WASHINGTON -- When Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, took the stage at the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March on Saturday, there was an air of curiosity as to how the 82-year-old minister would address a new generation of activists -- a good many of whom had missed out on the original 1995 march by virtue of being too young, or not yet existing at all.
Farrakhan is a divisive figure, to say the least. He's been criticized for promoting sexist, homophobic and transphobic views. And he's far from the only black male activist who's been accused of marginalizing women and queer and trans people of color -- and not all of those activists are in their 80s, either. For some, it is impossible to separate the Million Man March from that problem. To others, the march is bigger than that.
"I came to join in this congregation, in this gathering. I believe there's a great spirit. The 20th anniversary is not to be overlooked," Christopher Gillespie, a student at Michigan State University, told The Huffington Post. "The first gathering was something that I couldn't attend because I was just born. But this time, I wanted to be a part of this movement and be able to see where it takes our nation."
The theme for this year’s march was "Justice Or Else,” and the event was meant as a response to the problems that disproportionately face young black Americans, such as police violence and economic inequality. The Nation of Islam and other activists addressed this through social media:
“Fifty years ago we were marching on Selma, and there’s no change. We want justice. We want accountability,” Cleo Jeffryes, a 22-year-old participant in the march, told HuffPost.“This is our generation. This is our movement. This is not our mom’s or our granddaddy’s.”
Jeffryes was speaking to a generational divide that's been discussed a lot with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some activists -- many of them alumni of the civil rights efforts of the 1950s and '60s -- believe that politically involved black Americans have an obligation to be polite and civil at all times, even in the face of violence. Others disagree, saying that with black Americans getting brutalized and killed every day, often by people who then face no consequences, good manners aren't such a high priority. This is a feeling common among younger activists and people in the Black Lives Matter community. But Farrakhan is infamous for preaching the former point of view.
“Sometimes they feel like they know everything, so it’s kind of ... disrespectful in some type of way. But, you know, this is our movement,” Jeffryes said. “We’re getting killed. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice [was] killed. Seven-year-old Aiyana Jones [was] killed for sleeping ... This is our generation. This is our movement. This is us.”
Even to older female activists, the generational shift is clear: Black men aren't the central focus of the march anymore.
"When you talk about 'Justice or Else,' it's not just impacting men, it's impacting our entire country,” Zephia Bryant, who attended both the 1995 and 2015 marches, told HuffPost. “And I think a lot of the issues that we're dealing with, whether it be police brutality, whether it be injustice, whether it be racial profiling, those things impact our communities. And if we don't all stand for it, then we're all gonna have to ... be accountable for what's going to happen if we're not standing up for our rights."
Kim Moon, another attendee, shared a story with HuffPost about her 15-year-old grandson in Atlanta, who was walking to the store with a friend when, Moon said, he was assaulted by a police officer.
“He was pinned to the ground by the police because a week [before] ... somebody was robbed in the store's parking lot,” Moon said. “And [the cop] just instantly made him get on the ground.” According to Moon, the officer then asked the two teenagers where they were headed and where they'd come from. She said her grandson complied.
“After that happened to them, I knew I had to come, because I knew I wanted to be a part of this history," Moon said. "I wanted to, you know, demand this justice that we all so very desperately need."
Bryant said the biggest thing to take from this year’s march -- and the last one -- is the love among black people fighting for a common cause.
“It's a spirit, it's a sense of community,” she said. “Those same village values that we had years ago, I felt that. You know, you feel the spirit of it. And it's a wonderful feeling to come here -- when you see the media, who is always negatively portraying our people -- when you come into a space where it's just total positiveness.”
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