250,000), they have relied on coalition efforts to provide funding, organizing and political support. This march is being funded and organized by African American nationalists. They may well emerge from this event, barring any crisis or disaster on March day, as a newly powerful and independent political force in the U.S.

While such an effort will not command the support of the majority of African Americans, it could still have a significant impact on racial and electoral politics on the national and local levels.

The power of this new effort can already be seen in those who have endorsed the March. If it is true, as the March’s supporters argue that the African American political leaders who have rejected the March have done so out of fear of a white backlash negatively affecting their careers; it is equally true that many of the more recent endorsers of the March (including both African American leaders and some white elected officials) have done so out of a fear of a black political backlash cutting short their careers. Such is the power of the March.

The values being promoted by the March’s leaders are also critical to the future of the African American community. In this regard the March has also already succeeded by generating an debate within the African American community on the responsibilities of black men and the need for the community to heal itself of broken families, drug abuse, crime and violence.

And finally, there is genuine respect being paid to those who have organized this massive effort. The sheer numbers alone and the logistical undertaking required to make it work have earned praise from many quarters. the fact that it all happened over the course of nine months with virtually no attention from the media and essentially no advertising has awakened many whites to the reality that there is indeed a deep division between blacks and whites in America.

“All this,” one white friend said to me, “happened without any of us knowing about it – how did it happen?”

The March is a reality check for an America still wrestling with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and recently discovering General Colin Powell. There is a deep division between the races, and this March will remind Americans of that fact and of what one new powerful trend within the African American community intends to do to improve their economic and political situation in this country.

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