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DEBRIEF: Central Floridians Visit DC for 20th Anniversary of Million Man March

The Million Man March drew hundreds of thousands of black men to the National Mall in 1995. Photo: Brian Palmer.
The Million Man March drew hundreds of thousands of black men to the National Mall in 1995. Photo: Brian Palmer.

Thousands of people are in D.C. this weekend to commemorate the Million Man March, the historic mass gathering of black American men at the steps of the Capitol building 20 years ago.

90.7’s Renata Sago spoke with central Floridians planning to attend this year’s anniversary, which takes on a slightly different tone.

Here’s her conversation with 90.7’s Morning Edition host, Nicole Creston.

CRESTON: Renata, take us back to the Million Man March in 1995. What was going on at the time?

SAGO: What brought thousands of black men to the National Mall for the march was a sense of large-scale injustice. On one hand, you had the Republican Party that had just gained majority seats in Congress in 1994. Fears lingered that issues affecting blacks, like unemployment and mass incarceration, weren’t being addressed. On other other hand, the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial had just come out a couple of weeks earlier. That trial pitted blacks against whites and raised questions about how black men are perceived in mainstream society.

Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Million Man March and minister for the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim faction, spoke of a divided nation in his 1995 speech, saying, "There's still two Americas--one black, one white; separate and unequal."

CRESTON: What was the significance of the March taking place at the National Mall?

SAGO: Well, to stand between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building was symbolic. It showed the relationship between the physical structures that honor US history and laws and the people that those structures govern. I spoke with a few members of the Nation of Islam who were there. Brother James Muhammad was one of them:                      

“That day, we demonstrated nearly 2 million black men, standing together for thirteen hours, transcending religious lines, transcending lines of so-called class, he said."What it showed was our potential to be a nation.”

CRESTON: How do organizers plan to commemorate the march twenty years later?

SAGO: The Nation of Islam and several civic groups have partnered for the commemorative gathering they’re calling Justice or Else. The purpose of the event is to address injustice, particularly excessive force in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and others.

CRESTON: Justice or Else? What’s the "or else" mean?

SAGO: Well, the name has been rather polemic. Members of the Nation of Islam say “or else” means that there will be spiritual intervention. But with Farrakhan being a controversial figure for his rhetoric against white supremacy, some interpret the “or else” as having violent undertones.

CRESTON: Ok, and how will this event be different from the original march?

SAGO: Well, for one, it’s not a march. It’ll include prayer on a speech. And it’ll be open to all people—not just black men. I spoke with Brother Americos Muhammad, a Puerto Rican member of the Nation of Islam, who said, “Now we’re bringing everybody together—the Latinos, Native American Indians, the African Americans, poor whites, women, children. I think there’s a climate of not only change but a climate where we know that this is the reality that we face on a daily basis.”

CRESTON: Now, this is to commemorate the Million Man March, but women are also going to participate?

SAGO: Yes, women such as Wendy Gustama, who bought her plane ticket as soon as she found out about the event. For her, the New York jury’s decision not to indict the police officer in the death of Eric Garner made her feel like she needed to be involved in some way.                                                

“When you see something continually happening to someone that could be my brother or my aunt or my cousin, it kind of shocks you," she said. "You know, you can’t ignore this anymore. You can’t be indifferent to it. You have to do something. And this is my way of shouting and doing something.”

In central Florida, you’ve got members of the National Action Network and churches headed to D.C, too.

CRESTON: What happens after the event?

SAGO: We’ll have to wait and see. Members of the Nation of Islam are going to continue organizing events. But the scale of those events will really depend on participation.

CRESTON: That’s 90.7’s Renata Sago talking about the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in D.C. Thank you, Renata.

SAGO: Thank you, Nicole.