Kevin Myles had worked his way to the front of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 16, 1995.
After hours of standing, the 26-year-old needed to rest his legs. But the crowd was so packed together he couldn’t even turn. So the man behind Myles grabbed his arms and eased him to the ground.
Oletha Faust-Goudeau, who went on to become the first African-American woman to serve in the Kansas Senate, watched from Wichita because she was a new mother and the event was promoted more for black men than women. Faust-Goudeau remembers being so inspired that she took a picture of the TV screen.
Robert Weems, now a professor at Wichita State, was in awe of the vast number of people and the calm. “That day just went so peaceful it was almost eerie just how peaceful it was,” Weems recalled.
The Million Man March inspired these and other Wichitans who watched to become more engaged in Wichita’s black community. The focus in 1995 was introspective: what each man could do to better himself and the community he lived in.
But many participants felt bitter about the racial bias they saw in how the event was covered by media.
Now, 20 years later, organizers and participants in the 20th anniversary celebration say the black community cannot achieve justice on its own, and that what is needed involves mending attitudes and institutions, such as the system of law enforcement. So its leaders are trying to make the anniversary both more strident and inclusive: The theme 20 years later is not a personal “day of atonement,” as the original was sometimes called, but “Justice or else!”
Cyrel Foote said Wichita was a more violent place in 1995. “There was a lot of despair and gang violence was real bad,” Foote said, who has since moved to Houston but has been back to visit. “You had to do something, you couldn’t just sit back and not do anything.”
Jihad Muqtasid, a Muslim man from Mississippi who mentored many young black men in Wichita until he passed away in 2006, led Foote and a small caravan of cars to the Million Man March.
Muqtasid, a thin man with a speckled beard who dressed in African clothing, was at the center of the Afro-centric, return-to-the-motherland sensibility of Wichita at the time, according to Foote. Muqtasid’s bookstore was a gathering place for socially conscious black men at the time.
The attendees said it was inspiring to be among so many black men. But for many, the enthusiasm was sullied by media reports that underestimated the number of participants and focused on the inflammatory remarks of the march’s organizer, Louis Farrakhan.
Many media outlets, including The Eagle, published the Park Service’s crowd estimate of 400,000. A later study showed it was actually somewhere between 600,000 and 1.1 million.
Mark McCormick, now the director of the Kansas African American Museum but at the time a reporter for The Eagle, said that, even though the day was about personal growth, the media reports were deflating. “That’s what has stayed with me all these years, how crestfallen people looked when they read the media accounts,” McCormick said.
He published a column in 1997 that criticized media for giving a more generous crowd estimate to the Promise Keepers rally in Washington that year, which was a more racially mixed march on Washington.
The men who returned to Wichita formed a Million Man March Committee, which for a few years organized talks and events, such as a celebration when the crime level ticked downward in 1997.
When Myles returned to Wichita he joined the NAACP and eventually came to lead the Wichita chapter, where he has championed laws to limit racial profiling and fought efforts to pass a voter ID law. He eventually left his job at an airline and took on the role of regional and national field organizer for the NAACP.
This year he organized a 40-day march from Alabama to Washington, one of the NAACP’s biggest recent actions, and said the Million Man March was an inspiration for his career and was rooted in the same philosophy of change as his most recent march.
“We can’t wait for someone else, whether it be some other organization, agency, government, or municipality, to solve the problems that are affecting our communities,” Myles said. “We have to bear and shoulder the responsibility of putting our lives and bodies on the line to fight for those changes.”
Some black women in Wichita, who felt excluded from the original event, traveled to Philadelphia for the Million Woman March in 1997.
Mary Dean, who had been involved in a discrimination lawsuit against Boeing before the march, said she returned from Philadelphia with more motivation to serve the wider community. She founded a group called the Progressive Women of Wichita, which had about 10 members, one of whom, Lavonta Williams, now serves in the Wichita City Council.
Many participants said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what impact the event had on their lives over the past 20 years, beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm.
That’s as it should be, said Myles, who said single events rarely bringing about historic change.
“When you watch a movie, the good guy knocks bad guy down and the bad guy never gets up,” Myles said. “In real life social change is more like a tug-of-war. At your best you move the flag a few inches in your direction.”
Anthony Dozier watched the original march on TV and said he felt “all bottled up” because he couldn’t attend. So when his cousin Carl asked him recently, “Cousin Tony, I’m going to the Million Man March (anniversary), do you want to go?” Dozier recounted. “I said yes then and there.”
Organizers with the Nation of Islam say they don’t know how many people to expect on the National Mall on Saturday to commemorate the one of the biggest civil rights gatherings in history. Farrakhan is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at noon Central time.
Spokesman Richard B. Muhammad said Farrakhan will explain on Saturday what kind of response he is looking for from the government and what he thinks should be done if it doesn’t deliver. What matters more than the number of people who show up, Muhammad said, is what they do afterward.
For Dozier, a new artist whose work is often inspired by issues of black justice, the opportunity to network with so many black people across the country in a career he took up only a few years ago appeared like “a window open from heaven.”
While Dozier will be in Washington, his work will be on display at a watch party in Wichita.
Tye McEewan, 33, who was just a teenager during the original march, said she felt her generation needed to step up, so she organized a watch party at the Fairmount Park community facility. The events in Washington will be live-streamed, and several local leaders such as Weems and Lavonta Williams will speak.
Now is the time to celebrate the progress, McEewan said, even as the theme for this year’s event, “justice or else,” is focused on the future. “For once I would like the community to just step back away from the marches and away from the riots and appreciate what you do have,” McEewan said. “There are some things in the community that need to be addressed but in the meantime, celebrate, be proud of who you are and where you are going.”
When the 20th anniversary event was announced, the organizers specifically invited women and other races to attend as well. So McEewan didn’t feel any qualms as a woman organizing the anniversary for an event that was originally targeted at men.
It’s important for people who care about justice to be inclusive, Faust-Goudeau said, or she’ll never get enough of her colleagues in places like Topeka to pursue real change in Kansas.
Weems, the history professor at Wichita State, said some progress has been made since 1995.
“One could reasonably conclude that things have gotten better,” Weems said. “But when we have this succession of police attacks on young, unarmed African-Americans over the past year, I think you have a lot of young people, in particular, saying this isn’t what I thought America had become.”
A heightened national awareness about violence against black people the past couple of years has led to a shift in the march’s focus from introspection and self-improvement to demands that institutions, and attitudes toward black people, change as well.
“There is a whole other set of issues that are external to the African-American community such as police brutality and substandard schools,” Weems said. “It’s beyond just what can we do better.”
“We should be focusing on institutional justice,” said Myles. “That doesn’t negate our focus on ourselves and personal growth: one is not a substitute for the other.”
Million Man March 20th anniversary
What: A watch party for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. The national celebration on the mall in Washington, D.C., “Justice or Else,” will be streamed.
When: Doors open at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 10. The keynote speech by organizer Louis Farrakhan is at noon Central.
Where: Fairmount Park community facility, 1647 N. Yale.
How: To RSVP to the event, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 316-655-3712. The first 60 people to do so will be seated inside, while the rest will view it outside where it will be projected.
Cost: The event is free; T-shirts are being sold for $15.