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Opinion | The Women Behind the Million Man March

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Just over 25 years ago, Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, realized he needed help in his quixotic quest to summon a million Black men to the National Mall.

A key supporter of the event was Marion Barry, who had just returned to the Washington mayor’s office after a stint in federal prison. Crucial to Mr. Barry’s unlikely mayoral victory was D.C.’s first lady, Cora Masters Barry, who had led the effort to get nearly 20,000 previously unregistered voters to the polls.

Mr. Farrakhan wanted Ms. Barry to work that same electoral magic on the Black men he hoped would join him on the National Mall in 1995. He also wanted access to the first lady’s network of powerful Black women. Ms. Barry recalls standing in her husband’s office as Mr. Farrakhan — whom she refers to as “the minister” — pointed to a photo of her husband’s January 1995 inauguration, a star-studded affair. “The minister said, ‘Sister Cora, I want this woman, Maya Angelou, to do a poem for the Million Man March. And you know what, Sister Cora? She can get any man she wants to read it for her.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘Uh-huh.’”

This exchange, which comes from an interview I conducted with Ms. Barry, is part of an oral history that is now housed in the District of Columbia Public Library’s “The People’s Archive” — an unedited version of historic events from individuals and everyday people who witnessed them.

Community archives such as the District of Columbia’s are critical interventions into the omissions of history. This one, like others, makes clear that behind every great feat in the public record lies an untold story of the unsung foot soldiers, architects, analysts and fixers — and these are often women.

The Million Man March is a case study in how even in the most patriarchal spaces, women have powered history. As Ms. Barry told me, “Men have never done anything by themselves without women.” This lesson feels particularly instructive in this election year, when it is more important than ever for Democrats to mobilize Black voters.

Among the stories now in the archives is Ms. Barry’s unfiltered, first-person account of how she, the former Congressional Black Caucus executive director Barbara Williams-Skinner, the National Council of Negro Women president Dorothy Height and others massaged Mr. Farrakhan’s messaging around the march. The women changed the subtitle from “Day of Atonement,” to “Day of Atonement, Reconciliation and Responsibility.” (Parts of these stories also surfaced on the occasion of the 20th anniversary five years ago.) The women considered Mr. Farrakhan’s vision statement. They marked it up with revisions and tweaked the language around the call to action. When Mr. Farrakhan accepted the edits, he passed an unspoken litmus test. Amid critiques that the Million Man March was exclusionary and sexist, he took the advice of the women. They then rolled up their sleeves and supported the effort.

Ms. Barry also smoothed the way for the march by securing the blessing of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow. She harbored resentments about the Nation of Islam’s treatment of her husband, who had been at odds with the organization at the time of his 1965 assassination. Had the martyr’s widow opposed the march, that would have likely added another layer of controversy.

The night before the march, Alexis M. Herman, a friend of Ms. Barry who served as director of the White House Public Liaison Office, called the Barrys’ home in Southeast Washington to ask if indeed a million men were arriving. Ms. Barry’s assurances influenced the White House decision to allow federal workers to take liberal leave. Fewer federal workers commuting to work cleared the way for the sea of hundreds of thousands of Black men who traveled via car, public transportation and chartered buses to the Mall for one of the largest gatherings in U.S. history.

Ms. Barry agreed to lead the march’s voter registration efforts — after delicate negotiations with the minister. While Mr. Farrakhan wanted to register the men as political independents, Ms. Barry, a political scientist on leave from her job as a professor at the University of the District of Columbia, insisted that the registrants select a party. Ms. Barry convinced the minister that the men’s votes would have greater influence if they were able to participate in primaries, where many critical decisions were being made.

In the weeks and months leading up to Oct. 16, Ms. Barry recalls that her team — in partnership with the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, which was led by her friend Melanie Campbell, had already registered thousands of voters in 50 state jurisdictions and the District of Columbia. The night before the march, when the women prepared to set up the tables along the National Mall to assist those who had not yet registered, they were told that the men would take it from there.

Was it chivalry? Chauvinism? Regardless, after a few frantic phone calls, Ms. Barry’s and Ms. Campbell’s team went on the Mall, and registered the Million Marchers as planned. This voter effort produced perhaps the most tangible impact of the march: Hundreds of thousands of Black men registered to vote. Dr. Williams-Skinner managed the main stage of speakers. Ms. Barry, Dr. Height, Dr. Shabazz and Rosa Parks all gave stirring speeches.

On the morning of Oct. 16, 1995, Maya Angelou rose early to write a poem to commemorate the day. She walked out onto the steps of the U.S. Capitol and faced a sea of Black faces spread out before her. She spoke for countless Black women toiling silently behind the scenes when she read her now-seminal poem: “The ancestors remind us, despite the history of pain/ We are a going-on people who will rise again/ And still we rise.”

Natalie Hopkinson is an author and associate professor at Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies.

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