In this Monday, Oct. 16, 1995 file photo, members of the Nation of Islam march toward the Capitol in Washington. The Washington Monument is at background right. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

WASHINGTON (AP) — EDITOR’S NOTE: Two decades ago, the “Million Man March” in Washington, D.C., wanted to show the world that Black lives matter.

It was at the dawn of the Internet, before hashtag activism took hold, but the effort drew tens of thousands of Black men on Oct. 16, 1995, to the National Mall who sought to promote self-help and self-respect. Speakers included Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who organized the event, poet Maya Angelou, Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks.

The exact turnout was in dispute, with one estimate of around half a million. Organizers said the turnout was significantly higher, at 2 million. Scientists at Boston University put the count anywhere from 670,000 to 1.04 million. Regardless, it was one of the biggest gatherings recorded on the National Mall.

Twenty years later the march helped paved the way for other activism on behalf of Black men, including the #blacklivesmatter movement, the AP is making a version of the story available along with photos.


In an unprecedented gathering amid the nation’s monuments, hundreds of thousands of Black men shouted promises to forswear violence and improve their lives in a revival-style chant led by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

“I pledge that from this day forward, I will never raise my hand with a knife or gun to beat, cut or shoot any member of my family or any human being, except in self-defense,” they chanted Monday at the climax of the daylong gathering of Black men amid the nation’s monuments.

The dramatic recitation captured the rally’s spirit of atonement and brotherhood much as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech served to symbolize the goals of the 1963 March on Washington.

The U.S. Park Police estimated that 400,000 men came together for the peaceful day of praying, singing and rejoicing in racial unity. The crowd, eclipsing the 250,000 who gathered in 1963, stretched 12 blocks down the National Mall.

The “Million Man March” was the fourth-largest demonstration in Washington history, and the largest predominantly Black gathering.

March organizers insisted the crowd was more like 2 million. The Park Police, basing their estimate on pictures taken from helicopters, did not provide their 400,000 figure until the rally concluded at dusk.

Civil rights veterans Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks and Dick Gregory were among dozens of back-to-back orators who spoke from behind bulletproof glass. Stevie Wonder sang briefly and Maya Angelou read a poem urging the crowd to do right by itself and “save your race.”

As the rally’s dramatic finale, Farrakhan spoke for 2 hours, often addressing White America. The root of the nation’s suffering, he said, is “White supremacy.”

“That makes you sick, and you produce a sick society and a sick world,” Farrakhan said. “White supremacy has to die in order for humanity to live.”

He urged the men to go home and join Black organizations — even those that refused to endorse his rally — to take hold of political power, unite against racism, and cleanse Black communities of crime, drugs and violence.

Farrakhan brushed aside critics who have condemned his inflammatory statements about Jews, Catholics, gays and Asians, saying he had divine guidance.

“Whether you like it or not, God brought the idea through me, and he didn’t bring it through me because my heart was dark with hatred and anti-Semitism,” he said.

“If my heart was that dark, how is the message so bright?”

The day was sunny but chilly, the mood serious yet buoyant.

Young men dressed in jeans, sweatshirts and jackets dominated the crowd. But men of all ages were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the stage. Others climbed onto statues, light posts and trees for a better view. A few waded through the Reflecting Pool, one wearing few if any clothes.

“There is no violence here, no racism,” said Omar Holt of Detroit. “It’s very moving.”

People lined up 10-deep around the food vendors, and the mixed aromas of barbecue and vegetarian curries filled the air. Scores of Nation of Islam members, standing erect in suits and their trademark bow ties, lent an air of solemnity.

“It’s a healing feeling to see so many black men come together, and not a whole bunch of violence or drugs or all that stuff,” said Donald Simms of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. “This whole thing is about self-respect.”

Giant speakers and video screens were set up around the Mall, but many couldn’t get near enough to them to benefit. “We can’t hear,” said Harold Johnson of Reading, Pa., “but we can feel the important feel of it.”

The event often had the feeling of a revival meeting; men clapped and sang along with church choirs, then bowed their heads in prayer.

At one point cardboard boxes and plastic bags were passed through the crowd like collection plates in a church for contributions to defray the cost of the event and begin a Black economic development fund. Each time a bag was filled, organizers hoisted it into the air to the cheers of a crowd waving dollar bills in the air.

Several women spoke on stage and many were scattered through the crowd. Farrakhan had asked them to stay home to pray, fast and teach the children. He also asked Black Americans to stay home from work or school and avoid spending money.

Phillippa Braxton of suburban Laurel, Md., came to the Mall to lend support to the men, saying, “This will show America that the Black man isn’t some gun-toting, drug-selling stereotype that’s portrayed in the media.”

At a speech in Austin, Texas, President Clinton praised the rally as an event for “Black men taking renewed responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities.”

But he expressed disapproval of Farrakhan. Without mentioning the Nation of Islam minister by name, the president clearly criticized Farrakhan’s explosive rhetoric that has brought charges of anti-Semitism, sexism and bigotry.

“One million men do not make right one man’s message of malice and division,” Clinton said.

Farrakhan said Clinton “did not dig deep enough” to find a solution to the racial divide.

“Abraham Lincoln saw in his day what President Clinton sees in this day,” Farrakhan told the crowd. “He saw the great divide between Black and White. … There are still two Americas – one Black, one White, separate and unequal.”

Before the march, some Black leaders who endorsed the event also condemned Farrakhan’s incendiary words. But many on the stage and in the crowd praised his leadership.

“It’s too bad we can’t have Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but we have to take what we have,” said Pierre Brown of Newburgh, N.Y. “That’s why we hold him so dear to us. He’s the only one we have left who will speak out.”

District of Columbia police reported no serious altercations. One elderly man died after suffering a heart attack in the midst of the rally.

Men began gathering on the Mall just after midnight, when the temperature was in the 50s. Many brought flashlights, sleeping bags and tape decks. The first prayers and African drumming were scheduled to begin at 5 a.m., but they started more than two hours late.

The tone on stage was generally prayerful and inspirational, but an undercurrent of anger surfaced at times. Two men in the crowd wore dummies of White men on their backs.

“White dreams have crippled many Black children and White values have maimed many Black families because of selfishness and greed,” former Illinois Rep. Gus Savage said from the stage.

In the crowd, 21-year-old Anthony Boatner of Yellow Springs, Ohio, said the rally “is a message to America that we are tired of being stepped on.”