Learning black consciousness in the Millions More Movement
The girls emerge at the top of the escalator into the warm, pre-dawn twilight at the Smithsonian station of the Washington DC Metro on Saturday.
First comes 6-year-old Aviona Atkinson, then her friend, 10-year-old Chevalia Hunt. With them are Aviona’s aunt, Diane Banks, and another woman from the Greensboro contingent named La-Faithia White.
The girls have never been to Washington DC before, have never been to a big political rally. They’ve been told it will be fun, but they are full of questions about what might happen.
‘“Will the president be there?’” Chevalia asks.
Both girls wear over-sized white T-shirts that reach down to their knees and bear the date of the Millions More Movement rally and the slogan: ‘“Do for self or die a slave.’”
As the adults deliberate on where to leave a cooler full of home cooking and where to pitch their blanket, and as they hurry ahead in a vain effort to get to the rally in time for morning prayers, the girls straggle behind, looking around in wonder as they walk the length of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. They spy the vendors setting out their wares, the African drummers playing along the path and the clumps of activists holding placards and flags.
Without prompting, Chevalia articulates what she would say to the president if she were given the opportunity to meet him.
‘“If I met the president I would ask him for some money so I could do some shopping and my mom could pay the bills,’” she says. ‘“I would ask him why he made the world a worse place.
‘“The reason he made the world a worse place,’” she adds, ‘“is because he left the black children in New Orleans and he saved the white children and the Chinese children.’”
Without knowing it, she’s already hit on a couple of the themes that will be articulated throughout the day by some of the most prominent black leaders in the United States. The religious figures, civil rights chiefs, elected officials, academics and entertainers will elaborate on those themes with anger, pride, love and devotion on this unseasonably warm and sun-caressed Oct. 15.
The issues of Hurricane Katrina particularly will reverberate through the event, with black men standing along the walkways of the Mall holding shirts that roughly approximate Kanye West’s claim that President Bush doesn’t care about black people on the front and proclaiming on the back: ‘“Millions more agree.’”
Co-convener Julianne Malveaux will say from the dais: ‘“How dare our Congress cap the wages of the people rebuilding New Orleans, but they didn’t cap the money for Halliburton, the first company to win a no-bid contract for the reconstruction?’”
In a pre-rally telecast posted on the internet, Minister Louis Farrakhan himself, leader of the Nation of Islam and the driving force behind the Millions More Movement, has alluded to reports of divers finding burn marks on chunks of debris from the breached levees in New Orleans and hearing muffled explosions in the days shortly after the hurricane made landfall.
‘“Shouldn’t there be an investigation to find out if this is a rumor that is baseless or actual fact?’” he asks. ‘“If it is, somebody is guilty of not only mass destruction of property, but someone is guilty of mass murder.
‘“Yes, we are angry, but we are going to turn that anger into an energy,’” he adds.
Chevalia says her family was mad when she told them she was going to the Millions More Movement rally, but she felt that she had to get out of the house. Then again, she adds, they weren’t really that mad.
The two women, Diane Banks and La-Faithia White, both originally come from New York. They have been eager to get to the rally, forging ahead of the other passengers from one of the three Greensboro buses parked at a Metro station in suburban Maryland. White says she attended all the previous gatherings convened by Farrakhan, including the Million Man March, Million Woman March and Million Family March. Banks has followed them avidly in part because of the influence of her ex-husband, who manages the 1,556-acre Muhammad Farms in Georgia, owned by the Nation of Islam.
They take the two girls by the hand and head downtown on the train.
On the Mall the Jumbotrons, large screens mounted on the backs of tractor trailers parked every couple blocks from the Capitol, beckon the pilgrims with feedback-marred broadcasts of gospel choirs from the dais and live interviews with rally participants about their memories of the Million Man March ten years earlier.
But before the women and girls go to the Capitol lawn they make a quick detour to the vending area on Constitution Avenue with Banks’ ex-husband, Ridgely Mu’min Muhammad, to drop off the cooler.
An NC A&T University graduate who was born in Winston-Salem and who is now the Nation’s minister of agriculture, Mu’min Muhammad is selling wares and distributing information for Muhammad Farms. A sleep-deprived Ridgely Banks, the son of Ridgely Mu’min Muhammad and Diane Banks, is also there with his Outdabox Concepts business, a Greensboro-based enterprise that prints and retails political T-shirts.
Diane Banks says she married Ridgely Mu’min Muhammad in the late 1960s when he was in the process of joining the Nation, but their marriage fell apart about five years later because she wasn’t ready to follow suit. Along with their son Ridgely they have a daughter, Nia, who is a physician in Baltimore.
‘“We get along much better now,’” Banks says of her ex-husband. ‘“I support what he does.’”
The elder Ridgely hands the girls stacks of bookmarks that feature on one side the image of Elijah Muhammad ‘— leader of the Nation of Islam from the 1930s to his death in 1975 ‘— and on the other side verses from the Quran. With a preternatural entrepreneurial instinct the girls start weaving through the crowd selling the book marks for a dollar each to raise money for Muhammad Farms. Diane Banks takes a bundle of the ‘“Do for self or a die a slave’” shirts to sell at the rally. (On the walk to the Capitol she’ll pull one of the shirts over Aviona’s head and sell it to an admiring bystander.)
The Nation of Islam’s Three Year Economic Savings Program calls for supporters to contribute $10 per month to help Muhammad Farms ‘“grow and develop into a viable agribusiness in order that we may purchase more farmland and develop other related businesses.’”
Black self-reliance is the watchword of the program.
‘“The situation with Katrina in New Orleans proves that we need some land,’” Mu’min Muhammad says. ‘“Now [the evacuees] are stranded in Utah and Montana. Being landless is a security risk. If we have land we can produce and distribute some food.’”
Mu’min is a separatist of a sort who does not have much use for white people. In an essay posted in September on the Muhammad Farms website entitled ‘“Dear so-called white people,’” he addresses a group identified by Elijah Muhammad as comprised of the 10 percent of white people deemed ‘“good.’”
‘“Let us separate from you until you have the strength to control your crazy brothers,’” he writes. ‘“Let my people go to their own and do for themselves. Maybe one day we can come back together as equal partners in the building of a new reality. But right now, you haven’t shown the guts to do so.’”
The prevailing theme of the Millions More Movement is blacks overcoming internal divisions and addressing their common problems, and to the extent that the program reaches out to non-blacks, it is to Latinos and Native Americans.
A call last May by the Anti-Defamation League for mainstream black leaders to boycott the event in response to perceived anti-Semitic rhetoric by Farrakhan seems not to have been heeded. A Washington Post report of gay organizations being pushed from the program at the last minute appears to be an isolated sour note on the event.
Farrakhan, often a captivating speaker, says in his pre-rally address: ‘“This is the first time in our history that the whole spectrum of black thought came into one room in one accord to say that in spite of our political differences, in spite of our ideological and methodological differences, the suffering of our people is paramount, so we have come together for that common cause that’s bigger than any of us.’”
He names the constituencies of the spectrum: ‘“The civil rights organizations, the nationalists, the pan-Africanists, the revolutionaries, the street organizations, fraternal organizations, male and female, the workers, the Elks’….’”
Programmatic ideas for improving the condition of blacks in America offered by innumerable distinguished speakers might not be making much impression on the assembled masses. During Rev. Jesse Jackson’s address the echoing sound system is so bad his speech is all but indecipherable. A chant of ‘“black power’” by a speaker from the New Black Panther Party is taken up by the crowd. Similarly, crowds respond enthusiastically to a call by hip hop artist Wyclef Jean to dance in carnival-style solidarity with the people of New Orleans.
And yet despite the disconnect between the speakers on the dais and the masses on the Mall, Farrakhan’s message of unity seems to be implicitly understood and felt.
‘“I think that the first march was very internally focused on black men taking responsibility for themselves,’” says Annissa Atkins, a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work. ‘“This one is inclusive to women and children and to the community. It’s for all marginalized people. It’s about basic human rights, equality, education and healthcare.
‘“It’s good to see all these people that are tangibly involved in the struggle to make this a better world for not just black people but all people,’” she adds.
Twenty-one-year-old Chris Lodgson of Brooklyn, NY says he was too young to attend the Million Man March in 1995, so this time he yearned to experience the feeling of spiritual strength he has heard about.
‘“Black people coming together through all our problems and differences is what this signifies to me,’” he says. ‘“You don’t see a lot of strong black men. I never saw my father in my life. So that’s what I’m going to take away: hundreds, thousands of strong black men.’”
For John White, a 55-year-old DC resident who repairs parking meters, the take-home lesson is less personal and more political. He attended the 1995 march and is glad to see women fully participating this time around.
‘“This one right here is better,’” he says. ‘“You can’t have a mass movement for black folks and not include the woman. The woman educates the nation. She has direct access to the children. Women have had direct involvement in the planning of this Millions More Movement.’”
The Millions More Movement signifies for him ‘“revolution, revolution, revolution,’” he says. Or, as his friend Jamal Azamat puts it, ‘“change.’”
White lists the particulars as ‘“stop the war, world peace, nobody being hungry, food, structure and clothing.’”
‘“Jobs for everybody,’” Azamat adds.
At the end of the day the two girls, Chevalia and Aviona, are feeling tired but have used their charms to sell countless bookmarks. Aviona’s aunt carries one last shirt on the walk back to the Metro station as Farrakhan gives the keynote speech. Each time someone looks interested she’ll call out the slogan and if they continue to listen she’ll tell them about her ex-husband, the Three Year Plan and Muhammad Farms.
On the way back one of the girls mentions college, prompting Banks to say: ‘“I’m not going to have you working at McDonalds. I’m going to show you girls how to go into business for yourselves.’”
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