I photographed the MMM, sponsored by the Nation of Islam and headlined by its leader, Louis Farrakhan, 20 years ago for U.S. News & World Report, then the country's third largest news magazine.
There were, of course, those who opposed the notion on its face after it was announced—a million black men on the Mall?! Yikes! But there were many nonracist skeptics, me among them, who were concerned that the primary organizer, the NOI, would use the day to promote the more problematic aspects of its cosmology and black separatist ideology, rather than ones I/we deemed positive—black economic independence, unity, education. [Click right here to read Ta-Nehisi Coates's excellent 1999 essay about/interview with journalist Karl Evanzz, author of The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, a biography of the NOI's founder.]
I arrived before daybreak as the stage was being built and panels of bulletproof-glass set side by side in front of the dais. The sun rose on buses rolling in, walkers rolling up—tens of thousands of people. Those who had arrived earlier and dozed off in their own laps awoke to greet the new arrivals.
The gathering was bigger than the NOI and Farrakhan. The Million Man March, which was really a rally (unless one counts the personal marches each one of us took to arrive at the Mall) answered a need—for community, meaning, connection, so many things—among African Americans, men and women. I felt this.
I learned of the 20th anniversary march, to be held tomorrow, from posters that popped up around town a few days ago. Coming in to my office at VCU today, I spotted two young black men in suits, wearing bowties, the Nation's uniform. I had noticed weeks ago that some NOI youth like to study in a corner of this building. As the young men waited at the elevator, I asked if they belonged to the group. "Yes," answered one, a tall, thin gent with glasses, a little gold chain making an arc under his tie. I asked if the Nation would be sending buses north to DC for the event. "Oh, we're not going to the Million Man March." Not the answer I expected. I wasn't ready with a follow-up. They hopped on the lift.