The Million Man March and the January 6, 2021 Attack on the Capitol
A nation’s glaring hypocrisy exposed to the world
Since the founding of the nation, America has historically been a contradiction in terms. While professing in its founding documents that “all men are created equal” with equal protections under the law, millions of American citizens have not always enjoyed the country’s enormous wealth and bounty. Many may suggest that the conversation regarding the disparate treatment of white and Black Americans is old and tired, and represents the country’s past. These people believe the discussion is best left to the history books.
Yet, the shocking spectacle, witnessed by the world on January 6, 2021, brought these differences into stark focus. It created an opportunity for re-examination of the dichotomy that exists between the treatment of these two populations in a more contemporary framework. When a violent mob of an estimated 2,000 “American patriots” descended upon the nation’s Capitol nearly two years ago, the restraint demonstrated by law enforcement in response to the assault caught the world, African Americans in particular, by surprise, to say the least.
African Americans were speechless, stunned, mouths agape in disbelief and wondering out loud, “where are the helicopters, the officers on horseback, the armored personnel carriers, the troops, the tanks, the flash bang grenades, the dogs, the water cannons that are purposefully on display at Black protests? Where was that overwhelming power, the retaliation in kind?”
The Capitol police, along with the District of Columbia police and other agencies, were totally surprised and overwhelmed. They clearly had not remotely considered that a crowd of good, Christian, conservative patriots would ever stage a dangerous, violent, murderous, insurrectionist siege. Beaten and bloodied with their own nightsticks, stabbed with flagpoles, gassed with their own chemicals, law enforcement appeared confused and clueless as to how to deal with the mob. Obviously, no backup plan was needed, or so they tragically thought.
Having broken through police lines, the rioters smashed their way into the Capitol building destroying federal property, reportedly defecating on the floor, breaking into offices, and entering the Senate and House chambers. They called for the Speaker of the House, repeatedly chanting her name. One Capitol police officer died from injuries sustained during the riot; four others would commit suicide in the weeks following the event. An estimated 140 to 150 officers were injured, according to several news and fact-checking sources.
This, in comparison to the 1995 Million Man March that saw an estimated 870,000 Black men converge on the same grounds at the nation’s Capitol, according to a Boston University computer analysis. Their behavior was the opposite of the myth that America’s thought leaders have perpetuated about Black men being inherently violent, lawless and deviant. However, as we retrospectively reviewed the Million Man March the only arrests involved minor infractions such as curfew violations, blocking the streets, and carrying open containers, according to a USA Today article. Not one violent crime was reported.
The only similarity shared by the two events was that they were promoted by an individual leader with a predetermined purpose. In 1995, the African American community on a national scale, was overwhelmed with high crime stemming from the ravages of the crack cocaine epidemic and the proliferation of so-called “gangsta-rap.” Black leaders begged for a remedy from Washington, D.C., even threatening President Bill Clinton with the withdraw of support from the Black community for his 1996 re-election campaign if he didn’t act decisively to address the problem.
What emerged in 1994 was a disastrous crime bill that would see millions of Black men thrown into jail with hefty sentences for largely petty crimes. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan called for a Million Man March to happen the following year. He pressed Black men to take more responsibility for their communities and families, reinforce support for their children, and atone for their behavior by promoting unity, self-respect, and self-awareness.
Conversely, President Donald Trump called his supporters to Washington, D.C. under the guise of “stopping the steal” and “taking your country back.” In December 2020, he tweeted to his followers to come to the Capitol, and “it’s gonna be wild” as he continued to insist that he won the 2020 election and it was stolen from him.
With no evidence to back up his claims and having filed and lost 62 lawsuits in the days and weeks following the election, Trump continued to wage a campaign of deceit. With the help of internet trolls and dangerous rhetoric from right wing networks masquerading as news, conspiracy theories spread quickly and took a firm hold among his supporters. At the January 6 Congressional Hearings, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) said, “President Trump’s tweet drew tens of thousands of Americans to Washington to form the angry crowd that would be transformed into a violent mob.”
“I came all the way from Idaho to …let my voice be heard that this election was not right,” said Trump supporter Christie Nicholson, in an interview with TIME, wrapped in a pink Women for America First flag. “President Trump won it fair and square,” she said, adding that the coronavirus pandemic was “BS” and her vote had been robbed. Trump supporter Todd Possett said, “I absolutely stand behind, 100 percent, what happened here today. One thousand percent. It’s terrible how this election was stolen and I had to come here and do my patriotic duty.”
While many protesters may have legitimately felt as though they were doing their patriotic duty, it seemed more like naivete and gullibility in believing “the big lie” that resulted in more than 1,000 being charged with felonies and sentenced to serve time in prison. Despite reneging on his promise to “pay the legal fees” for his supporters for “knocking the crap” out of protesters at his rallies in 2016, Trump has continued to bait his supporters by dangling pardons across the board if he is re-elected.
Even as these lies were laid bare to the nation and the world, the delusions continue to this day. Right wing agitators persist in insisting that the riot was a “peaceful” protest. However, not everyone has continued to drink the Kool-Aid. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 58% of Republicans said they’d rather see someone else run for president in 2024. The revelations unearthed during the January 6 Congressional Hearings, concerning Trump’s true intentions to stage a coup d’état by seeking to invalidate the 2020 election, may have been key in his diminished support.
The objectives of the Million Man March and the January 6, 2021, insurgence could not be more distinctive. As we consider these events, the facts completely disprove long-held propaganda and centuries of racist, stereotypical rhetoric. Over the entirety of American history, African Americans have been maligned and labeled with every conceivable, negative characterization. The predictions of the Million Man March, particularly among right wing pundits, were so dire that they resulted in virtually every federal official evacuating Washington. Clinton flew to Dallas, and Speaker Newt Gingrich went home to Georgia, for instance. Some commentators forecasted scenes of “barbarians at the gates.”
Most conservatives were appalled at the notion of a Million Man March of largely African American men, most notably because it was called by Minister Louis Farrakhan. In a National Review article by Reihan Salam, Farrakhan was described as “a loathsome, notorious Black nationalist.” However, conservatives were not the only ones who expressed skepticism about the potential success of the Million Man March. Liberal politicians and commentators did as well. African American men, themselves, also admitted to being concerned. As one of the organizers of the Denver delegation, 65-year-old Denver resident Alvertis Simmons acknowledged his own trepidations. “We just didn’t know what might happen,” Simmons confessed. “When we left from our rally site on Welton Street that day, the mood was a mixture of excitement as well as uncertainty.”
“That all changed as we arrived in D.C. The messages of hope and the spiritual uplift remains with me to this day. We returned home with a sense of resolve and commitment. We felt stronger and it was clear that we demanded more from ourselves,” he told Denver Urban Spectrum.
Community activist, Shareef Aleem, 54, agreed. “I wasn’t going to attend but made a split decision once I arrived at the rally to send our delegation to the march. There was no plan. We just left the city driving to D.C. We had to collect donations along the way for gas and food. We didn’t have money for a hotel and at the invitation of the Rev. George Stallings we stayed overnight at the Imani Temple African American Church,” Aleem recalled.
“When we arrived, we noticed SWAT teams strategically positioned all around the perimeter of the Capitol complex. It seemed as though the entire government, except the Black leadership, had evacuated the city,” he told Denver Urban Spectrum. “It didn’t matter because by the time we left D.C., we had been transformed by the experience. It was as if we had all fallen in love with each other.”
Others who attended the march seemed to echo Simmons’ and Aleem’s sentiments. “Right off the bat it was just euphoria seeing all those Black men come together in such love, embracing one another. We had never seen anything like it and have been convinced all this time that something like this wasn’t even possible,” said 63-year-old Allen Smith of Denver, who goes by the moniker ‘old school.’ “The whole time I was there it was like heaven; I just could not believe it.”
“It was amazing to stand in that moment. More than 300 of us left Denver and connected with a delegation of brothers from L.A. We represented every facet of our community from those with the least to the super wealthy,” said journalist and long-time community organizer Brother Jeff Fard. Fard, 55, served as the primary organizer of the Denver coalition that left to join the national event in Washington, D.C. “It was all about self-awareness and self-determination. We learned who we are. Black unity is more powerful than a nuclear bomb. We had a feeling that nothing could stop us. Many of us are still attempting to live up to the pledge we made that day.”
Like the January 6 event, it may be a safe bet to submit that the Million Man March had a profound impact on those in attendance. Among those in the crowd, undoubtedly swept up in the unity, love and resolve was an unknown young lawyer and aspiring politician by the name of Barack Obama.
Obama would later suggest that the experience reinforced his reasons for entering politics. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate the following year. “What I saw was a powerful demonstration of an impulse and need for African American men to come together to recognize each other and affirm our rightful place in the society,” he said in an interview with The Forward, an independent, nonprofit Jewish publication. “There was a profound sense that African American men were ready to make a commitment to bring about change in our communities and lives.”
He would go on to say, “historically, African-Americans have turned inward and towards Black nationalism whenever they have a sense, as we do now, that the mainstream has rebuffed us, and that white Americans couldn’t care less about the profound problems African Americans are facing.” Obama also offered some sage advice for current and future Black leaders.
“What was lacking among march organizers was a positive agenda, a coherent agenda for change. Without this agenda a lot of this energy is going to dissipate. Just as holding hands and singing ‘We shall overcome’ is not going to do it, exhorting youth to have pride in their race, give up drugs and crime, is not going to do it if we can’t find jobs and futures for the 50% of Black youth who are unemployed, underemployed, and full of bitterness and rage,” he told The Forward. “Cursing out white folks is not going to get the job done. Anti-Semitic and anti-Asian statements are not going to lift us up.”
As we celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday later this month, we recognize that the two events held similar significance because they both occurred on the Capitol grounds where he delivered his most prophetic speech, “I Have a Dream.” What happened on January 6, 2021, may have made that dream appear to be nothing but an aberration all these years later. However, by continuing to channel the spirit of the Million Man March, King’s dream may still be realized. In the end, the words of Maya Angelou, spoken during the march, best incapsulate the overall message and continue to bring it into focus, “The ancestors remind us at this time in history, despite the history of pain, anguish, despair and sacrifice, we are a going-on people who will rise again. And still we rise.”