I remember it like it happened yesterday. October 16, 1995. The Million Man March! My oldest daughter Nubia was nearly 4 years old. Her sister Zakiya was 4 months. I was in my second month of graduate study at Cornell University’s Africana Research & Studies Center located in Ithaca, NY.
Myself, a fellow graduate school classmate named Jamal, and my Syracuse University friend and brother Kamau, arranged to stay at another grad student’s Washington, D.C. home so we could attend the event. We watched the late, great Khalid Muhammad, deliver powerful words of truth and Black power along with attorneys Alton Maddox and Malik Zulu Shabazz the night before the historic march.
The next day we – like everyone else – marveled at the sight…a sea of Black faces and
bodies stretching majestically from the Capitol building to the Washington Monument and off to both sides. I’d never seen anything like it and I’ve never seen anything like it since. Smiling and warm Black faces. Black Power handshakes. Warm embraces, teary eyes, clasped hands, and positive energy. It is difficult for many of us to pull off a family reunion or cookout without negative incident with 200 people we know! But I saw this occur with my own eyes among close to 2 million people who didn’t know each other. Who could forget the powerful moment when all in attendance pledged in unison to dedicate ourselves to self and collective empowerment?
It is an understatement to say I was awestruck. I strongly respected Minister Farrakhan and admired the real work he’d done for several decades, raising consciousness in the Black community, organizing members of the NOI and verbally challenging white supremacy, its promoters and beneficiaries. I admired also his refusal to let Black people off the hook for being parties to our own victimization.
Five years earlier, my Black student organization at Syracuse University (The Student African-American Society) brought him to speak and as its President, I gave the opening speech for him. Later, myself and
a delegation of students from our organization met with him in his hotel suite and talked about politics, world affairs, and Black liberation. He gave me his phone number, signed a photo I provided, and asked me to stay in touch. I did, and he eventually wrote a personal letter recommending me as a public speaker. In other words, my support of Minister Farrakhan at the time was both political and personal (as was my support for brother Khallid Muhammad as well).
I’m in a slightly different place now than I was in 1995. For one, I’m now a middle-aged man; my oldest daughter graduated college two years ago, and my youngest is a sophomore; Several family members died since that time, and I’ve suffered and fully recovered from a stoke, prompting serious thought of my own mortality.
My thoughts about Minister Farrakhan are more nuanced. I still deeply admire and respect the Black man and his lifetime of service on our behalf. I still credit him with being a mentor and model in my own journey of consciousness. Yet I have mixed feelings about some of his decisions and associations in the 20 years after the Million Man March.
Nevertheless, I support what the Minister and his 60+ years of work and leadership mean to Black people. I also remember how the March in 1995 affected me and so many others 20 years ago. Brothers all over the United States received inspiration from that experience and returned to their communities renewed and resolved to organize Black people. I and other Black men in upstate New York started the “October 16th Movement,” which among other things, created a rites of passage program for Black boys in Ithaca, NY.
I believe the upcoming 20th anniversary of the March will similarly impact our people. The time for such a galvanizing event couldn’t be better. We are confronted with a rough ocean of white brutality, ultra-conservatism, xenophobia and indifference to Black suffering.
As was the case 20 years ago, too many of us focus our attention on the man who convened the march rather than the march itself and its implications for our people. This is interesting when you consider how much we support businesses and institutions that don’t give a damn about us! According to one article:
Blacks watch more television (37%), make more shopping trips (eight), purchase more ethnic beauty and grooming products (nine times more), read more financial magazines (28%) and spend more than twice the time at personal hosted websites than any other group.
This does not mean that we must waive our right to use discretion. I support our right to be critical of everyone and everything. But we can often be critically supportive. This means we can sometimes support community initiatives and leaders even as we raise legitimate critiques with them. Regardless of what you think about the Minister and the Nation of Islam, think about his/their long record of service in helping us to “Wake up, Clean up, and Stand up.” Reflect upon all of the injustice and mistreatment we continue to face in the United States and throughout the world. Acknowledge the continued wave of Black resistance occurring in every region of this country. Most of all, recognize the signs of irreconcilable discontent among our people and how this march comes at a perfect time to give this discontent meaning and focus. Then consider the positive impact and networking opportunities that arise when one million Black people who seek Black power meet up in the same place at the same time! Please take time to view the brief promotional video concerning the upcoming march below.
The upcoming “Justice or Else” event is more than a 20th anniversary; Like its predecessor, this march could remind us of our collective beauty, value and resilience. It may well help seasoned and frustrated activists renew their motivation and inspire neophytes to organize and transform our communities for the first time in their lives. I’m sure Minister Farrakhan will deliver a moving and informative speech. But those who attend will also meet empowered brothers and sisters from around the country, have opportunities to support and promote community-oriented business ventures, share news of our local events and ideas, and even recruit people to join our various local organizing efforts across the country. As you can see, October 10, 2015 represents much more than a large gathering of Black people at the nation’s capital. There is a huge wave of Black resistance right now in this historical moment. Let us put differences and personality conflicts aside, and RIDE that wave!
For these reasons, I completely support the “Justice or Else” march, and for these reasons, I’m attending it. I hope political prudence and a spirit of Black solidarity will inspire you to do so as well.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Currently, Agyei is part of the Black Power Cypher, five Black male educators and activists from around the country that host a monthly internet teleconference addressing issues of relevance to the Black community from a Black Nationalist perspective.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.