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2 Decades Later, A March Of Thousands Looks Back — And Sets Eyes On Future


The Justice or Else Rally in Washington today drew thousands from across the country. It marked the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March and, like the previous event, was spearheaded by controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrkhan. This time, though, the gathering offered a variety of messages and emphasized diversity. NPR's Sam Sanders was there.

JACKIE GREENFIELD: Straight out of the Million Man March. Straw bags. Justice or else. Get your T-shirts.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Jackie Greenfield was on the National Mall Saturday morning, selling T-shirts at the Justice or Else Rally. She was also on the mall 20 years ago for the Million Man March, even though she wasn't even invited.

GREENFIELD: The one 20 years ago basically was for men.

SANDERS: Specifically black men. The focus of the Million Man March was on responsibility, atonement and reconciliation within the black community. But Greenfield thinks times have changed.

GREENFIELD: I think that 20 years ago, we needed a day of atonement; we needed a day for all the men to come together. We needed that, but today we need to know that black lives matter and justice should be for all; not just men but for all - for everyone.

SANDERS: Greenfield was one of many women joining men on the mall today. It felt like a block party Saturday morning. The crowd was nowhere near a million people, but the thousands there came from all over the country. And the mood was upbeat. The rally officially began just after 10 a.m. with a traditional Muslim call to prayer.


SANDERS: The organizers say today's event was meant to be multicultural. A rally demanding justice, not just for black people but for Latinos and American Indians, women, prisoners and veterans.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Native Americans in Central America and Guatemala Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I am a Palestinian Muslim-American.

SANDERS: In the last few years, the deaths of several black people at the hands of police has led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It's younger, more social media savvy and sometimes more confrontational. But Diamond Nichols, a college student who came for the rally from North Carolina, she says the tactics of Black Lives Matter - they can work hand-in-hand with older methods.

DIAMOND NICHOLS: There's a lot of young people who do protest the same way as the older days, and I feel like there's a lot of young people protest the new way. We're here because we're mobilizers.

SANDERS: Minister Louis Farrakhan, the keynote speaker - he gave a shout-out to the movement once he took the podium in the earlier afternoon.


MINISTER LOUIS FARRAKHAN: Black Lives Matter are welcome, have a cherished spot, because they represent the future leadership.

SANDERS: Farrakhan touched on point Orlando Washington wanted to hear. Washington came in from Tappahannock, Va. He says he wanted the Justice or Else Rally to foster new leadership.

ORLANDO WASHINGTON: The problem that we've had in the past with some of our black leaders is they don't know how to mentor and transfer power over. You shouldn't be 75 years old and still marching. You should be 18 years old still marching. And you should be saying to that 75-year-old, teach me what you did, let me know what you made a mistake on, what worked, what didn't, and let's move forward.

SANDERS: At the podium, Minister Farrakhan echoed that thought.


FARRAKHAN: We who are getting older, what good are we if we don't prepare young people to carry the torch of liberation to the next step? What good are we if we think we can last forever and not prepare others to walk in our footsteps?

SANDERS: Kind of makes you think there might be another march like this out on the mall 20 years from now. Sam Sanders, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.