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The Historical Significance of the Million Man March, the Old Media, and an Ujima Message

The creator and founder of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga has stated that Ujima, the principle of collective work and responsibility is “a commitment to active and informed togetherness on matters of common interest.  It is also recognition and respect of the fact that without collective work and struggle, progress is impossible and liberation unthinkable”  (http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml).  There is no question that Ujima is a measureable aspect of life (people must do something tangible and in tandem to produce something identifiable), a matter of concern, a function of communication, and accountability. We are often inspired by how Black people, seemingly disparate in their social, cultural and political thinking, will exhibit Ujima, when by all accounts; they are dissuaded from collective expressions of racial self-respect and Umoja. Ujima, collective work and responsibility, as Dr. Karenga has pointed out, is also an internalized ethos which guides one’s life so that the community benefits. Historically speaking, our goal has always been the realization of liberation. Even within our internal conflicts the goal was the same. It was true for DuBois and Washington, Washington and Trotter, and DuBois and Garvey. Within their own zones they exercised Ujima, where they differed in terms of strategy and maintained lines that would not be crossed; they continued their liberation struggles while simultaneously critiquing, and sometimes in denouncing, their peers. Karenga stated that we have a collective culture and a collective identity, one that “…encourages a vigorous capacity for self-criticism and self-correction…” This is an ancient and neo-African ethos, one that presupposes worth and wealth in self-assessment and earnest acts of compensation for transgressions against others. This thought capacity supports organizational congruence and this form of harmony facilitates the considerable collective work and responsibility necessary for collective success.

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Consider a few examples from the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this time Blacks developed and supported the cultural, political and social writings of a new generation, honing their skills within the context of the Black Power Movement. The leading literary architect of the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka established Jihad Press (which was later renamed “People’s War”). He was a man who had prolifically published plays, essays and poetry by 1967 including his “Poem for Black Hearts.” In that same year, John A. Williams published The Man Who Cried I Am, a testament to Black survival from the 1940s through the 1960s;[1] while Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton published Black Power, a defense of the disquieting term that called for the highest expression of Ujima in the Black struggle. Toni Morrison published her novel The Bluest Eye in 1970 liberating generations of African girls from self-hatred wrought from what Dr. Kokovah Zauditu-Selassie calls “the malevolent gaze” of white aesthetics.[2] African American protest writing like Baraka’s work, and many others, addressed the conflicting issues within racial integration framework and the thrust of Black Nationalism, generating decades of scholarly discourse.

Students at black and white schools, and in the community-at-large, advocated for equal rights in all areas including initiating the call for Black Studies departments and Black courses by protesting, boycotting, sitting-in and shutting down campuses. In 1968 two track stars, elite athletes, were triumphant at the Olympics in Mexico City. Under other circumstances they would have passed through history merely as “a credit to their race,” and that would have been enough for some. Yet Tommy Smith and John Carlos silently and powerfully protested the second-class citizenship of African Americans, amplified by the raised gloved black fist. Recall also that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.altered some of his perspectives about the tone of the Civil Rights Movement, and especially his sentiments of wariness over and rejection of the Vietnam War (and in 1968 Dr. King gave his support to the Memphis sanitation workers and delivered his “Mountain Top/Promised Land Speech” foreshadowing his own assassination). In the 1960s and 1970s the power of African American writers, academics, and activists in the pursuit of freedom is evident. Some of these people practiced Ujima to some extent, but all of these people expressed the philosophical intent of collective work and responsibility.

In the spirit of Ujima, historians are obliged to ask what else might have been accomplished had we used our ethos of collective work and responsibility and created stronger, impenetrable networks of cooperation and support. Optimal and effective group cohesiveness cannot be a possibility for others, and at the same time, presented to Black people as unnecessary and inconceivable. We have proven that our strength emanates from the internal/eternal spiritual perspective, rather than the exterior/materialistic view of our selves. For example, on October 16, 1995 a multitude of Black men and boys from across the nation and parts of the globe met in Washington, D.C. to express the spirit of Ujima in resolving the adverse social conditions impacting African American people. It was the Million Man March, a powerful expression within the Black Nationalist tradition. In terms of contemporary protest events, there had been nothing like this before. The mainstream media went into a tailspin. Even though the coverage was frenetic, in many quarters the primary focus was on the conflicting messages provided to African Americans about the significance of the event. The media was informing society as a whole of their perceptions of what was going on with African Americans; while attempting to interpret to Blacks what they should think about the event.

Media outlets especially seized upon the organizational thrust of the Nation of Islam and its leader the Minister Louis Farrakhan. They then suggested that Black women were not necessarily welcomed. Despite the incredible high estimation that more than 1 million Black males attended the event, the projected federal attendance figure was less than a half million. These kinds of numbers were tacitly offered as demonstrative of the shortcomings of this massive event. However, the implications of the event were acknowledged by many Blacks. Immediately, Spike Lee created a major motion picture based on the Million Man March called Get on the Bus in 1996. The film traces the lives and attitudes of Black men as they make their way across country to attend the Million Man March on a commercial bus. The film received critical acclaim and featured some of the best actors in the U.S. The Ujima message in the film seeps through as they try to move the bus out of a ditch together, and at the same time, attempt to understand and work out their internal and ideological issues. However, 15 years later, the general media coverage over the Million Man March seems like an incredible ruse, a long forgotten recollection of just another “negro march.” The memory of the Million Man March is hardly reflected in current events that mimic the serious effort of Black men, while summarily dismissing the critical quality-of-life issues impacting the Black community, conditions which are multi-faceted and pervasive. Scholars and activists have since noted the concerted reporting bias regarding The Million Man March—that in numerous media outlets (contemporary to and post Million Man March), when much smaller numbers meet it is heralded as a movement in and of itself and covered broadly in the mass media (see Earl et al on newspaper coverage) [3].

The relationship between the goals of Ujima and the deficient coverage of the Million Man March masks a secret worthy of study—that The Million Man March was more powerful than the old media understood or disclosed. For Africans it was an important application of Ujima with immediate and long-term reverberations. For others it was (at the very least) a wakeup call about the force of contemporary Black Power. The event laid the basis for the equally compelling Million Woman March (October 25, 1997 in Philadelphia) and the family march in 2000. Other groups seized upon the palpable energy of these Black marches. A million Mom march for gun control emerged, along with a march about cannabis, labor, and voting irregularities. A recent incarnation was “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” that took place last fall (October 30, 2010) on the National Mall featuring television personalities Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (this march drew about 215,000 people). Notwithstanding the imitative drive of social and political movements, the message of the Million Man March is that when we use the power of Ujima, we accomplish great things. There were countless affirming outcomes of the march, evident in people who transformed their lives, determined to improve the Black community.  The secret also speaks to the issue of racism—that because the force of our strength is boundless and race relations so seemingly superficial, our extraordinary expressions of power are immediately diminished and reinterpreted against our aims. Ujima requires we recognize our responsibility to work together to end the negative media messages about people of African descent and to effectively convey our best efforts. In other words, we understand and positively reassert just how powerful we really are.

by Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina


[An authoritative accounting of the event can be found in these two works: Million Man March/Day of Absence: A Commemorative Anthology, Speeches, Commentary, Photography, Poetry, Illustrations & Documents by Haki R. Madhubuti and Maulana Karenga (Third World Press, 1996); and The Million Man March/Day of Absence: Mission Statement by Maulana Karenga (University of Sankore Press, 1995)].


[1] See the online exhibit at the University of Rochester, department of Rare Books, special collections and preservation, “Writers of Consequence: The Art of John A. Williams,” http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?page=2972.

[2] Interview with 2010 Toni Morrison book award scholar Dr. Kokovah Zauditu-Selassie on “The Malevolent Gaze” in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,” Monday, December 27, 2010.

[3] Jennifer Earl, Andrew Martin, John D. McCarthy, and Sarah A. Soule, “The Use Of Newspaper Data In the Study Of Collective Action,” Annual Review of Sociology, V30, 2004, pp. 65-30.

Million man march, Washington DC, 1995 - great...

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