Twenty-five years ago, Martin Luther King, III – son of Martin Luther King, Jr. – was in Washington, DC, standing in front of hundreds of thousands of other Black men.
It was a brisk day in the nation’s capital and King, then in his late 30s, was preparing to speak during the Million Man March on October 16, 1995.
“That probably was one of the largest demonstrations of Black men that had ever been done in terms of the United States,” King told CNN. “So when you think about the fact that Black men were brought together with a focus on bringing families together, assuming appropriate responsibilities, that was extremely significant.”
Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the historic march, which featured speeches from civil rights leaders and activists such as Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Rev. Benjamin Chavis and Rev. Al Sharpton.
“(The march) inspired future generations of activists and political leaders, including President Barack Obama,” DC Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted on Thursday, in acknowledgment of the day.
But this anniversary comes in the midst of a renewed racial reckoning in the US, which has seen monthslong protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
And though 25 years have gone by, King says, only incremental change has been seen.
“We haven’t made the kind of transformation that we should have, in terms of social equity and issues,” he said. “The wealthy have gotten more wealthy, and the poor have gotten more poor.”
Still, the day was a significant one. Jesse J. Holland, a professor at George Washington University who did not attend the original event but was in the city shortly after, called the day “a joyous occasion.”
“The fact that so many of us could get together to celebrate, to strategize, and to just commune with each other out on the National Mall was just such a positive thing for all of us, a positive thing for the entire nation, I believe,” Holland, who was 24 at the time, told CNN. “It directly contradicted the stereotypes of African American men in the United States. For too long, we’d been portrayed solely as thugs, as thieves, as robbers, as being violent, but that one day showed that we could be so much more.”
But he echoed King’s words: The same issues that were brought up back then, he said, have continued.
“There are so many things that we talked about back then that are still rampant inside the United States, but the fact that we were able to talk about it – you can’t resolve a problem until you know you have a problem,” he said. “So just the fact that we were able to come together and have these discussions and speak positively about our future as well as look critically at our past made a huge difference for so many of us.”
A call to Black men to take responsibility and unite
The brainchild of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, the march saw Black men from all over the country gather for more than 12 hours of speeches.
The Nation of Islam has maintained a consistent record of anti-Semitism, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and Farrakhan is known for using hate speech aimed at the Jewish community. But the march was not about the controversial leader, but rather a call to Black men to uplift themselves, their families and their communities.
On that day, Farrakhan spoke for more than two hours and expounded on the role of White supremacy in the country’s suffering while calling on Black men to clean up their lives and become better fathers, husbands and neighbors.
The Rev. Al Sharpton also spoke that day 25 years ago, having pushed the event to also bring up the political issues of the time: Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and the 1994 crime bill.
“The tone of the march was about atonement,” Sharpton told CNN. “Even though it was at a time we felt like we were under seige.”
Sharpton brought up George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the subjects of recent demonstrations in the US. Neither of them, he said, were killed because they didn’t practice self discipline, or they drank too much, or any of the kind of ills brought up at the march. They were killed because of the police, he said, and specifically cited voting rights and the economic gap as other continued issues.
“That’s the fight we’re in now,” he said. “We also need to make society correct its evils.”
King put it like this: “Individuals have (now) assumed great economic power or economic prosperity, but none of that has translated to the masses of people.”
There’s been progress, though. Whereas 25 years ago, many Black people were fighting against bad legislation, Sharpton said they are now able fight for good legislation instead – pointing to the recent George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
And today’s issues are slightly different, King said. With President Donald Trump in office, division and violence are being stirred up in a way that wasn’t the case 25 years ago. Still, King said he was inspired by the monthslong demonstrations by millions across the country, and it’s given him hope.
“If we choose to roll up our sleeves and work together to build a community,” he said, “we can build a beautiful mosaic.”