NEAL CONAN, host:
And now the Opinion Page. Fifteen years ago Saturday, hundreds of thousands of men converged on the National Mall here in Washington for the Million Man March. Groups traveled across the country in buses organized by religious leaders and pledged to work to change the image of black men in America and to take the message of the march back home. In a piece for the online magazine The Root, Jon Jeter writes that by almost any measure, black men are much worse off today than on October 16th, 1995.
If you were at the Million Man March, did you take any specific message home? And how have things changed, for the better or for the worse? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation and find the link to the op-ed at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jon Jeter joins us from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. JON JETER (Author, "The Million Man March 15 Years Later"): Oh, thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And would you say the march, in that case, was a failure?
Mr. JETER: Well, I think it was a little bit of both, but I guess if you wanted to pin me down, I would have to say that it was a failure because black men, in particular, and black people in general, and even Americans - when you talk about ordinary working people - are in much worse shape than they were in 1995. And that was very much a squandered opportunity to really sort of create and/or strengthen the institutions that can make real demands on government for change.
CONAN: You say too much of the emphasis may have been on individual responsibility and not enough on collective responsibility.
Mr. JETER: I think that's exactly right. And really, in some ways, it almost represented - the march almost represented kind of a seismic change in our political discussion from where we were maybe 25 years ago when we talked about the role of government in our lives to where we are now where, sort of, everything is kind of based on our individual responsibility and none really on the role of community and government.
CONAN: And, in fact, you also talk about changed political leadership in the 25 years. Of course, there is a new generation of political leaders, including the president of the United States, Barack Obama.
Mr. JETER: That's exactly right. You know, if you really think about, sort of, 1995, that was really just a few years before we started seeing these, sort of, young African-American mayors like Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C., Cory Booker in Newark. And these are very different politicians than were their predecessors, Coleman Young in Detroit, Marion Barry in Washington, D.C. Not to say that those men, they're these older politicians weren't flawed, but there was a sense that they were more responsive to the black community. And I think what you see in Adrian Fenty who was just defeated in his mayoral race, Cory Bookers and this generation of young black mayors is that there's a feeling that they're not ours, that they don't belong to us, that they don't - aren't first and foremost they don't first and foremost represent us.
CONAN: They were not products of the civil rights movement.
Mr. JETER: Well, I think that's part of it. I think it's also just that the last 15 years especially has been very, sort of, isolating. And, you know, not just in terms of inequality, economic inequality, which is very true, and you do see that in the black community. It's wider than it's ever been. But there's also just this estrangement, really, from our every day lives, the every-day lives of black people and the political class, which is more responsive to the money that has really corrupted politics. Not that it was ever perfect, but it's certainly become much more corrupting in the last 15 years than it was before.
CONAN: The well, the origin of a lot of that money for people like Adrian Fenty or Cory Booker is a prosperous black community, in many respects.
Mr. JETER: Well, there's some truth to that. That's exactly right. But, I mean, the black community really represents America, and that is very bifurcated now. And you really have, you know really, what you have is the last 15 years has really, sort of, caught in the question the whole idea of a nation-state. I mean, what America? Which America? There are two very distinct Americas now, and the black community represents that as much as any other community. There's a very wide divide. And I think you can argue that the black community that did support the Adrian Fentys and the Cory Bookers and...
CONAN: And the Barack Obamas.
Mr. JETER: ...and the Barack Obamas. I think he's a little bit different, though, in that he certainly has a much wider appeal and for obvious reasons. I mean, he's the president of the United States. That's not something very few black people, including myself, ever thought they would live to see that. And so I think there's a certain defensiveness, a certain closing ranks around Barack Obama. We won't let you attack him because he's ours, and we understand what that means for the rest of us if you're allowed to, sort of, beat up on him.
But I think at the more local level, you see really politicians who aren't necessarily representing our concerns first. And the generation before it, these politicians were much more, sort of almost reflexively protective of the black community. Not to say they weren't flawed, but there was just a sort of an identity with the black community that was much broader.
CONAN: We're talking with Jon Jeter who wrote "The Million Man March 15 Years Later" in The Root, the online magazine. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And we'll go to Jerry(ph), Jerry is calling from Milwaukee.
JERRY (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
JERRY: Great. First of all, I think that what your guest is saying is right on. But I disagree with him just in terms of it being a failure. I was there and I was there from the start. And just in terms of where black men were then and where they are now, I think the same resolve is in the black community is amongst black men to want to better themselves and better their families. But I think, collectively, the climate has changed.
The political climate has changed. The political landscape has changed. And so we've seen that even collectively. If we put our faith in, say, an elected official or a group of elected officials from a party, we still don't get what we want. Now, that's not to say that we don't do our own part in our own communities.
But I just think that so much has changed that, you know, even in our own communities, collectively, it's still hard for black communities to push forward and to get resources and to get the things we need, because if we push our elected official, then the elected official, if he's black, is accused of helping only black people. And there you go with that political talk, that political climate. And, you know, everything gets lost in a fake conversation.
But I think it was a success. I was there. It changed my life. It strengthened my family. It strengthened me. It made me a better person. And, you know, I'm just happy that I went.
And I really you know, words can't express if you weren't there, words can't express what that day meant, and even coming home and the months and the years afterwards. And I do want to say this, the last thing. I remember, at the end of that speech, I remember Minister Farrakhan telling black men to go back and join their organizations, prospective organizations, the NAACPs, the Urban Leagues. So the message was great. He couldn't do it all himself, but it was partly on us. So if there was a failure or if there is a failure, it's just maybe that we, as black men, felt short. But I think, collectively, there are a lot of things that we're battling against then and now.
CONAN: Jon Jeter?
Mr. JETER: I actually think I agree with the caller completely. I mean, I do think - you know, I preface my answer by saying that it was a success and a failure. And I agree with the caller completely in terms of that day. That day was a glorious day. I'll never forget it as long as I live. And I'm not sure if I've ever seeing anything like it in my lifetime. Maybe the closest thing I can describe is being in South Africa during the second democratic elections, but there was a triumphant feeling in the air. And so I agree, it was by that measure, it was a success. There was something and you can't underestimate the symbolism of it, that it showed not just black men but the world really, the possibilities that are there.
But I still think it was a missed opportunity for us, for black men. It was our failure. I don't really fault our black leadership for this. I think it was as much our own failures as it was our leadership to really organize and to really, sort of, make this country better and not worse. And that's what we are now when we talk about, sort of, our children and our grandchildren. They are really facing prospects that are much worse than - I'm 45. And it's just there's no question that my son, who's 22, faces a much more difficult time in this world than I did when I was his age.
JERRY: Can I make one last statement as well?
JERRY: Just the last thing. I think that because I'm 46, and, you know, I can remember during the early '80s, early '90s, there was a sense in the black community, there was more of an activist mindset. But I can remember right around the Million Man March. I can remember the movies, a lot of the media was pushing black men and black males as, you know, menace to society. We were the worst thing. We were carrying guns. We were shooting. We were killing each other. And that image was going out all around the world. And when the Million Man March happened, you had other cultures, other countries, other people all over the planet who saw something different on that day.
And like the march in 1963 and then this march in 1995, I think they stand as historical markers to show black communities, to show the future of black communities, young men and women, the realm of possibility. And that's why I think that the Million Man March symbolically I think it shows us the realm of possibility, because on that day, there wasn't one crime committed.
I can remember seeing hardened black men standing there, stepping on each other's toes and saying, excuse me. I mean, you could tell that their entire behavior changed on that day.
So that's the thing that I take away. And I hope that cultures around the world who saw black men in a negative light now see black men -because of the Million Man March, see us in a different way. And I can say my wife - she was a different woman when I came home. And she expected different things from me. And she expected more, and so that's what I think the Million Man March gave black men and gave black women and black communities as a whole, so...
CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much.
JERRY: ...I appreciate the call.
CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking with Jon Jeter on the Opinion Page. His piece: "The Million Man March 15 Years Later," ran in The Root, an online magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Greg(ph), Greg's on the line from Chicago.
GREG (Caller): Yes, hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
GREG: I just wanted to comment. I heard the author say that it was a failure and a success, so I want to speak from the successful part. I didn't see any political success from it, and I wasn't there to receive any political gratification from the event in itself. My - what I received from it was more spiritual than it was political. And the instructions that we received to take what we received from the march back to our communities and our families, I think that it was accepted by the people who were there, and that we've been doing that. But the effects of that remains to be seen because they may have a greater effect on our children, and I think I'm speaking from a viewpoint of hope at this point. I'll take comments of the air, thank you.
CONAN: All right, Greg, thanks very much.
Mr. JETER: Well, you know, again, I certainly agree that it was - that day was, I think, in some ways, an astounding success, but I still think it was a squandered opportunity to really address the very profound problems that we faced over the last 15 years that have been deepened. The incarceration crisis among black men - we've never seen anything like this.
If we were to return our prisons to 1970 incarceration levels, we'd have to release nine of every 10 prisoners today. And I just think that, you know, these are very real problems. And while I think there is a spiritual element that you really can't overlook, there are some really sort of nuts and bolts issues that pertain to the suffering. And not just of the black community, clearly, but I mean we're talking about the country, really. I mean, we're looking at a country that has been profoundly changed, really, over the last 30 years, but specifically over the last three or four years, where, you know, we're in a position now - we have more maids, cashiers and waitresses than we have assembly line workers.
I mean, this de-industrialization of the country is something that we could have taken on. I'm not saying everything would be hunky dory, but we had, maybe had a better strategy and a game plan for how we, you know, form and strengthen institutions that make demands on government. You know, no, we won't stand for you to ship our jobs overseas, you know? No, we won't allow for you to defund education and to privatize education, and to replace good, unionized teachers with, you know, young teachers who've only spent five weeks in a classroom.
These are very real demands of things that we - if we couldn't have necessarily predicted, we could have at least maybe mitigated if we had strengthened these things in our communities that can stand up to the political pressures to accomplish them.
CONAN: Let's get Desmond(ph) on the line, Desmond with us from Columbus, Ohio.
DESMOND (Caller): Yes, thank you. I just want to say, first of all, my father - I heard about the Million Man March coming and didnt think anything about it because I was just working. But my father came to me that morning. He said, come on, Desmond, we're going to the Million March Man. And I'm like, for what? And I was so thankful to God I went. A couple of other callers mentioned what I heard leaving there was to go join an organization, any kind of organization. And I think the main success about the there were many, but the one that I remember is there -African-American men didn't speak to each other.
But when we came back from the Million Man March and you saw those seas of men like you said, they say, step back. And millions of men stepping back, everybody saying, excuse me, it was like being in heaven. And when I came back, I speak to everybody now, no matter the creed, the race, the - and that's what I took back from it in joining an organization and working with the youth, especially African-American youth.
So I don't think it was a failure. I think we're a long ways off, but I don't think Barack Obama would be president had we not done the Million Man March because I felt like that started the stepping stones for reorganizing the African-American male.
CONAN: Desmond, what organization did you join?
DESMOND: I joined the NAACP and the Cleveland Urban League - I was in Cleveland at the time. That's where I'm from.
CONAN: All right. And so some, Jon Jeter, some people did take the message back home.
Mr. JETER: You know, I'm one of them. I certainly, you know, I lived in Washington, D.C., at the time so I didn't go far, I guess. But I certainly took the message back the home. I remember, I was working as a reporter at the time and I remember going back and talking to friends of mine who were also reporters and saying, you know, we wanted to redouble our efforts to really sort of represent the black community even more. You know, I think we'd already had that notion, but we wanted to even sort of redouble our efforts. So that's true.
But I still think, you know, you can't ignore the fact that we do have this incarceration crisis. We do have a very real health care crisis, which, you know, quite frankly, Barack Obama did not address with this health care bill, which, you know, really just sort of forces people to buy a lousy product. And it won't result in better health care. And, you know, we could've built these kinds of institutions, which could have really put pressure on Barack Obama and George Bush before him to do the kinds of things that we need to improve our communities.
CONAN: Jon Jeter, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. JETER: Thank you.
CONAN: Jon Jeter's piece, "The Million Man March, 15 Years Later," published in The Root.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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