The Magazine

The Second Time as Farce

Not that the first time was serious.

Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By MATT LABASH
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IF YOU'RE IN THE REPORTING game long enough, old stories start repeating on you like a bean pie past its freshness date. So it felt as we gathered in Washington, D.C., last week to celebrate the Millions More Movement, Louis Farrakhan's sequel to his 1995 Million Man March. It seems like only a decade ago that we stood on the National Mall, baying and bellowing and clapping each other's muscled shoulders. Or maybe, through the mists of time, I'm thinking of the NOW rally.

Farrakhan had proclaimed the original march a "Day of Atonement," pinching the Jewish holiday's name, perhaps in a bit of turnabout since he's never been keen on how the Jews "leech on us." Attendees made lots of promises to reform their lives that were forgotten by, oh, dinnertime. The Park Service, back then, estimated the crowd at 400,000 strong, while the Nation of Islam insisted it was 2 million.

If we go with the latter estimate, that would mean nearly one-seventh of all black American males turned out, enough to influence the direction of black America. Considering that 68 percent of black children are still born out of wedlock, that nearly 60 percent of black males don't graduate from high school, that blacks are seven times more likely than whites to commit homicide, and six times more likely than whites to be murdered (94 percent of them by other blacks), the Million Man March hardly appears to have been the transformative experience of its organizers' billing.

Which isn't to say nothing came of it. There was Get on the Bus, the bad Spike Lee movie. Also John Muhammad, a Nation of Islam adherent who reportedly worked security during the March, went on to become the Beltway Sniper, shooting strangers as they gassed their cars. The March's most conspicuous legacy, however, was inspiring a million more million-something marches: the Million Mom March, the Million Family March, the Million Youth March, etc. All bipeds were pretty much covered.

But Farrakhan's Million Man March 2.0 turned out to be a different beast. This time, he invited women and children, Indians and Latinos and Oppressed Peoples, even gays, lesbians, and transgenders (who met in a sub-gathering before the event in front of the National Theatre's production of Les Misérables). Farrakhan incessantly points out that this isn't just a march, it's a "movement." Marches are for amateurs, Saturday-afternoon wheel-spinners. A movement connotes heft and permanence. Plus, one must admit, naming the sequel the "Millions More Movement" is a lot catchier than calling it what it was: the "Several Hundred Thousand-Less Disappointment."

Farrakhan critics love to quibble with his numbers, just as they fixate on his Jew-bashing and his having never met a human-rights-crushing dictator (from Castro to Qaddafi to Robert Mugabe) whose throne he wouldn't sniff. But those indictments miss the point. The answer to every Farrakhan riddle, the crude and inelegant truth about his character, boils down to the following: He is nuttier than a can of Planters.

This I was reminded of two days before the big gathering, at a Farrakhan press conference at the National Press Club. After listening to him once again mutter of dark conspiracies that had the government or some other mysterious force deliberately exploding the levees in New Orleans to victimize poor blacks, I took the open mike to ask him if he's worried that people will think he's bonkers. It was a rhetorical question.

In the interest of religious pluralism, many consider it impolite to rehearse the minister's actual teachings. But he is the man, after all, who believes that whites were created 6,000 years ago by an evil black scientist named Yakub, that Farrakhan himself was abducted by an invisible pilot and beamed up to a UFO-type object called the "Mother Wheel," that he took a meeting there with the late Elijah Muhammad, who informed him that the U.S. government was plotting a war, which, Farrakhan figured out, was against blacks, and that the ship deposited him again at either Tysons Corner in Virginia or Fifth Street in D.C.--one or the other--so he could make this important revelation. To label him a mere demagogue is to give him short shrift as a loon.

One might assume such flights of imagination would cause mainstream black leaders (incapable of turning out crowds in Farrakhan-like numbers) to dissociate themselves from Farrakhan, or at least to tell him to button it. But the big Mother Wheel keeps on turning. While many leaders sat the '95 march out, leery of Farrakhan's extremism, they all seemed to have a change of heart after nobody was shot (a success metric not cited after, say, a Boy Scout Jamboree).