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 past 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.
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