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20th Anniversary Of Million Man March Inspires New Rally In Washington, D.C.


A rally in Washington tomorrow will focus on the challenges facing people of color. It's a commemoration of one of the largest gatherings in the nation's history, the Million Man March. Twenty years ago, Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, urged African-American men to travel to the nation's capital. Farrakhan was divisive then and continues to be, still making anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic comments in his speeches. NPR's Cheryl Corley spoke to people getting ready to travel to tomorrow's demonstration.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Late last night, a group of men and women in Chicago were comparing directions as they were just about to begin their long bus ride to Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March anniversary.

JERRY ARCHIBALD: My name's Jerry Archibald. Yes, I'm very excited. I feel the older brothers need to stand up and let the younger brothers know that there's a better way.

CORLEY: Archibald, in his 50s, said he missed the first march. It was also the first trip for 24-year-old Quovadis Green, who said he was glad to be a part of history by celebrating this 20th anniversary.

QUOVADIS GREEN: And so to be a part of something so historic, to be a part of something that is going to set the tone, to be a part of something where we can show people that we're able to come together peacefully...

CORLEY: Ishmael Muhammad is national assistant to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. He says his march, called Justice or Else, will again call for African-Americans to take responsibility for their community. But in this time of Black Lives Matter, it's also a demand for the government to act.

ISHMAEL MUHAMMAD: So it is not a march, but it's a gathering of those of who have been denied justice.

CORLEY: Not just black men, say organizers, but Native Americans, Latinos, women and others. Twenty years ago, there was lots of criticism and publicity about a men's-only march led by the controversial Farrakhan, and plenty of questions about how many black men would answer his summons.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Long live the spirit of the Million Man March.

CORLEY: The crowd that showed up stretched from the Washington Monument to the steps of the Capitol. It was a massive rally that culminated with a speech by Farrakhan.


LOUIS FARRAKHAN: Black men, you don't have to bash white people. All we got to do is go back home and turn our communities into productive places.

CORLEY: For many of the men who attended the 1995 march, it was a euphoric moment. Clifford Fields lived in the D.C. area.

CLIFFORD FIELDS: And I said to myself, oh, if this can continue. Oh, if this could be the thing that people would begin to see African-American males like that.

CORLEY: Fields plans to attend tomorrow's march. Professor Conrad Worrill, with the National Black United Front, says although it was challenging to put that first event together, black men across the country created national and local organizing committees and chartered buses to D.C.

CONRAD WORRILL: So it was a very creative, spiritual effort on the part of black men, with the help, I might say, of black women across the country who were very much involved and unsung.

CORLEY: This time, organizers used the Internet and social media to spread the word along with radio and personal appearances by Farrakhan and others at colleges and churches. Ishmael Muhammad says the march 20 years ago left people energized, with more black men registering to vote and joining national organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP.

MUHAMMAD: It was great, but at some point, we fell asleep and circumstances have been created that have our children caught up in a cycle of violence.

CORLEY: Muhammad says it's the responsibility of those gathering at this march to work to end the senseless killings among black and brown youth. But he says recent police-involved killings will also be center stage.

MUHAMMAD: We want the federal Department of Justice to intercede on behalf of those mothers and families and fathers who are grieving the loss of their loved ones who were killed by police across this nation.

CORLEY: Louis Farrakhan will speak at this anniversary march. Conrad Worrill says no one event is going to solve significant problems, but it means the ideas that come from the march will not be forgotten and will be passed along to the next generation. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.