The Million Man March, revisited

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Twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of black men flooded into Washington for the Million Man March, a momentous day of brotherhood and personal atonement. As minister Louis Farrakhan prepares to stage another rally on the Mall this weekend, The Washington Post revisited about a dozen people who were interviewed that day to find out what the original event had meant to them.

Here are three of their stories:

‘We dropped the ball’

Derrill Johnson had 14 children, but he keeps a picture of only one of them on his living-room wall in St. Louis. His youngest son, also Derrill, smiles for the camera, clasping his hands together in a blue shirt several sizes too large.

The photo was taken one day last November, the day the younger Derrill got out of jail. The baggy shirt was his father’s. He wanted to leave behind every aspect of prison life, including his clothes.

He seemed cheerful and carried around a small Bible. A month later, he was dead at 34.

“Overdose,” his father said. “A total waste.”

Johnson, 68, feels guilty, but not just about his son. The retired steelworker rode 19 hours on a bus to Washington and came home from the march vowing to have “a different outlook on life.”

Now, thinking of his son’s generation, he says: “Our age group let them down. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do as men. We dropped the ball.”

Johnson regrets not putting in more effort when his son was growing up. He was too distracted “chasing women,” he said. His children have four different mothers.

But Johnson blames Farrakhan and other community leaders for failing to lobby for better education and more jobs. He watched last year as unrest broke out in Ferguson, Mo., just a short drive up the road. If the march had achieved its potential, he said, “you wouldn’t have this discord now.”

A ‘powerful’ statement

As soon as she heard about it, Charlita Anderson-White knew she had to be there. It may have been the Million Man March, but the assistant prosecutor from Elyria, Ohio, told four female friends she was sure they would be welcome.

“We crashed it,” said Anderson-White, now 54.

Every day, she saw African American kids who lacked strong male guidance going before the court. As a single mother, she thought it was important for her son, Christopher, then 7, to know she had gone to the march and had seen scores of black men “demonstrate solidarity” firsthand.

At the march, Anderson-White and her friends felt uneasy at first, being so outnumbered. But the men kept shouting: “Thank you for coming, sisters!”

Anderson-White was so moved by the sincerity of the men’s pledges to their families that she vowed never to speak negatively of Christopher’s father in her son’s presence.

“It hit home how good my son had it,” she said. “I had every input from his dad” — co-operation, child support, visits. “He never missed a single day.”

Anderson-White is now a magistrate. She said she believes the greatest achievement of the march was symbolic, a mass demonstration of introspection to counter all the negative stereotypes.

“It was one of the most powerful displays of community that I have ever seen,” she said. “That’s what they wanted to show the world.”

‘It didn’t change a lot’

Three days before the march, Raymond Robertson of Danville, Va., had been in court with his nephew, Michael, then 19. Robertson had helped raise the boy; that day he was sentenced to two life sentences for a robbery that led to a man’s death.

The sentencing made the march itself “bittersweet,” Robertson said at the time. “I wish he could have been here to see this. If it had happened first, maybe it could have put him on a different track.”

Twenty years later, Michael is still in jail. “He probably won’t come out,” said Robertson, now 68.

The Vietnam veteran is equally pessimistic about the legacy of the march. “It didn’t change a lot, the way it should have,” he said. “All we wanted was a chance to make the same money, to live in the same kind of houses, to have the same kind of jobs. And we haven’t gotten it.”

So Robertson is planning to march again. He will be on the Mall on Saturday for Farrakhan’s latest rally, drawn by its message of justice.

But he’s not sure what it will accomplish.

“This time around, I’m more skeptical,” he said.

Tom Rowley