Most of the discussions of the Million Man March (MMM) have focused on interpretations of Louis Farrakhan’s ideology or about the meaning of the widespread Black support for the MMM for what it implied about what Black people thought about Farrakhan. Few have discussed the significance of the obvious: the large turnout was a result of organizing and coalition building.
There is strong evidence that the March was not about Farrakhan as a charismatic leader or his specific ideology, but about his call for Black unity and a message that combined Black personal and community responsibility with a challenge to White power. This demonstration of unity across difference did not just happen. The evidence is that people worked to make it happen. Sometimes pulling off a big march is just the logistical problem of mobilizing: publicizing, working through existing channels to obtain commitments, raising money, and chartering buses. But the evidence is that the build up to the Million Man March also involved organizing. It appears that new local groups were being created and new relationships were being formed. Specifically, Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam and its supporters became a part of the network of Black organizations both nationally and in many cities and towns around the country. The person who was probably responsible for the organizing was Ben Chavis.
We base our argument on the evidence available from published sources, primarily news articles. Other scholars may be able to confirm, refine, or refute our arguments from other historical sources such as personal papers, memoirs, or interviews. We have not been able to locate any published accounts of the actual organizing processes based on such sources.
Coalitional Unity, Not Unanimity
By the time the March happened, a wide spectrum of prominent Black leaders and Black organizations had signed on as endorsers listed in “Million Man March Fact Sheet” published in the Afro-American Red Star (Brown 1995). The Nation of Islam and the newly formed National African American Leadership Summit headed by Farrakhan and Chavis were listed, but so were many more across the Black political spectrum. Prominent women endorsers included Rosa Parks, Dr. Dorothy Height, C. Delores Tucker, Betty Shabazz, Myrlie Evers Williams, and Coretta Scott King. Endorsing organizations ranged from traditional civil rights groups like the SCLC, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Political Congress of Black Women, to more militant or nationalist groups including Afrikan National Rites of Passage United Kollective, All African People’s Revolutionary Party, National United Black Front, and Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa. Religious groups included the National Baptist Convention, Progressive National Baptist Convention, D.C. Baptist Minister’s Conference, and Maryland State Missionary Baptist Convention. Fraternal organizations included the National Panhellenic Council, several fraternities and sororities, and the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World. Business associations include the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Politicians included the National Conference of Black Mayors. There were also a wide variety of Black professional organizations including firefighters, lawyers, engineers, social workers, political scientists, psychologists, criminal justice workers, government workers, and students.
This diverse collection of endorsers obviously did not all agree with each other, much less Farrakhan. It wasn’t Farrakhan’s specific ideology that was being endorsed, but his call for a show of Black unity. A survey commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League found that only 34% of Black Americans agreed even “somewhat” with Farrakhan’s ideas, even though solid majorities had positive assessments of him as a leader and said he was good for the Black community because he said things the country should hear (Edsall 1995). A survey of March attendees conducted by Howard University political scientists found that more than 80% of attendees said that their most important motivations for attending involved Black solidarity, including calls for Black unity, self-determination, and moral values (McCormick 1997) Farrakhan himself was named as an important motivation for under a third, slightly lower than the participation of Christian ministers as a motivation.
Nevertheless, March attendees had an overall favorable opinion of Farrakhan. A survey of attendees conducted by the Washington Post (Brossard and Morin 1995) asked whether they had favorable (versus unfavorable) views of the following: The Nation of Islam 88%, Louis Farrakhan 87%, Jesse Jackson 81%, Benjamin Chavis 77%, Colin Powell 73%, Bill Clinton 54%, White people 31%, Jewish people 41%, the criminal justice system 15%. It is worth noting that favorability toward Farrakhan clearly did not requires disfavoring Jesse Jackson or Black Republican Colin Powell or even White Democrat Clinton, and that Jews were rated more favorably than Whites. A general population National Black Election Survey a year later found Farrakhan rated less highly than other prominent Black leaders Jesse Jackson 69%, Kweisi Mfume 69%, Colin Powell 67%, Carol Mosely Braun 64%, Louis Farrakhan 51%, Clarence Thomas 41%. (Taylor 1999:291)
In short, being favorable toward Farrakhan obviously did not mean holding a specific political opinion. The favorability was clearly capturing a value for Black unity that encompassed difference, what may best be understood as a coalitional unity.
Background and Context for Organizing
The context for organizing was pessimism and disarray. Black communities had been wracked by the economic 1980s policies of Reagan and Bush and the escalation in mass imprisonment through the “drug war” of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The 1991 videorecorded brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police offices and the subsequent not guilty verdict for the police in 1992 both precipitated a multi-racial urban rebellion in Los Angeles with spinoffs elsewhere and led to widespread Black rage, pessimism about the prospects for integration and equality in the United States, and a growth Black nationalist sentiment in the 1990s that fed both into the Million Man March and a resurgence of Black Power organizations (Musgrove 2019). In a 1995 survey commissioned by the Anti-Defamation Leagure, a majority of Black Americans said they believed the US government was deliberately allowing Black communities to be destroyed and making sure drugs were available in Black neighborhoods (Edsall 1995). The trial of OJ Simpson for murdering his wife and her friend, which ran through 1995, included charges that police had planted evidence, and ended with a not guilty verdict a few weeks before the March, also fed into Black anger about the unfairness of the system.
Attempts by Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 “Rainbow Coalition” presidential campaigns to pull the Democratic Party toward the left and policies more favorable to Black people had failed. Bill Clinton wooed White voters in his 1992 presidential campaign by distancing himself from Black people and promoted “tough on crime” and “welfare reform” policies. The Republicans led by Newt Gingrich had won a major victory in the 1994 midterm election.
Taylor (2015) and Gibson (2012, chapter 7) stress the ideological importance of Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, as the iconic figure actually motivating participants. As the economic and social policies of Reaganism devastated Black communities, hip hop developed as a Black cultural critique. Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X came out in 1992 and Malcolm X regalia and X hats were very popular. The people who killed Malcolm were members of the Nation of Islam and it was widely believed that Louis Farrakhan was involved in the murder. Beginning in 1990, Farrakhan worked to promote the argument that the FBI was ultimately responsible for killing Malcolm (Gibson 2012). Although the Shabazz family had long blamed Farrakhan for Malcom’s death, Farrakhan was able to reconcile with the Shabazz family in 1995, after Malcolm’s daughter Qubilah was charged with attempting to hire a contract assassin to kill him (Gibson 2012). Taylor (2015:280) argues that the hip hop generation had grown up with leftist and feminist critiques and interpreted Black nationalism in their own way, as an articulation of Black rage arising from callous policies, social isolation, mass incarceration, and poor and working-class Black hopelessness. In Taylor’s view, Farrakhan was popular as a stand-in for Malcolm X; both Malcolm X and Farrakhan spoke critically to their epochs with brutal honestly that would be political suicide to Black candidates for elected office.
Origins of the March
The Million Man March was organized by Ben Chavis and Louis Farrakhan. Ben Chavis was an ordained Christian minister with a long history of activism and leadership. He had been imprisoned in the 1970s as part of the Wilmington Ten, had coined the term “environmental racism” while doing organizing in the 1980s, and had held leadership positions in the Jesse Jackson campaigns and the National Council of Churches. He advocated a theology of Black liberation that had strong Black nationalist elements. He was chosen to lead the NAACP in April 1993. In his first year, he organized meetings with gangs and hip hop artists with the goal of reducing violence, sought a more international focus by seeking to establish chapters in other countries, and organized a Latino chapter.
By many accounts, the idea of the Million Man March began when Louis Farrakhan was excluded from the August 1993 thirtieth anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. In June 1994, Chavis invited Farrakhan along with other Black leaders to a leadership summit. There were Jewish protests of Farrakhan’s inclusion and some Black leaders refused to attend. Chavis was already receiving criticism for his leadership of the NAACP before it was revealed that he had used organizational funds to settle a sexual harassment suit. In August 1994 he was fired by the NAACP, and the next day attended an NOI rally with Farrakhan.
Farrakhan first issued the call for a large march in a column in the NOI newspaper the Final Call in December 1994. The Philadelphia Tribune wrote about it on December 9, 1994.The article says this call for a march and general strike were spawned by “Men Only” meetings in New York and Houston, “where thousands pledged to join Farrakhan in the march.” The article quotes Farrakhan as saying the march is to protest “poverty, want, joblessness” and to respond to Republican party victories and the building of prisons.
The Organizing Process
Ben Chavis became the director of the Million Man March Organizing Committee. White (2001. chapter 9) says that Chavis asked for the position both because he thought the NOI lacked the capacity to organize the march and because he needed a job. Nelson (1997) describes the work of the National Million Man March Organizing Committee as having representatives from many diverse organizations and ultimately forming over 400 local committees. Nelson says the committee began with disunity and ineffectiveness but grew more effective over time.
Nelson (1997) specifically addresses the role of Christian churches and clergy. He says the idea of a Holy Day of Atonement and making amends for past wrongs helped to generate enthusiasm among church people and that adding the Day of Absence” as a responsibility for women helped to build a united front. He describes meetings between Farrakhan and Christian clergy in which the clergy were impressed with Farrakhan’s knowledge of scripture and came to endorse the march. At the same time there was opposition from the institutional Black church. Nelson describes the initial opposition of the National Baptist Convention as being connected to internal power struggles.
Even mainstream news accounts clearly describe a process of organizing. A Los Angeles Times – Washington Post newswire service article on September 10 describes “the broad coalition that has built” and says that Chavis and Farrakhan have been “barnstorming” the country to drum up support. Another LAT/WP newswire article published in October says the process in Atlanta grew from NOI brothers passing out leaflets to a major publicity campaign, and that Farrakhan and his aides have been to the city a dozen times, meeting with local Black leaders and speaking at churches, colleges, and housing projects. It describes the appeal of the twin messages of Black men taking personal responsibility and that White America and the government must hear their demands.
Black newspapers covered the organizing as it developed through 1995, describing rallies, town halls, educational forums, meetings with the media. Most of the coverage described organizing for the march and give little attention to disagreement about whether to support the march. An article published in March 1995 mentions that the organizing is happening and discusses the role of protests in general. A July 1995 Philadelphia Tribune article covers a rally described as the first local town meeting for the Million Man March with Ben Chavis speaking and says that an education phase involving seminars will begin in August. Articles published in August claim that there are organizing committees in more than 300 cities and towns, and describe a meeting of Chavis with the Los Angeles Sentinel that describes a plan for a caravan of buses to leave cities the west coast on October 8 and says all who board the buses will be required to be registered to vote as Democrats or Independents. An August article in the New York Beacon describes a “vast turnout” at a Harlem town hall meeting with Farrakhan as a speaker that opened with Muslim and Christian prayers and included representatives from a wide variety of organizations. Coverage of these events repeatedly intertwines calls for self-responsibility with statements of demands to be made on government and private corporations.
The Aftermath: Did Organizing Really Happen?
Debates about whether organizing happened focus on the post-March period. There is no doubt that there was a substantial burst of Black civic activity in the wake of the March. Many communities held post-March rallies in which local organizing committees planned their agendas. Membership in existing organizations like the NAACP rose dramatically. Black male voter participation in the 1996 election went up, even as that of other groups went down. Political scientists argue that one outcome of the Million Man March was the Chavis-Farrakhan-Sharpton coalition. There were news reports of successful campaigns against community violence led by the NOI. Our protest event data also show a rise in activity in the late 1990s. There were sustained protests in New York around the police killing of Amadou Diallo, and the NAACP launched a proactive campaign against the South Carolina display of the Confederate flag in 2000.
However, there was also reported disappointment about the consequences of the Million Man March as 1996 wore on. Perhaps this is because there was disappointment a year later that no new unified Black organization had been created Marable (2007:229) and Rahman (1996) both criticize Farrakhan and Chavis for failing to create a new viable national organization and instead sending them home to their existing organizations. Of course, Marable himself was distressed at the prospect of what he saw as Farrakhan’s conservative fundamentalism being the center of the Black movement (Marable 1998) and instead led the formation of the Black Radical Caucus in 1998, an organization that made little progress and ultimately disbanded in the mid-2000s.
Given the true diversity of those who supported the Million Man March, it is impossible to imagine that they would ever be comfortable in the same organization. What the March organizing may have achieved is new relationships among organizations and activists that might permit them to work together in the future in local or national coalitions. In particular, it may have increased relationships among Christian and traditional civil rights organizations and the NOI and groups close to it. The local organizing committees may have been the seeds of ongoing local work and local activist relationships.
The stated goal of presenting a Black agenda to Congress and having it attended to obviously was not achieved. But it is not clear that Black people were in a position to have any significant political impact in the unfavorable context of the 1990s. The coalitional relations that Chavis and Farrakhan were at least trying to create seem to reappear in the mid-2000s with the 2005 Millions More Movement and the 2007 Jena Six protests and might be seen in the 2008 Obama victory. We do not have the right kind of data to assess whether this suggestion is correct. All we can say with certainty is that the data we do have strongly implies that this was a goal of the organizng.
Brossard, Mario A. and Richard Morin. 1995. “Leader Popular among Marchers; but Most Came to Support Black Family, Show Unity, Survey Finds.” in Washington Post.
Brown, Janice Frink. 1995. “Million Man March Fact Sheet.” in Afro – American Red Star. Washington, D.C.
Edsall, Thomas Byrne. 1995. “March Could Cast a Vote on Democratic Party; Critical Blac, White Political Coalitions at Stake in Farrakhan’s Effort, Analysts Say.” Pp. A12 in Washington Post.
Gibson, Dawn-Marie. 2012. A History of the Nation of Islam : Race, Islam, and the Quest for Freedom: Santa Barbara, Calif. : Praeger,  ©2012.
Marable, Manning. 1998. “Black Fundamentalism: Farrakhan and Conservative Black Nationalism.” Race & Class 39(4):1. doi: 10.1177/030639689803900401.
Marable, Manning. 2007. Race, Reform, and Rebellion : The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006 (Third Edition). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi [Kindle edition].
McCormick, Joseph P, II. 1997. “The Messages and the Messengers: Opinions from the Million Men Who Marched.” National Political Science Review 6:142-64.
Musgrove, George Derek. 2019. ““There Is No New Black Panther Party”: The Panther-Like Formations and the Black Power Resurgence of the 1990s.” The Journal of African American History 104(4):619-56. doi: 10.1086/705022.
Nelson, William E. Jr. 1997. “Black Church Politics and the Million Man March.” Trotter Review 10(2):4.
Rahman, Ahmad A. 1996. “The Million Man March: A Black Woodstock?”. The Black Scholar 26(1):41-44.
Taylor, James Lance. 1999. “Black Politics in Transition: From Protest to Politics to Political Neutrality?” Ph.D., University of Southern California, Ann Arbor. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 9987580.
Taylor, James Lance. 2015. Black Nationalism in the United States : From Malcolm X to Barack Obama: Paperback edition. Boulder, Colo. : Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015.
White, Vibert L., Jr. 2001. Inside the Nation of Islam : A Historical and Personal Testimony by a Black Muslim: Gainesville, FL : University Press of Florida, 2001.
 Philadelphia-Tribune;-Philadelphia,-Pa._1994-12-09_ebd709c941cd9c777a67a73f65d99bb1 12/9/1994 FARRAKHAN CALLS MARCH ON WASHINGTON
 AGW_LTW_ENG_19950910.0004 9/10/1995 Black Men’s March on Washington Planned (Washn)
 AGW_LTW_ENG_19951013.0080 10/13/1995 For Atlantans Attending March, Reasons are Varied (Atlanta)
 Recorder (Indianapolis, Ind.) 3/4/1995 “`Bloody Sunday’: Is marching still effective?” Recorder;-Indianapolis,-Ind._1995-03-04_18acfb89ade7b2a54c1d093a64785d1b
 Philadelphia Tribune 7/21/1995 “Chavis to speak at march rally tonight”
 Philadelphia Tribune 8/4/1995 “New York’s Giuliani clueless about Million Man March” Philadelphia-Tribune;-Philadelphia,-Pa._1995-08-04_8ac61c320997ae3a96852c5e0fb09ce7
 Los-Angeles-Sentinel;-Los-Angeles,-Calif._1995-08-09_32ed8acfe3af9ccb75b3e89cfa7b47f6 8/9/1995 Dr. Chavis, Farrakhan Launch 1M Man March
 New-York-Beacon;-New-York,-N.Y._1995-08-16_b037a761501d67e0e53b4aee19a3c45e 8/16/1995 Momentum Growing For Million Man March