By Richard Muhammad
WASHINGTON, D.C. (National Mall) – “Black folks should understand that there are certain forces operating in this country that just don’t care about Black people. It’s a reality. We can’t change it,” said Rodney Hubbard candidly. Like many, he saw the failure to help Blacks during Hurricane Katrina as a sign of Bush administration indifference. But Blacks can unite to help themselves, said the 32-year-old state lawmaker from St. Louis.
Support for a united front and memories of the 1995 Million Man March brought Hubbard back Oct. 15 for the Millions More Movement rally on the tenth anniversary of the men’s march. The gathering drew thousands between the Capitol and the Washington Monument to hear a broad spectrum of African American political, religious, business, community and entertainment leaders demand justice and declare their intention to work together. Native American and Latino speakers as well as leaders from Cuba and Jamaica also offered words of support for the day’s themes of unity and action.
“We have seen an unprecedented number of Black leaders of organizations coming together to speak to America and the world with one voice. This tells us that a new day is dawning in America and the world,” said Min. Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam. His keynote address closed the event. The outspoken leader of the Nation of Islam convened this gathering just as he had the Million Man March in 1995.
The 2005 march participants ranged from hip hop guru Russell Simmons to Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Chicago), from economist Julienne Malveaux and singer Erykah Badu, to Rev. Jesse Jackson and New Black Panther Party leader Malik Zulu Shabazz, from Dr. Cornel West to Black nationalist leader Conrad Worrill of the National Black United Front. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, women, youth, men, pastors and activists and entertainers took the stage.
But a major challenge will be whether Black organizations and leaders can find the path to true operational unity. “We’ve shown we can come together, but now we must show we can stay together. All these organizations and leaders that were on the stage, we now have to find that unity in the community. If the leaders say they are united, we must get the constituencies now to unite,” said Min. Benjamin Muhammad, formerly known as Benjamin Chavis. He served as executive director of the Million Man March. He knows firsthand that staying together can be difficult.
A former head of the NAACP, he was ousted following questions about a sexual harassment lawsuit settlement, but many suspected his major crime was convening a Black leadership roundtable that was too broad. It was so broad that Min. Farrakhan was included and the effort was attacked.
“It’s up to us to love ourselves and the world will love us back,” said hip hop mogul Russell Simmons. Simmons responded earlier this year to an attack on the Millions More Movement by Abraham Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman blasted Blacks for standing with Min. Farrakhan and called the Minister an anti-Semite. Simmons responded strongly. He wrote an open letter that called Foxman “misguided, arrogant, and very disrespectful of African Americans.”
Simmons felt some disunity stemmed in part from jealousy of Min. Farrakhan and from basic human imperfections. But successful gatherings and the ability to move people can convince reluctant leadership, he added. “Those leaders that signed on publicly, but in the background didn’t help, God bless them. They’ll be speaking when they see these people, they always speak when they see the masses,” Simmons said.
“Marches are great, it gives you juice to fight and that’s what we need, we need the juice to fight because we’re losing right now,” said Malia Cresencia Lazu, of the Institute for Policy Studies. Black organizations must look at funding and financial independence, she said. Organizations go to the same sources for funding, but that funding can come with strings attached, Lazu said. The Nation of Islam was able to put on the Millions More Movement because it has independent funding, she said. It’s also time to admit many Latinos are of African descent and bridge the gap with Black Americans, added Lazu, who is a Black Puerto Rican.
“Most of the important leadership in Black America has always been local grassroots leadership so we can’t become preoccupied with the national television leadership,” said Dr. Cornel West, a leading intellectual. Dr. West and broadcaster Tavis Smiley are developing a Covenant with Black America. The document would lay out the top issues of concern to Blacks and how the issues should be remedied. The Covenant with Black America is being formed from a series of discussions and forums in the Black community.
Smiley said the attendance of diverse groups and leaders on the Mall offered hope for unity. But, he added, everyone should work for Black progress. “There ain’t no easy answer here, but put it another way, there is an easy answer. Each one of us has to take responsibility,” said Smiley.
Rev. Jesse Jackson called for a strong focus on extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, an increase in the federal minimum wage, comprehensive health care and registration of 10 million unregistered Black voters for presidential, congressional and governor’s races in 2005. The public policy agenda is clear, he said.
Jackie Reid, of BET News and the Steve Harvey Show, felt some consolidation of Black organizations might be good. Major media corporations are coming together to have greater power and impact, she noted. “At the end of the day, we all want to help Black people,” Reid said.
Complete unity is desirable, but not likely, said Damu Smith, of Black Voices For Peace. “What we need is to organize maximum unity among as many organizations as possible. Some organizations are simply under the control of other forces and they are not able to join something like this,” he said. Groups have to make a commitment to the process, be held accountable and be given assignments based on their area of specialty, Smith said. That’s easier said than done, but would increase Black effectiveness, he added.
Rev. Al Sharpton urged those who didn’t want to participate in the Millions More Movement to sit down and shut up. “If you scared say so,” he said. There are leaders who will fight together to change America, Rev. Sharpton said.
“We need a movement to take our people from their condition of poverty, ignorance and disunity to one of prosperity, education and unity. And, I think this is the step that we needed in order to do that,” commented the Rev. James Demus, of Park Manor Christian Church in Chicago. Rev. Demus made significant contributions to the success of the Million Man March in 1995. “It’s not about you as an individual, it’s about our people collectively and if you put it in that perspective any differences that you might have with someone are minimal and what you’re working toward becomes maximum,” Rev. Demus said.
Min. Farrakhan, who earlier weeks blasted some pastors who worked to undermine the Oct. 15 event, warned against two-faced dealings. “The more we unify the more power we can generate to change reality,” the Minister said. Black leaders need to be held accountable for following through on promises to find common solutions to problems, he added.
“This is a very dangerous time to play with the destiny of the people. There are those who don’t want to see us unified,” Min. Farrakhan said.
Though the challenge is great, Min. Farrakhan and other speakers made a compelling case for joint strategy and action. Black suffering, typified by Hurricane Katrina, is going unattended and something must be done, said speakers and rally participants.
“Katrina showed us the neglect of the government of us and the failure of state and local government to answer needs of our people,” he said. He compared the government’s irresponsible actions to a mother who leaves a child in a car on a hot day, and runs into a store. The mother stays longer then she planned, and when she comes out the child is dead. She didn’t mean to kill that child, but the law would say she is guilty of criminal neglect, Min. Farrakhan pointed out.
If legally possible, a class action lawsuit charging the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security with criminal neglect should be filed, Min. Farrakhan said. “I firmly believe that if the people on those roof tops had blond hair and blue eyes and pale skin, something would have been down in a more timely manner,” he added.
A lawsuit is necessary so witnesses can be called and the truth of what happened can be determined, Min. Farrakhan said. In particular, he called for an investigation into the levee breaches.
“We don’t want to guess about it or follow rumors. We want to know what happened to the levees that caused the deaths of thousands of people,” he said.
Beyond a lawsuit, the African American community must organize to protect itself as the government ignores Blacks, Min. Farrakhan said. “The government it will never do for the poor of this nation, until and unless we organize effectively to make government respond,” Min. Farrakhan said. The success of the Millions More Movement is not in turnout figures, but in post-march activity, he said.
In addition to grassroots organizing and cooperation between national Black organizations, the Minister announced creation of a hurricane relief fund. The Millions More Movement relief fund will provide support for flood victims, he said. He also called for creation of ministries that will serve Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and poor whites in major areas, such as politics, health, education, agriculture and food production and economics.
Photo: A member of the Fruit of Islam on post at Millions More Movement gathering.
Photos from top: Thousands stand on National Mall for Oct. 15 Millions More Movement rally. ... Russell Simmons does radio interview at rally. ... Cornel West, left, and Tavis Smiley offer analysis. ... Chuck D, of Public Enemy.
All photos by Richard Muhammad (c)