Saturday morning, with the crispness of fall in the air and wispy clouds overhead, an impressive throng of black bodies — and a smattering of other colored ones — gathered on the Mall, facing the steps of the Capitol.
They had gathered for the Justice or Else rally convened by the Nation of Islam’s controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan, to mark the 20th anniversary of the group’s historic Million Man March. And that’s the rub.
The question is, as it was in 1995: Can you separate the march from the messenger, the lightning rod 82-year-old Farrakhan? The answer: Not exactly.
This is not unlike 1995 when the march was conceived as a “day of atonement,” focusing on personal responsibility, with Black nationalist overtones. As the writer Salim Muwakkil told The Times then: “Historically, black people have always turned to black nationalism during hostile racial times.”
Although the Million Man March was undoubtedly successful as a convening, criticism of Farrakhan was blistering.
A release by the American Jewish Congress called Farrakhan “one of the country’s most prominent and unrepentant public bigots.”
Men in the black gay community were conflicted about whether to come, both because of homophobic statements made by supporters of the march and by Farrakhan himself, who wrote in his 1993 book “A Torchlight for America,” “We must change homosexual behavior and get rid of the circumstances that bring it about.”
The exclusion of women was also debated.
This time, Farrakhan seemed acutely aware of his critics and seemed to want to preemptively address them. But even his efforts to exalt women and include LGBTQ people while continuing to honor and affirm men was framed in tones of patriarchy.
There was the inordinate amount of time spent talking about women’s “wombs” as a rationale for honor, the presentation of how women should dress to “earn respect,” the mention that “a woman who’s beautiful and can’t cook is a killer in the kitchen.”
Indeed, Farrakhan’s speech was more sermon and proselytization than social justice call to action. He didn’t spend much time on the enigmatic mantra “justice or else,” which raises more questions than it answered.
Justice for what? Anything and everything, apparently.
The event’s website says, “We want equal justice under the law,” but under the heading “The Demand,” there is a list of groups for whom justice is sought but not the injustices themselves. The only quasi-specific demands are “an immediate end to police brutality and mob attacks” and “We want land.”
And then, “or else” what? The answer seemed to vary with the broad coalition of speakers Saturday, but as for Farrakhan’s two-hour speech, there seemed to be a religious allusion: Grant justice, America, or be subject to the divine judgment of God.
But, during an interview on TV One, he had suggested “or else” meant the withholding of economic participation by the aggrieved.
More disturbingly, this summer, in what the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, The Final Call, called a “trip South to promote the ‘Justice or Else!’ gathering,” Farrakhan said at a Florida church: “If the federal government will not intercede in our affairs, then we must rise up and kill those who kill us, stalk them and let them feel the pain of death that we are feeling.”
Farrakhan and rally organizers took pains to include overtures to Black Lives Matter, the predominant black movement of this moment. Some people from the movement even spoke at the rally. Many attendees were no doubt spurred by the events elevated by the movement. But this is an alliance of which that movement should be wary, specifically at a time that many conservatives are trying to paint it as a hate group.
In 1995, Ronald Walters, a political science professor, told The Times, “For most blacks, this is about pain.” He continued, “The discussion of Farrakhan is a side issue for us.” Maybe that sensibility still stands.