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The Million Man March, Then And Now

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The Million Man March, Then And Now

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The Million Man March, Then And Now

The Million Man March, Then And Now

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NPR's Michel Martin talks with Benjamin Chavis Jr., one of the organizers of the Million Man March in 1995, and a consultant for the anniversary march in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I was also there 20 years ago covering the story, and that's one reason I was interested in hearing from other people who were there. We reached these folks on Facebook.

PAUL RICHARDSON: My name is Paul Richardson. I attended the Million Man March because it felt like a call that I had to answer.

BROTHER NORMAN: My name is Brother Norman from Cincinnati, Ohio. I attended the original Million Man March. It was a reminder that if we could do this for a day, we could do this for a month, a year.

MARQUEZ FERGUSON: My name is Marquez Ferguson. I attended the Million Man March because, overall, I was curious. I was in college, and I've experienced things in my own as far as, you know, racism is concerned. Being young, I just expected, honestly, a bit of hostility, you know, as far as just overall. That's what I was used to. I mean, if there's a number of us, then most likely there's some sort of hostility going to be involved one way or another. But it wasn't that.

MARTIN: Reverend Benjamin Chavis Jr. was the principal organizer of the 1995 Million Man March. We spoke to him recently about that event. And he reminded us that violence within the black community was the driving issue behind that march.

REVEREND BENJAMIN CHAVIS JR: It was in the context of a spike in black-on-black crime among young black males. And that's why the theme of the march was atonement, reconciliation, responsibility. The agenda was internal. And that's why the minister called for the march - not on a Saturday but on a Monday, which meant people had to sacrifice to get there.

MARTIN: Talk about that. What was the biggest challenge for you in putting on an event of that size? Was it the fact that people didn't take it seriously at first? Or was it the fact that people were a little bit hostile to it - some people were?

CHAVIS: I think there was some hostility at first and also some fear. Keep in mind, President Clinton was the president at that time. And on the day of the Million Man March, October 16, 1995, President Clinton got on Air Force One and went to Texas and made a speech on race relations. And one of the reasons why he did that, there were people in the White House that were nervous. A million black men coming to Washington, D.C. - what is their intention? And, of course, it was a peaceful day. So we had to make sure we had enough water. We had to make sure we had enough first aid medical. We didn't have to use it but you have to prepare for it. And, you know, even things like having 20,000 Port-a-Johns. Where are you going to get 20,000 Port-a-Johns from? So my job was the logistics - making sure a million people got into D.C. safely, that a million people leave D.C. safely.

MARTIN: You know, I remember - you alluded to this earlier - a lot of tension around this in Washington, particularly elected African-American political figures, over whether they should participate or not. Did you care whether they came or not?

CHAVIS: Of course, of course. We were always going to welcome them. And some of the major civil rights leaders waited until maybe two or three days before the march before they even affirmed that they were going to participate. And we welcomed everybody.

MARTIN: So, I was going to ask you, why do you feel the march turned out as it did? Why do you feel there was so much interest in it? Why do you think it happened that way?

CHAVIS: I think the Million Man March was organized properly way in advance. Those local organizing communities were diverse. They were really representative of these local communities. So we got local stakeholders to be involved. And they didn't feel like they were giving up their identity to go to the Million Man March. And that preparation, we had gang leaders - Bloods and Crips - who would probably take each other's life in South Central Los Angeles, came together to the Million Man March without their weapons, without their guns, without their knives, without their - whatever they do to make themselves high.

MARTIN: What else do you think the march accomplished?

CHAVIS: Well, I do know - I did a study - the high school dropout rate among young black males went down, voter registration on the day of the march- the Million Man March - we registered over 250,000 people to register to vote for the first time.

MARTIN: Well, I can - I cannot attest, honestly, to the other claims that you have made here. But I can tell you that there were several academic studies taken the following year after the march, that demonstrated - one, I'll just cite from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which is a very well-respected research organization - bipartisan research organization...

CHAVIS: ... Yes. Research organization.

MARTIN: In Washington, D.C., that said, citing exit poll data and census data and a number of other figures, that the black male vote increased from 3.1 million to 4.8 million between 1992 and 1996 - growing to 5 percent of the total electorate, which is a demonstrable increase in numbers. And that came at a time when the overall voter turnout dropped in the following election...

CHAVIS: And I'm going to tell you something else....

MARTIN: ...Even in - among black women. So you attribute that to the march and, if so, why - why would it be?

CHAVIS: Oh, absolutely. Well, because that's part of being responsible - taking voting rights seriously. Having Rosa Parks to speak to that gathering reminded us of the importance of the Civil Rights Movement, of the sacrifice that people made to get the right to vote, to get public accommodations. And so it was a sense of self-responsibility. But I'm smiling because out in the crowd, I saw a young brother from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago who was a state Senator in Illinois. His name is Barack H. Obama.

MARTIN: He was there?

CHAVIS: He was at the Million Man March.

MARTIN: What do you hope this second march - which is not being called a Million Man March, by the way. It's - I think women are explicitly included in this one.

CHAVIS: Oh, absolutely. Women, men, children - it's not only for blacks. It's for Latinos, it's for Native Americans, Asian - for all whites - everybody's invited to celebrate.

MARTIN: So what do you hope this one will accomplish?

CHAVIS: So we're hoping, first, that it'll be focused on equal justice. The reason why the theme is Justice or Else is the perception that the criminal justice system needs serious reform. And it's not just police officers, but it's prosecutors, it's judges, it's sentencing laws. And I think that it's a reflective moment. I'm hoping that people will come first to reflect. What has happened in the last 20 years? Have we made progress? I would say we have made progress. But have we made enough progress? I would say no to that.

MARTIN: Reverend Benjamin Chavis Jr. He's currently serving as the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. That's a trade association for African American newspapers. And he was kind enough to talk to us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Reverend Chavis, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CHAVIS: Thank you very much.

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