An Affirmation of Humanity

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

James Jennings

ALTHOUGH I COULD not attend the Million Man March on October 16, 1995, I was, and remain, completely supportive of this event as a mobilizing and historical moment for the Black community in the United States.

The March was part of a long historical tradition among Blacks in the United States to convene in order to discuss not only potential political programs, but also to reassess community and group values. Meetings like the Million Man March were held in the ante-bellum period, as well as throughout the latter part of the 19th century, and the 20th century. (I believe Philip Foner has coedited a compilation of Proceedings of many of these meetings in a couple of reference books published by Temple University Press).

Although the mainstream media portrayed this March as anti-white, and anti-women it was, in fact, the opposite. The sentiments expressed at the March focused on humanistic affirmation, rather than anti-white or anti-women biases.

This is a point that many people realize, I think, although it is not reported widely. Based on several indications, it seems that many Whites actually supported the goals of the March. After the March, it is my understanding that Minister Louis Farrakhan has been well-recieved at a few meetings with many Whites in the audience. Despite the criticisms of anti-semitism, many Jewish people at a grassroots level have called for dialogue and collaboration with him.

And the overwhelming majority of Black women supported the March and its goals. The mainstream media’s trumpeting of highly selective Black women intellectuals who were against the March could not dampen the enthusiasm for this event among masses of Black women from different class sectors in this community.

As a matter of fact, this was the first progressive and anti-establishment Black-led march where women at a local level played a significant role in supporting and organizing it. Women were among the major speakers at the March–unlike the 1963 March on Washington, where no women spoke, yet which many in the mainstream media have made reference to as an example of a “good” and acceptable march.

Anyone who has any cultural connection or base in the Black community knows that Black women were generally proud of the Black men who participated in the March. (As a matter of fact, one local joke going around in Boston was that some of the young sisters would not go out with any Black man not supportive of the March!!)

Black women have always been proud of the Black men who stand up for justice, and are proud of their culture and history. This one fact of American history is a serious threat to power and wealth structures in this society.

While I was not able to participate in the March, I did support it financially, and attended a rally in support of this event that was sponsored by Black women in Roxbury, Massachusetts. As the keynote speaker at the Annual Malcolm X celebration in this city in June 1995, I also strongly endorsed the March and encouraged people to support it in whatever manner they could.

An Opportunity to Move Forward

To me, the March was an opportunity to a) tell the power and wealth brokers in the United States that their attempts to silence the grassroots voices of protest against racism by propping up artificial Black leaders, or by determining the conceptual parameters of Black debates about which way forward, or by imposing Euro-centric values on people of color, are not working; and b) to alert young people in communities of color of their responsibility to carry forward struggles for racial and social equality, in this country and abroad.

I believe that this event represented a major development, and that it signified to power and wealth interests in this country that the Black community continues to be a significant factor in the political and social directions of the nation.

I have to add, as a point of analysis (not of personal criticism), that many Black intellectuals who criticized the March have very little in terms of a track record in helping to build and strengthen the institutional infrastructure in the Black community. Thus, some well-meaning and highly principled intellectuals completely missed the local community momentum that planning and building toward the March for the last two years.

Additionally, they underestimated the growing influence of Minister Louis Farrakhan in speaking on behalf and representing the interests of the working-class and so-called “underclass” sectors in the Black community, for whom the Black left has been advocating for (or studying…) but not representing politically, economically, or culturally.

Let us not overlook the fact that Min. Farrakhan has been working and organizing the Black community for decades. While many on the Black left, as well as the White left, have wavered in their support and advocacy of the interests of the Black working class and so-called underclass, and have succumbed to those who see pathology in the Black community, Min. Farrakhan has spoken directly to this sector.

Over several decades, this individual has not changed his message to the Black grassroots on the basis of a grant, or presidential politics, books that have been pushed by the New York Times, or anything else. He has been consistent in encouraging the poor and working-class sectors in the Black community to pursue a path of moral righteousness, as a tool for salvation but also for fighting a system of racial oppression.

These are some of the reasons that the March, and the leadership of Min. Farrakhan, was so inspiring to millions of Black Americans. Whether or not we like him, or disagree with him, his independence, militancy and race consciousness are values that have much support in the Black community.

The March is also an important tool in the political mobilization of the collective interests of the Black community in challenging corporate power. As these challenges emerge, working-class and poor sectors in other communities will also raise similar issues.

Challenging “Pathological” Portrayals

The call for self-help has historically been an important component of Black struggles for racial equality and social justice.

In Boston, the March is quickly becoming a reference point for holding individual behavior accountable in terms of the empowerment struggles of the Black and Latino communities. The call for self-help and atonement is not inconsistent with challenges to racism, class bias and sexism on the part of Black people.

The Million Man March represented a direct challenge to the negative portrayal of the Black man, woman, and community by the mainstream media.

The Black man and Black community are generally shown as pathological. The Black woman is concomitantly presented as weak, submissive to white men, and exploited by and angry at the Black man.

These images are frequently portrayed in Hollywood, and in local media across the nation, and unfortunately have even been adopted by the media in other nations as well.

The call for self-help and atonement imbue the writings and statements of W.E.B. Dubois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and many of the most militant leaders in the Black community. The debate is not really between those who advocate for self-help and others calling for political action; as pointed out by Thomas Holt many years ago, the debate is about the purpose of self-help and political action.

If self-help and the call for atonement is directed at challenging a racist government, or confronting policy makers who exploit working-class and poor people, then such calls are progressive.

Bridges Toward Unity

The mobilization of more than one million men and the support of millions of other men and women who did not attend, which smashed the stereotypical presentation of pathology in the Black community, took place with very little money, or positive media coverage. Many spokespersons for wealthy and powerful interests attempted, unsuccessfully, to sidetrack the grassroots momemtum for the March.

These attempts only served to mobilize more Black supporters. Some activists have suggested that the FBI attempted to sidetrack, or de-rail the idea and momemtum for the March by framing the daughter of Malcolm X in a plot to kill Min. Farrakhan. This incident took place several months after the March was announced by Min. Farrakhan, and after it became obvious to many in the Black community that it could be a sizable one.

A further important dynamic that occurred as a result of the March is the building of bridges between various political and ideological sectors in the Black community. While such Black unity may not last, it is significant that the March reflected a broad spectrum of political and economic ideologies, and religious pluralism.

Challenging Political Hegemony

There are at least two major issues facing the Black community. One issue is reflected in the emerging debate regarding the nature of their political participation in local and national arenas. While Blacks remain politically liberal, and somewhat socially conservative, the suggestion that Blacks should pursue an independent political road is gaining saliency and popularity.

The Million Man March, and Min. Louis Farrakhan’s leadership in this event, serve to heighten this debate. It seems that the March will help more Blacks to consider and support political activities and structures that will challenge the electoral hegemony shared by the Democrats and the Republicans.

The other issue–and not a new one–is the role that the so-called underclass sector will perform in the political mobilization of the Black community. Since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a stratum of civil rights leadership has, in effect, ignored the plight and needs of the lumpen proletariat, and what Mosei Ostrogorski almost a century ago referred to as the “de-classed.”

Many of the civil rights gains represented critical elements in the democratization of U.S. society. But this democratization has not necessarily resulted in less class inequalities. The democratization resulted in new groups, including the Black middle class, gaining access to the nation’s economic pie. It has not, however, necessarily resulted in greater social benefits for poor and working-class sectors in the Black community.

The right wing realizes this, and has tried to exploit it by arguing for a weakening of the institutional base and infrastructures created by the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The Million Man March showed that Black people, while dissatisfied with some civil rights leadership that have traded access to power for the building of independent power, do not accept the arguments of the right wing.

It is poor and working-class sectors that comprised much of the Million Man March–sectors that, if mobilized, can change the direction of Black political activism. (I discussed this possibility in my book The Politics of Black Empowerment, 1992). The March may serve as a trigger for the mobilization of this sector.

ATC 60, January-February 1996