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Thompson: Measuring the Million Man March

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Two decades ago, a sea of black men gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., pledging to take back their communities from drugs and crime, and cater to their families. This weekend, a group returns, many to make the same pledges.

On Oct. 16, 1995, tens of thousands of black men answered the call of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to march in Washington, D.C., and made quite an impression on the nation’s psyche.

Yet, the plethora of problems facing black men in inner cities — high unemployment, deteriorating family structures and violent crime — remains as continued signs of urban decay, raising questions about the pledges raised to tackle the issues facing men of color in the United States.

It is those problems that raise another rallying call — under the theme “Justice or Else” — as organizers prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March on Saturday in Washington.

The men who answered the call of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in 1995 made quite an impression on the nation’s psyche.

But the problems persist. For example in 2005, a decade after the original march, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that blacks accounted for nearly half of all homicide victims. Black males made up 52 percent of the nearly 13,000 male homicide victims, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice.

And according to FBI statistics released last week, Detroit recorded the most violent crimes per capita for large U.S. cities.

Paul Taylor, a participant in the first march, said he will be among the marchers this weekend.

Taylor, 68, now retired, is the former longtime director of the now defunct Inner City Sub Center, an organization that taught entrepreneurship to young people, created an emergency food program for the needy and promoted values of respect among youth.

He said the first march led him and others to form the Detroit Million Man Alumni, a group that meets every Thursday at the Alkebu-lan Village, a martial arts center on Detroit’s east side, and encourages black men to be involved in activities that empower their communities.

“Black men came from all over the country and we had a fellowship that was beyond comprehension,” Taylor said of the first march. “People were humbled and brotherhood was shown. It was just that kind of spirit of feeling good about who we are.

“When we returned back we did not want the spirit of the march to die so we decided to form the Million Man Alumni.”

Paul Taylor, chairperson of the Million Man March Alumni Association, photographed in Detroit on Oct. 5, 2015. Taylor, along with many others, will be attending the "Justice or Else" Million Man March 20th Anniversary in Washington D.C. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Taylor, who serves as chairman, said the group was created to encourage more fellowship among black men. He said the group is not affiliated with Farrakahn’s Nation of Islam and that he remains optimistic that positive things will come from the 20th anniversary gathering.

“The Million Man March was a peaceful black lives matter event because of the element of brotherhood that went into the march. We are expecting the same energy this weekend,” Taylor said.

Detroiter Yusef Shakur, a community organizer, did not attend the first march.

“I was in prison when the original Million Man March happened. So having the opportunity to go the second time — the 10th anniversary — had a life-changing impact on me because of the black men I met and was able to fellowship with,” Shakur said.

“I grew up in the sub-culture of gang-banging, and even though I had redeemed and transformed myself in prison as a result of meeting my father there, and the relationship we built, this was the first time I had experienced healthy and genuine love among a group of black men.”

Shakur, 42, said the black community is challenged.

“We have to be committed beyond an event or a moment,” he said. “What we are up against is bigger than one man, woman or religious ideology.”

Since the Million Man March was organized some have decried that more black men have gone to jail than college due to gun violence and other forms of criminal activity.

“What we have is a whole new generation victimized by society in which material things are more important than life,” Taylor said. “It is sad to see how some of our young people have committed themselves to drug and criminal activity just to chase a dollar.”

He said the wave of police brutality around the country equally calls for justice on the part of officers accused in cases like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.

“We would like to see those guilty of senseless murders of black people given full jail time,” he said.

Victor Muhammad, 52, director of prison reform for the Nation of Islam in Michigan, said Detroit was a major contributor to the success of the first march and the city is still a pivotal player.

“Detroit had the largest contingency of men who went to the march of any city in the country. I believe the number was close to 100,000 men, which is significant because many of those men are still alive, have had children and will support the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and ‘Justice or Else’ with the same spirit,” Muhammad said.

Participants in the Million Man March on Oct. 16, 1995, wave money so it can be collected during the rally in Washington, D.C.

“Detroit is significant as it has always been in history due to the knowledge of the time. The conditions that plague injustice in America is very present in Detroit. High unemployment, illiteracy, prison industrial complex, a broke education system, imbalance of distribution of wealth, health care the list goes on.”

Greg Dunmore, a local producer and music critic, said it is difficult to measure the success the march had on the lives of black men.

“I would like to think that any optimism the march produced is good for the heart, soul and overall well-being of every man who attended,” said Dunmore. “It was a historic, visual as well as vocal affirmation of what many ... feel about crucial issues from our own lack of self-respect to the need to be respected by others.”

Civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis, who chaired the Million Man March Organizing Committee in 1995, insisted that progress has been made.

“There are countless stories in every state about how the Million Man March reunited tens of thousands of families with many of the men who participated in the Day of Atonement that took stronger acts of personal responsibility to provide for their families and children,” Chavis wrote in an anniversary article for BlackPressUSA.com website.


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.