Although the “Million Youth March” is often referenced in later years as one of the examples of Black solidarity after the huge and inspiring Million Man and Million Woman marches, the reality was low attendance and a lot of conflict. After the success of the 1997 Million Woman March, older adult Black leaders decided to organize a Million Youth March for the fall of 1998. The major civil rights organizations including the SCLC and the NAACP and also the Nation of Islam agreed to organize an event in Atlanta for Labor Day weekend, September 4-7. However, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, by then leader of the New Black Panther Party, also decided to organize a Million Youth March in New York. Muhammad had been ousted from the Nation of Islam by Louis Farrakhan for his extremist anti-Semitic statements. Muhammad’s original plan was for an event on September 19 and he apparently sought to persuade the other group to move their event to New York and join with his. The Atlanta group refused, not wanting to be associated with Khalid Muhammad. Muhammad then rescheduled his planned event for September 5, to conflict with the date of the Atlanta event, and also copyrighted the name Million Youth March; the Atlanta event was renamed Million Youth Movement.
The Atlanta group organized multiple events in multiple Atlanta venues over the Labor Day weekend, beginning Friday night September 4 and ending Monday September 7. These included forums and street fairs. September 7 there was a march and political rally. They originally thought they would get 100,000 attendees. However, many fewer actually showed up. It is hard to know how many attended any of the weekend’s events, and some Black newspapers said there were 10,000 attendees overall, but news coverage of the rally on September 7 put attendance at 2000 at the most, some said less than 1000. Although local Atlanta newspapers provided coverage of the specific events that were part of the whole weekend, the newswires and Black newspapers elsewhere gave very little coverage of the Atlanta events. The coverage they did provide contrasted the peaceful and uplifting mood of the Atlanta events with the violence and conflict in New York. But the New York event got nearly all of the attention.
Khalid Muhammad and his group said they wanted a 12 hour rally on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem and expected 100,000 attendees. The city tried to persuade him to hold the event on September 19 or to move it to a different venue, but he refused. At Mayor Giuliani’s insistence, they were denied a permit on the grounds that they were a dangerous hate group who would foment violence. Several judges ruled that a permit could not be denied on this basis. Eventually a judge ordered that they be allowed to hold an event for four hours instead of 12 and that it be restricted in area. They were also not allowed to have street vendors or music. The march organizers agreed to the terms.
Khalid Muhammad was controversial among Black people, many did not support him and believed he was being unnecessarily confrontational in his dealings with the city.
On the day of the event, Saturday September 5, the police barricaded Malcolm X Boulevard, making it difficult for people to get into the rally and also difficult for residents to get to their own homes or to local businesses. The police further restricted movement into or out of the area by closing the subways. There were at least 3000 police officers present in riot gear; helicopters were flying overhead, sharpshooters on rooftops. Many residents were fearful that the police would be violent and were intimidated from attending. Others who wanted to attend were not allowed into the enclosed space. Other residents who did not support the rally were upset at the police acting like an occupying army and treating residents as enemies.
The police said that 6000 people attended. Some of the event organizers claimed that the attendance was at least 10,000, based on how many blocks of Malcolm X Boulevard were filled.
The event itself was peaceful. There were many speakers who each spoke briefly. The permit expired at 4pm. The police were already massing to charge the event before it ended. Khalid Muhammad took the stage a few minutes before 4 and told the audience they should defend themselves if attacked. He then told them to go home, and left the stage. At 4:03 before the crowd could disperse, the police attacked, seeking to turn off the generator. Members of the crowd fought back. There were injuries on both sides. Although the police claimed that the attendees had attacked first, later reviews of videos did not support this claim. The police and mayor claimed the police were justified in attacking because Khalid Muhammad had been inciting to riot, but others, including judges reviewing the case a year later, disagreed saying that no one was rioting when Muhammad was using inflammatory language. All news sources covered the aggressive behavior of the police, although the New York Times newswire gave more coverage to the justifications of the police and mayor, while Black newspapers gave more detailed information about police acts of intimidation toward Harlem residents and referred to “Gestapo” tactics.
Two days after the march, the NYPD aggressively sought to arrest one of the march organizers:
Labor Day evening, over 100 heavily armed SWAT team members clandestinely poured into a residential block in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, pointing automatic weapons at women, children, and many MYM organizers. After ramming and destroying the lock on the apartment building front door, they proceeded to ram the apartment door of Million Youth March (MYM) Organizer Shaheed Muhammad. After ransacking Mr. Muhammad’s apartment, the police found that Mr. Muhammad was not home. They later informed Million Youth Attorney’s Roger Wareham and Jomo Thomas that they had an arrest warrant for Mr. Muhammad for assaulting the police at the conclusion of Saturday’s rally. The police, armed with M-16s, Uzis and other heavy assault weapons, held the entire community captive and declared it a “frozen zone.” No pedestrian or vehical traffic was permitted to move in a five block radius. Erica Ford, chair of the New York City Black Power Committee for the MYM, said, “The raid represents Mayor Giuliani’s continued campaign of terror unleashed on the Black community at the end of Saturday’s peaceful Million Youth March. Attorney’s Wareham and Thomas informed the police that Mr. Washington, who was unaware that he was wanted for anything, will turn himself in Tuesday evening.”New York Beacon, September 16, 1998 Swat Team Holds Black Community Under Siege”
There were a flurry of press conferences and lawsuits after the march about who was to blame and a great deal of news coverage, especially by the New York Times newswire. The police claimed that Khalid Muhammad had incited a riot and that they had a warrant for his arrest.
The New York Beacon also reported that a new organization would be formed, named A MOVEMENT FOR CHANGE, which is an acronym for Conscious Hip-Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment.” with a rally called for September 12 by Minister Conrad Muhammad to kick off his new organization,
A year later, another Million Youth March was scheduled for September 4, 1999. Again the city refused to issue a permit, again Khalid Muhammad and his supporters went to court and won the right to have a rally. Again many Black politicians opposed the march and felt that Muhammad was being intentionally provocative; Al Sharpton supported the march. Reports were that there were about 2000 attendees and 1500 police. This time the police did not close the subways or barricade people in or attack the rally, and it remained peaceful. Media attention focused on the previous year’s event as a context for debates about the current event.
The Million Youth March for 2000 was even smaller than the 1999 event and remained peaceful except for a small scuffle with police as the event ended. News coverage again focused on the 1998 event as context.
There were no Million Youth marches in 2001 or 2002. Khalid Muhammad died in 2001. In 2003, on the 5th anniversary of the original Million Youth March, the new leader of the New Black Panther Party, Malik Zulu Shabbazz, organized a rally in Brooklyn on September 6, 2003. The city again opposed issuing the permit, but the event was held. The rally addressed the Iraq war, an uncertain economy, and police brutality. A few hundred people attended. This event received little media attention.