Million Man March's Success: The Message or the Messenger? Black Political Leadership Divided

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Million Man March's Success: The Message or the Messenger? Black. Political Leadership Divided

The Million Man March held in Washington, D.C. on October 16, 1995 created considerable controversy involving Black leadership which was divided in its support of the event, largely because Louis Farrakhan originated the idea and was the moving force behind it. The Muslim leader characterized the march as a day of atonement and called on Black men to unify and take responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities. Participants were asked to pledge "to improve myself spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, politically and economically for the benefit of myself, my family and my people, to strive to build business, build houses, build hospitals, build factories," and to refrain from violence. Finally, he challenged them to become "a totally organized people by becoming part of some organization that is working for the uplift of our people."

Despite Farrakhan's unity theme, many Black political leaders embraced the event while others condemned it and refused to participate because of Farrakhan's leadership. Reverend Jesse Jackson (Rainbow Coalition) expressed the sentiment of those Black leaders who endorsed the March saying, it had "a moral tone of healing, and...a call for political as well as personal reform," and he noted that the condition of African Americans was worse in 1995 than when Dr. King called for the March on Washington in 1963. Jackson characterized it as a "purposeful demand for justice...and self-reliance" (and) an opportunity for Black men to come together and stand up." Among the other leaders and organizations backing the event were Reverend Joseph Lowery (President, SCLC), and Congressman Donald Payne (Chair, Congressional Black Caucus). With Republican leaders and Jewish organizations along with white media focusing on Farrakhan, whom they called a hate monger, separatist, sexist, anti-Semite and racist, such Black leaders as Congressman John Lewis, General Colin Powell, Myrlie Evers-Williams (Chair of NAACP), and Hugh Price (President, National Urban League) refused to participate. They said the goals of the march were enviable, but they did not want to enhance Farrakhan's credibility by appearing on the platform with him. Actor and director Ossie Davis once said, "It's not the man, but the plan," in reference to the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana in 1972, which was an effort to "achieve unity without uniformity," among African Americans in support of broad Black Political Agenda. Most Black leaders, including elected officials and traditional civil rights leaders stayed away from the 1972 convention, but Mayor Richard Hatcher and some nationalistically inclined people said Blacks needed to show their independence from the Democratic party and focus on the needs of the Black community.

These reactions of Black leaders to these two events are illustrative of the two major strains that have historically existed in the Black community. In The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Harold Cruise analyzed the origin and development of the "nationalist" and integrationist" strains which have competed for the allegiance of Black Americans. This division existed even in slavery times involving "house" and "field" slaves. The former believed that by treating their white master well they might gain favor or even their freedom, while the latter often sought freedom by running away or killing the slave master. The latter included such leaders as Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. In the last years of the slavery era, Frederick Douglass came to epitomize the integrationist position which has been the dominant strain for over 100 years, while the nationalist element remained active but as the minority strain.

Among the major personalities and organizations reflecting the integrationist position are Booker T. Washington (Negro Business League), W.E.B. DuBois and Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Martin Luther King, Jr. …