Essay — From the January 2016 issue

The Charmer

Louis Farrakhan and the Black Lives Matter protests

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Twenty-one years ago, on the National Mall, Louis Farrakhan rose to speak to the largest gathering of African Americans in history. Flanked by a crowd of young men in navy-blue uniforms, Farrakhan looked out at the Million Man March, a sea of black humanity that stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. The people had gathered at a time of profound suffering for black America. The fire of the civil-rights movement had burned out; the hope and progress of the 1960s had turned to cynicism and regression. The march had been conceived as part of the great legacy of black protest against injustice. And yet, curiously, when Farrakhan addressed the crowd, he spoke of atonement: that October day, he suggested, was a day to ask forgiveness.

Louis Farrakhan before his speech at the Million Man March, October 16, 1995 © Eli Reed/Magnum Photos. Reed’s monograph A Long Walk Home was published last May by University of Texas Press

Louis Farrakhan before his speech at the Million Man March, October 16, 1995 © Eli Reed/Magnum Photos. Reed’s monograph A Long Walk Home was published last May by University of Texas Press

Even now, estimates of the event’s attendance inspire considerable controversy, with figures ranging from 400,000 to more than 800,000. There is little question, however, that in both its origins and its scope, the march was unprecedented in the United States. As the late historian Manning Marable points out in Black Leadership, the 1963 March on Washington, which featured Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, was a coordinated effort in support of civil-rights legislation, and its planning intimately involved the Kennedy Administration. The Million Man March sought no such approval from white leaders. It was organized, after all, in part by the Nation of Islam (N.O.I.), which was led by Farrakhan, who had come to believe that racial reconciliation offered no hope for black Americans. The march was meant to prompt a look inward by black men. (And only black men; as Angela Davis complained at the time, the exclusion of women implied by the event’s title was neither coincidental nor casual.) Farrakhan called on his audience to interrogate their own lives, to stop seeking salvation in white America. With its bootstrapping mentality and narrative of deliverance through personal resolve, the Million Man March appears today to occupy a strange ideological space: part G.O.P. convention, part Black Panther rally.

Some have blamed the march’s conservative, self-criticizing impulse for its failure to develop into a durable black political movement. Adolph Reed, a political scientist and labor activist, has said that the march was “the first protest in history where people gathered ostensibly to protest themselves.” Marable notes that black turnout spiked in the elections immediately following the gathering, but no enduring protest movement developed in the streets of Washington that day; no major third party was organized; no new dedication to unions, or to community activism, or to fusions of religion and politics was born. In a world of entrenched racism, real, lasting victory was too much to ask of any individual protest. Even those impressed by the march, however, recognized its political moment as fleeting.

Such criticisms are accurate enough, but perhaps they miss the point. For if the Million Man March did little to prompt a new black movement, it achieved at least one of its intended effects: it shook white America. Years later, in her memoir, Uncovering Race, Amy Alexander would write about how journalists of the time were “apoplectic” about the march: “A high level of hysteria had infused many of the stories” about the event. Politicians were little better. A year before Bob Dole unsuccessfully ran for president in 1996, he called Farrakhan’s views “a message of hate.” Abe Foxman, who was the leader of the Anti-Defamation League, referred to the Fruit of Islam, the N.O.I.’s paramilitary security apparatus, as “brownshirts,” thereby explicitly comparing the march to a Nazi gathering.

At the height of the Gingrich revolution, during a Democratic presidential administration that was marked by the abandonment of traditional liberal principles, black Americans were daily being scapegoated as the faces of the welfare state, unwanted freeloaders living on the dole. The New Republic’s shameful cover image of a cigarette-smoking black “welfare mother” defined the prevalent attitude of the political class of the time. With its message of black autonomy and black pride, the march served as a rebuke to a cross-partisan consensus that saw only dependence whenever it looked at poor black people. The march was a show of force, one of the most elementary and most important types of political statement. In that, perhaps more than in any other way, it prefigured both the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. The marchers demanded an acknowledgment of profound, principled grievance — and they insisted that a reckoning was yet to come.

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is an academic and writer. He lives in Indiana.

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