After the long ride from Jackson, Mississippi, Kenneth Stokes stepped off the bus wearing his favorite brown cowboy boots and a two-piece suit, much like the civil rights activists of the 1960s dressed in their Sunday best.
He shivered in the chilly autumn morning, wishing he’d brought a coat as he joined thousands of men heading down the streets of Washington, D.C. This trek turned out to be his march — two miles through low-income housing and million-dollar row houses until, up ahead, a majestic view: the U.S. Capitol, seat of American power, largely built by slaves when the nation was a few decades old.
Stokes looked out over the National Mall, amazed at this ocean of Black men. Most were elbow to elbow. Some perched on monuments or in trees. Kids sat on dads’ shoulders. All there for an event called the Million Man March.
“It was packed, packed, packed,” Stokes recalls. “There were people everywhere — from everywhere.”
Charles Hicks reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out a folded paper scrawled with his handwriting. A union leader in Washington —nicknamed the Chocolate City because it was mostly African American — Hicks studied the speech he’d written the night before.
From his vantage on stage at the west front of the Capitol, Hicks took in the audience he was about to address, Black faces stretching a mile to the Washington Monument. This was the heart of America, home of the brave, land of the free. And they were repeating his chant: “We are here!”
Hicks watched as more and more men poured onto the Mall. He told them not to believe the myth that African American men are lazy. “All my life I have seen Black men work and take care of their family,” Hicks declared. “All my life I have seen men in unions fighting for better jobs.”
Anthony Ruff, then an Army reservist in New York City, remembers speeches that day about Black families and kids without dads.
The message resonated with the 34-year-old, who was raised in a home with foster siblings. Especially when Maya Angelou stood up and read her “Million Man March Poem,” with a verse that says, “I look through the posture and post your disguise and see your love for family in your big brown eyes.”
Back in the crowd, Ruff vowed to one day adopt a child.
Virgil Killebrew, a street poet from Chicago, arrived early enough to stand directly in front of the stage. But the amplifiers were so loud, and the crowd so suffocating, he retreated to the fringes.
There were signs and flags. Music blared between speeches. Black hands clenched together in prayer against a blue sky, clouds scudding overhead.
“I lost my mind,” recalls Killebrew, now 71. “It wasn’t the speeches. It was the excitement. … You felt the truth of all these people saying, ‘Black Power.’”
He realized, “This is bigger than us.”
A chant arose with the introduction of Rosa Parks, a diminutive Black woman who in 1955 refused to sit at the back of an Alabama bus.
“Rosa! Rosa!” echoed from a corner of the sprawling crowd. As she stepped to the microphone, hundreds of thousands more voices chimed in. “Rosa! Rosa! Rosa!”
For Kokayi Nosakhere, then a 21-year-old college student from Anchorage, it was the apex of a sublime experience. He and 15 other Alaskans had traveled more than 4,000 miles to join the Million Man March, which occurred 25 years ago Friday.
“I didn’t hear a word of her speech,” Nosakhere says. “We were doing the wave. … ‘Rosa! Rosa!’ I had to come back home and watch C-SPAN to get the outside perspective.”
Now a community organizer for social justice, Nosakhere’s online bio says “his attendance at the Million Man March set the course of his life.”
An activist. A soldier. A union leader. A city councilman. A poet.
That day in October 1995 has stayed with these five men, though not necessarily as an inflection point. Life is more complicated than that.
To celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. this year, Nosakhere cut up a cardboard box and used markers to create a message he hoped would resonate with people no matter their skin color: “If justice means revenge, there will never be peace.”
He started walking through downtown Medford, Oregon, waving the sign — a one-man parade in a city that is 89 percent white. There were no haters, he says, “just lots of positive honks.”
The Million Man March was Nosakhere’s first political demonstration. Twenty-five years later, he’s still at it.
After returning to Alaska, he became a community worker for the NAACP, staged a hunger strike for school nutrition funding and “played politics” to achieve social justice.
A few years ago, he started a campaign to put anonymous “love letters” on car windshields — handwritten messages meant to encourage positive feelings.
After George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the slaying of Black teenager Trayvon Martin, Nosakhere helped organize a demonstration. When Black Lives Matter marched through Eugene, Oregon, this summer to protest police brutality, he was there.
Those who think the Million Man March was supposed to change America got it wrong, Nosakhere says: “The goal was to change us. I raised my hand on Oct. 16, 1995, and I have not taken it down. I’ve fulfilled my oath to go back to my community and make it a better place.
“I’m still here,” he says. “I don’t back down from white supremacy.“
In overhead photos, they were five pixels in a panoply of African American men. Five vantage points on a single day, and on the quarter-century since.
There were 837,000 in all, or 400,000, or 1.9 million. Even the number of attendees remains in dispute, like so many things about one of the largest demonstrations ever to hit America’s capital.
They chanted, laughed, danced, listened to speeches, sang, cried and made vows. Despite stereotypes and predictions, there was no violence, looting or arrests. Just an outpouring of heart and an intaking of hope.
The crowd at the Million Man March has been portrayed as a singular organism. By all accounts, there was an aura of unity, an abiding bond of pigmentation and gender.
But the event, as recorded by history and petrified in the minds of those who attended, always held distinct and subjective meanings.
The goals and leadership were controversial and divisive — not just to white Americans, but to African Americans watching on television and even there.
Some saw the stated purpose — “A Day of Atonement” — as an acceptance of guilt by Black men for conditions that are a legacy of slavery, discrimination and white supremacy.
Some believed it was an affront, or politically shortsighted, not to invite women and non-Black sympathizers.
And yet the idea of uniting in a declaration of African American pain, power and humanity caught fire, spreading from churches to Black businesses to union halls. After a year of planning and scraping together dollars, folks from sea to shining sea boarded trains, bought airline tickets, crowded into church vans and chartered buses to spend one day, together, making a statement for themselves and to America.
There were many declarations that day, and perhaps a million takeaways. And then, after a long speech by Farrakhan, it was over.
The mall emptied. Men went home, full of energy and ideas.
In the 25 years since, America has elected an African American president, seen diversity become a workplace buzzword and watched NBA players wear jerseys emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.”
We’ve also witnessed videos of police killing unarmed Black men, demonstrations veering into rioting and a president who urged white supremacists to “stand back and stand by.”
Hicks, 75, who has fought injustice most of his life, says nationwide protests against police abuses are a “new birth” of the spirit of the Million Man March and the civil rights movement.
“If I was 30 years younger, I’d be out there,” he says. “I’m not young enough to run and to dodge tear gas.”
Killebrew started writing poetry long after the drugs, lost jobs and prison terms. He was in Chicago, asking for a bed in a Salvation Army shelter. The gatekeeper wanted him to fill out a form explaining his circumstances.
Killebrew could have written about his dad, who divided time between a wife and kids in Illinois and a second family in Tennessee.
He could have mentioned going to a nearly all-white high school where fighting the Black kids was a way to prove something. “Fights every day,” he says. “I began to feel my Blackage.”
Street poet Virgil Killebrew looks back on the Million Man March 25 years later
Street poet Virgil Killebrew talks about his poetry and experience at the Million Man March on it’s 25th anniversary.
He could have described playing hoops at a neighborhood school when somebody broke into it. “I didn’t know you were supposed to run when the police came,” Killebrew recalls. He landed in juvenile hall, so embittered by the injustice that he went back twice for real crimes.
He could have told about the time he got fired from a good job after a fight with a white dude over whether the radio should be tuned to country or blues.
Instead, when Killebrew filled out the Salvation Army form, he impulsively wrote a poem — the first of his life. He titled it, “Powerless and Insane,” the way he felt after a woman introduced him to heroin.
The shelter folks liked his rhymes so much they made copies for their guests. Killebrew believed they had no right to do that — it was his poem — so he raised a stink and lost his bed because of it.
But he found a vocation. He wrote more verses, made copies at Kinko’s, and started selling them on the street for whatever people wanted to pay. One poem, “Shopping Spree,” urged African Americans to buy from Black businesses: “If you’re shopping with others who are not ‘Sistahs’ or ‘Brothas,’ Black people will never be free.”
Killebrew was living in a transient hotel in 1995 when a local radio host heard about his poetry and invited him on the show. Lu Palmer, considered the godfather of Black activism in Chicago, asked the guest to recite a poem titled, “True Black Man.”
“Call-in lines were ringing and lights were blinking,” Killebrew recalls. Palmer acted like his guest had won a prize, declaring, “You’re going to the Million Man March!” Killebrew chuckles at the memory: “I said, ‘I don’t have any money.’ … My head was spinning like someone who has drank a pint of Richard’s (Wild Irish Rose).”
When Ruff learned about the march, he started calling homeboys in Long Island, guys he’d known since he was 13. Farrakhan’s role wasn’t a spoiler; their agenda was more personal than political. This day was about them and people who looked like them, restoring dignity and pride.
The fact that it was on a weekday, when they had to take off work and maybe lose pay or get in trouble with the boss, made it even more valuable. “People were willing to sacrifice something of themselves,” Ruff recalls. “We really felt it would be a historic event.”
Nosakhere’s dad, an NAACP leader in Alaska, presided over Kwanzaa and Juneteenth celebrations and had brought Farrakhan to Anchorage. So the young man was steeped in Black politics and culture.
“I grew up Blackety-Black-Black,” Nosakhere says.
Still, it is one thing for a boy to inherit views, another to adopt them. During his senior year in high school, Nosakhere spent $5.99 at Waldenbooks for a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
Here was a civil rights leader telling Blacks to fight back against white supremacy. Thinking of the message, Nosakhere paraphrases a passage that hit home: “You have a right to kill a four-legged dog, or a two-legged dog who is threatening you.”
Nosakhere found similar messages in the Rastafarian-inspired music of Bob Marley. The hit, “I Shot the Sheriff,” was about standing up to police brutality. Another song, “No Woman, No Cry,” gave him the “psychological armor” not to fear white supremacy.
Nosakhere abandoned his birth name and adopted a Swahili moniker that he says means, “Summon the people, old messenger, because God is on his way.” When he learned about Farrakhan’s call for Black males to converge on the nation’s capital, he was all in.
Stokes, now 65, was on the Jackson City Council then, as now, and felt a duty to join the march. He and Charles Tisdale, publisher of the Jackson Advocate, a Black newspaper, started scrounging for money to charter buses.
They went to funeral homes and other Black businesses. “We got out there and started begging,” he recalls. “We had to represent.”
Hicks, the union leader in Washington, had a legacy to consider when he was asked to join a news conference about the march. He hailed from Bogalusa, Louisiana, where his father, Robert, founded a chapter of Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed group of Black men who defended themselves and civil rights workers against attacks by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s.
Hicks remembers one night in 1965, when friends showed up to protect his family after the sheriff warned that a lynch mob planned to burn down their home. Police wouldn’t help, Hicks recalls. “If we didn’t protect ourselves, we were sitting ducks.”
Ben Chavis, one of the march organizers, attended that news conference. Chavis asked Hicks who his father was and, in a nod to the legendary civil rights activist, invited Hicks to speak on the big day.
Months before the march, Killebrew started going to Monday night meetings in Chicago churches.
At first they were small meetings, not exciting. Folks talked about fundraising, the speakers list and a manifesto.
As the date neared, the meetings got bigger and livelier. Killebrew attended one at a Chicago mosque with Farrakhan, Chavis and Jesse Jackson. It turned into a pep rally, and Killebrew caught the spirit. There was a sense of history in the making, he recalls.
Days later, buses outside a church were loaded in the pre-dawn darkness. The Rev. Al Sampson, a march organizer, boarded with Killebrew and used the 20-hour ride to review a speech he would deliver titled, “A Declaration of Purpose.”
The buses formed a convoy and, with horns honking, paraded through the sleeping South Side of Chicago.
Most passengers brought pillows, blankets, food and drink. Not Killebrew. His stomach started grumbling as the bus filled with smells of homemade meals. He accepted some food from his seatmate, E-Rod, who spent much of the trip distracting a 12-year-old boy who didn’t seem to get along with his dad.
Stokes says fear was palpable as they boarded the bus in Jackson. There was talk of possible violence. “You didn’t know if you’d make it back home,” he says. “That’s one reason people didn’t bring their wives.”
They prayed when the bus took off, when it stopped in Atlanta, and at every other stop along the nearly 1,000-mile ride. “The only way these trips are going to be successful,” Stokes says, “is you’ve got to put God first.”
Nosakhere’s flight from Anchorage landed in Boston, where he spent a few days at the home of a family friend, Brother Ray, before driving to Washington.
Church vans and buses were literally rocking down the interstate, Nosakhere recalls, full of brothers charged with anticipation — and with fear of an attack by law enforcement or haters. “All of ‘em were singing,” he says. “We were fortifying ourselves. We thought we were going to die that day.”
Farrakhan’s original idea was essentially religious. Black men of all faiths would gather for preaching, prayers and promises. But amid the publicity of a yearlong run-up, politics elbowed its way onto the agenda and the Million Man March morphed into different things for different people.
Even the title was a misnomer; there was no march, just a gathering. And because of the name, counting heads proved controversial.
Organizers put the crowd size between 1.5 million and 1.9 million. The National Park Service came up with 400,000, prompting the Nation of Islam to sue. That was the last time the Park Service estimated attendance at a demonstration in Washington.
A Boston University researcher eventually used photos and computers to calculate there were between 655,000 and 1.1 million people there.
For the men who showed, those were just numbers.
At a union hall in downtown Washington, Hicks and others munched on doughnuts and sipped juice provided by wives and mothers. The men wore black and white union ball caps; the women, who stayed behind, wore gold ones.
As Hicks and his family members got within blocks of the National Mall, he didn’t see a swelling crowd at first. “It’s okay,” his father soothed. “If it ain’t nobody there but me, Charles and Farrakhan, we’re going to be there.”
Nosakhere saw police on horseback with nothing to do. “We told them, ‘You aren’t needed today, homey.’ There was not one fight, no weed being smoked, no liquor. … It was one of the few times in my life I actually felt safe.”
There were food tents, first-aid centers and voter registration booths. Eight hours of speechifying and preaching with musical interludes.
On stage, the comedian-activist Dick Gregory kept shouting into the microphone, “I love you!” Just about everyone sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem.
Clarence Lang, now a professor of African American studies at Penn State University and dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, was not among them. Instead, the 22-year-old grad student was back in Edwardsville, Illinois, because in his mind the message of the Million Man March was ill-considered.
What are Black men supposed to atone for, he wondered? It was like blaming victims — telling people who had been beaten down for centuries they needed to make amends.
Lang understood why others went. America’s political pendulum had swung conservative in the mid-1990s. With Democrats and Republicans retreating from social justice, Black Americans were desperate for answers, he says.
But Lang saw a different path to racial justice, one that didn’t adhere to the march’s “fundamentally patriarchal” message. So he was home that day, watching on TV.
Rod Terry, then a prosecutor for the District of Columbia, recalls his bosses making preparations for mass arrests — something they’d never done for other demonstrations. “As a Black man, I took that as a personal affront.”
Terry took the day off and headed out with a camera to document the event, focusing his lens on the faces. They showed all kinds of emotion, from jubilation to pain, he says, but shared “an overwhelming sense of peace and calm.”
Terry was snapping pictures when Angelou, wearing a Yoruba cap, recited a poem she had written for the event:
The night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark,
And the walls have been steep
“That is the moment I lost my composure and cried,” he says. “I was being carried away by a higher force.”
Finally, Farrakhan came to the mic wearing his signature bowtie. He spoke for nearly two and a half hours. At one point, with help from the throng, he lyrically broke down the meaning of “atonement.”
Later, he led the masses in an oath that began, “I pledge that from this day forward I will strive to love my brother as I love myself.”
Stokes remembers Farrakhan’s speech being “long-winded,” but fiery and powerful. His eyes overflowed a few times that day, and he wasn’t the only one. “You feel so blessed to see so many Black people together for a positive thing.”
Nosakhere has memorized portions of the speech. He cannot resist shouting them with Farrakhan’s intonations: “How long have you been here, Black man? A little over 400 years.”
He laughs at himself, then adds, “We helped him preach. When he finished, we all hugged and made promises to stay in touch, and we went back home.”
Back in Alaska after the march, Nosakhere wrote a column declaring, “I was blessed to witness what countless others have died to promote: a display of perfect unity among African Americans.”
In retrospect, he believes the march bumped Black activism for a few years, but he doesn’t see it as transformative.
Nosakhere, now 46, accepts a Nation of Islam precept that says only 5% of people know truth and try to make the world better. Counting himself among the “Five Percenters,” he devoted his life to activism.
Killibrew, the ex-con turned poet, was mesmerized but not galvanized. The overpowering emotions of the Million Man March turned out to be a “sugar high,” he says, with no apparent follow-through on the glorious rhetoric.
“Everybody went back to what they were doing,” he says.
Including him. He made $700 selling poems that day, then returned to his rounds in Chicago. Even a poem inspired by the march was lost years ago.
Killebrew has retired from street sales. But he’s still writing, and he’s looking to publish an epic poem for kids about the African slave trade.
Ruff, the son of a New York cop, is preparing to retire from the Army Reserve as a sergeant major.
One of the themes of the speeches at the march has stuck with him.
“In this vast audience,” Farrakhan asked, “is there any one, two, 10, 25, a hundred, a thousand, 25,000, who would be willing to adopt a Black brother or sister, bring them into your home and rear them properly? … Would you just raise your hand? Let me take a look. Raise them high.”
Ruff and his first wife signed up for foster care. Three brothers arrived with their belongings in garbage bags. For 10 months, the couple squeezed them into their three-bedroom home and relied on Ruff’s mother-in-law to help with childcare. When the boys were reunited with their biological parent, it was tough. “You become a big part of their life, but even more so, they become a bigger part of your life.”
During 35 years in the Army, Ruff was deployed three times, to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. He sometimes compared the nation-building in those countries with the struggles of Black men in America.
“We’re helping others to achieve full freedom within their own countries,” he said. “You can’t help but think about it, because of the contradictions. The things we do for others that we don’t seem to want to do for ourselves.”
Ruff never had children of his own. Now remarried, he says he’s thinking about that vow again.
Stokes introduced a resolution this year to name a street in Jackson after George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned his neck to the ground.
“Because of the death of Mr. Floyd, people’s hearts changed enough that Mississippi got rid of the Confederate flag,” Stokes says, referring to the former state flag with the Confederate emblem in the design. “I’m talking about some die-hard racists.”
Progress may be slow, Stokes adds, but there has been change. He tells his grandkids about the march — not just how it affected those who attended, but folks they touched afterward.
“Every time Black people get out there and unite and do something positive,” he says, “it helps the people at the bottom. And when it helps the people on the bottom it has a ripple effect.”
Hicks has retired from his post in the Black Studies Department at the public library in Washington.
For him, Oct. 16, 1995, will always be triumphant. Family members near the stage, including his father, didn’t know he was scheduled to speak. When the announcer called his name, Hicks recalls, “It was like I had given them a million dollars. … There will probably never be anything as exciting as that.”
In the years since, Hicks pushed to make the District of Columbia a state. He founded a support organization for Black victims of AIDS. He started an annual gospel concert featuring African American men.
This year, on Father’s Day, he organized a Black Fathers Matter motorcade. About 90 cars, decked out with balloons and signs, cruised from the African American Civil War Museum through Black neighborhoods.
From the days of slavery through today, Hicks says, Black men have been targets: “We’ve been lynched. We’ve been castrated. We’ve been killed. We’ve been imprisoned. We’ve been discriminated against. We’ve been denied jobs.
“So it’s important on Father’s Day that we say to Black men that you matter.”