Nov 8, 1995
On Monday, October 16, something on the order of a million black men came to Washington D.C. for the "Million Man March."
The march had originally been proposed by Ben Chavis and Louis Farrakhan over a year ago. Chavis was one of the Wilmington Ten defendants who spent time in prison for his support of those black people who took part in the urban rebellions; he was also one of those who opposed the Viet Nam War. More recently he was elected head of the NAACP by those who wanted to see it take a more activist direction. He was removed in a kind of palace coup, when Mobil Oil, Phillip Morris and General Motors all threatened to withdraw their funding if he weren't removed. Farrakhan is the chief minister of one of the offshoots of the Nation of Islam, the one which has become the most widely known in recent years.
Sponsorship of the march finally grew to include a range of prominent black leaders, organizations and churches.
But there was also a split within the black community about the march. Some Christian churches opposed it because "Farrakhan isn't a Christian". Some organizations, like the national NAACP, opposed it supposedly because of Farrakhan's views, although many major NAACP chapters, those which had supported Chavis, supported the march and organized people to go. Prominent black dignitaries like Colin Powell stayed away from it.
As the time for the march drew nearer, media commentators began on the one hand to focus attention on Farrakhan, as though it were his march only, denouncing him, and thus the march; on the other hand, they ridiculed – sometimes politely, sometimes not so politely – the idea that a million black men would go to Washington. "Not possible", they pronounced over and over. "A million black men – that would be 1/10 of the adult male black population."
And yet, as it turned out, something on the order of a million men did march. Was it 870,000, the "best-guess" estimate made by Boston University, supposedly a specialist in estimating crowd size; was it 1.2 million, its upper estimate? No matter, it certainly wasn't the 400,000 which the National Park Service Police originally estimated. And 400,000 already would have been immense. Above all, since the march was held on a Monday – a work day – and since uncounted others, black men and black women, stayed home from work in their own cities, even if they didn't attend the march. Among those at the march, there were, of course, politicians, businessmen, professionals, students, but the ranks of the march were filled with ordinary working men.
The fact that this march took place at all, in the face of all the attacks made on it before the fact, shows something about the real situation the black population is facing today and about how deeply they resent that situation.
The American bourgeoisie may have decided to admit a Colin Powell into the inner ranks of those who serve it; it may even have been ready to establish a kind of buffer inside the black population: black politicians, small businessmen, professionals, etc. But for the mass of the black population, the same problems persist. They suffer exploitation like all workers, which during this time period has grown worse. But they also face daily insults and much worse from the open racists, as well as the discrimination and oppression built into this society where racism has long been institutionalized.
Of course, it didn't require as much courage to come to this march, as for example to the 1963 march on Washington, when you were still taking your life into your own hands by the simple act of protesting. In 1963, when Martin Luther King stood on the podium in Washington, those who protested had already seen Bull Conner's dogs in the streets of Birmingham; they had seen churches where meetings were held burned and civil rights workers killed. But even if it is easier today, nonetheless, this is a period when everyone proclaims that it's not possible to do anything, when everyone says no one is ready to do anything. It means something that there were people ready to go and be counted. The people who took the risk on this march – whether those who called for a million men to come or those who went, not knowing how many others would go – those brave people won their bet.
Obviously, a march like this means many different things to different people. The very fact of going, first of all, let all those assembled men demonstrate their opposition to the racism of this society.
The speakers, one after another, made a ringing indictment of that racism, and of its results.
But, the question remains, what is to be done about it?
Those who called the march, with Farrakhan speaking for them, did not ask the marchers to look toward this society when it comes to resolving the problems of the black population. Rather they called the march a "Day of Atonement" – atonement for drug usage, crime, abusing women, abandoning their children. They called on black men to commit themselves to "repentance, responsibility and reconciliation", and for those black men assembled to address these evils in their own personal relations.
In other words, they preached all the reactionary values that we could hear from any right-wing Republican – and from many an open racist. Through the emphasis placed on the so-called "individual responsibility," they said to all those assembled black men that individual black men are responsible for the social ills that beset the black population: drugs, crime, abused women, abandoned children.
Black men have not created poverty, the evil that breeds drug usage, crime and all the other social ills of a society which requires poverty at one pole, as a condition of reinforcing wealth at the other.
Individual responsibility? Yes, of course. But beyond the responsibility that we all owe to those around us, we owe a greater one. We are individuals, yes, but the greatest responsibility we can take as an individual is to struggle with others to overthrow this society which brings such a large part of the population to live in poverty.
Respect for the dignity of women? Yes, of course. But the greatest respect a man who is ready to fight against this society can pay is to consider women as full partners in that fight. Women have always played an important role in social struggles. The black movement would never have gone as far as it did, without women's full participation, and often leading role. To discount their participation, no matter what the pretext, in effect means you say you are not really ready to make a fight.
In any case, the march has happened, one of the most important demonstrations in a number of years.
Certainly, one march is not the same thing as a movement. And it's possible that a few months will pass, people will forget about the march, and not much will come of it. But even in that case, there will have been some results.
Unfortunately, one result of this march is that Farrakhan himself has been strengthened. If struggles and fights do develop, his influence will not help the struggle go forward. No matter what else he might say, Farrakhan does not propose to the black population that they must remake this racist, exploitative and oppressive society in which we live. He has never proposed that this form of society, which inevitably breeds poverty and racism, must be thrown out, nor that black workers can play a key role in leading the fight which could throw this rotten society out and replace it with a humane one. That's why Farrakhan himself could be used by the bourgeoisie if there were an upsurge of the black population. His views, in fact, could help keep black people ensnared in this society which has long imprisoned them.
No wonder Gingrich said, after the march, "We owe a debt of gratitude to Minister Farrakhan." Gingrich, of course, was commenting that Farrakhan had demonstrated to the political class that there is a great deal of discontent. But Gingrich's comment is true in its larger sense also. Because while Farrakhan, and many of the other organizers of the march, might have criticized this society for its racism, they did not even suggest that it is only in confronting this society that racism can be overcome. Ironically, Martin Luther King, for all his pacifism, was more radical, or at least less reactionary than Farrakhan.
November 8, 1995