This Day In History: October 16

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An enormous crowd consisting mostly of African American men demonstrates on the National Mall on October 16, 1995, an event known as the Million Man March. Driven by their desire to see Congress act in the interests of African Americans, and to combat negative stereotypes of Black men, a disputed but undeniably high number of attendees converge for over 12 hours of speeches by leaders from many different corners of the civil rights movement.

The Million Man March was the brainchild of Louis Farrakahn, leader of the Nation of Islam, and was organized by the National African American Leadership Summit and a number of other groups. The march was largely a response to the politics of the time—with a Republican-controlled Congress and a conservative-leaning Democratic president, Bill Clinton, Washington was gripped by a desire to lower taxes and cut government spending on education, housing and social programs. Organizers also expressed a desire to change the public’s image of African American men in response to high-profile scandals like the O.J. Simpson trial and Mike Tyson’s rape conviction, arguing that Black men were often treated by the government and media as “sacrificial lambs” for the sins of all American men.

The event began with a Muslim call to prayer and a Christian invocation. Attendees took in speeches and performances by representatives from Africa and the Caribbean, a number of Christian ministers and other figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King III, Maya Angelou, Dr. Cornel West and many more in a program that lasted more than 12 hours. Speakers and attendees emphasized responsibility, with the crowd taking a pledge to support their families, refrain from abusive behavior toward women and children, and renounce violence except in self-defense, in addition to building up Black businesses and institutions in their communities.

Some critics took issue with this aspect of the march, arguing that it amounted to a performance of responsibility by Black men that was chiefly meant to impress the media and corporate America. The march’s focus on men also received criticism from feminists, including Angela Davis. During the march, the Rev. Jesse Jackson railed against the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for cutting funding to public schools in poor areas, while other speakers condemned racial inequities in law enforcement and the closing of inner-city hospitals.

The U.S. Park Police estimated that 400,000 people had attended, angering the Million Man March’s organizers. A later estimate put the number at 870,000 with a 20 percent margin of error, just high enough to leave open the possibility that a million men had attended. Like the attendance total, the march’s long-term impact is difficult to assess, but organizers point to the fact that over 1.5 million Black men registered to vote for the first time over the course of the next year as evidence of their success.