Thousand Gather for Million Man March 20th Anniversary in D.C.

by The Associated Press and Elisha Fieldstadt /  / Updated 

Black men and women from around the nation are gathering on the National Mall to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March and call for policing reforms and changes in black communities.

Waving flags, carrying signs and listening to speeches and songs, the crowd wove their way through security barricades and souvenir vendors at the U.S. Capitol and spread down the Mall on a sunny and breezy fall day. Among the attendees was Nate Smith of Oakland, California, who joined the 1963 March on Washington and the 1995 Million Man March. "It's something that I need to do," the 70-year-old man said. "It's like a pilgrimage for me, and something I think all black people need to do."

Russ Green was also at the Million Man March in 1995 and wrote to MSNBC that he “most vividly” remembers “walking past two brothers … holding a [Black] Nationalist flag between them, dressed in the full regalia of the Black Panther Party, grim looks on their faces with their free hands clenched into fists of solidarity.”

“Saturday will be different. I’m looking forward to standing with my black, brown and red brothers to demand Justice or Else,” Green wrote.

Neal Blair, of Augusta, Ga., stands on the lawn of the Capitol building during a rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, on Capitol Hill, on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Washington.Evan Vucci / AP

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who spearheaded the original march, is leading an anniversary gathering Saturday at the Capitol called the "Justice or Else" march.

"I plan to deliver an uncompromising message and call for the government of the United States to respond to our legitimate grievances," Farrakhan said in a statement.

He told leaders in the Black community to “teach love for one another.”

Farrakhan also praised the young protesters behind Black Lives Matter. He called them the next leaders of the civil rights movement and called on older leaders to support them.

“We got some fine young men that we arte training. I’m 82 — I don’t know how long I got but I’m not worried cause I got a torch lit with the wisdom of good,” Farrakhan said.

A U.S. Capitol Police newsletter that went out on Friday warned Farrakhan had incited violence in the past, but Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine said she hadn’t authorized the newsletter and apologized to Farrakhan and his staff. The two groups issued a joint statement Friday, saying they are “committed to a joint effort ensuring a successful and peaceful assembly" Saturday, according to NBC Washington.

The original march on Oct. 16, 1995, peacefully brought hundreds of thousands to Washington to pledge to improve their lives, their families and their communities. Women, whites and other minorities were not invited to the original march, but organizers say all are welcome Saturday and that they expected hundreds of thousands of participants.

The National Park Service estimated the attendance at the original march to be around 400,000, but subsequent counts by private organizations put the number at 800,000 or higher. The National Park Service has refused to give crowd estimates on Mall activities since.

Attention has been focused on the deaths of unarmed black men since the shootings of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Florida and 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Deaths of unarmed black males at the hands of law enforcement officers have inspired protests under the "Black Lives Matter" moniker around the country.

Families of Brown, Martin and Sandra Bland who participated in the march asked the crowd not to forget the names of their loved ones and not be silent about their deaths.

"We will not continue to stand by and not say anything anymore,” said Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.

A “Justice or Else” statement said those involved in the movement were demanding an end to police brutality and also justice for Native Americans, Latinos, women, the poor, the incarcerated and veterans.

“We want Justice for Blacks in America who have given America 460 years of sweat and blood to make her rich and powerful,” the statement added.

Life has improved in some ways for African-American men since the original march, but not in others. For example:

—The unemployment rate for African-American men in October 1995 was 8.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In September it was 8.9 percent.

—In 1995, 73.4 percent of African-American men had high school degrees. In 2004, 84.3 percent did, according to the Census Bureau.

—Law enforcement agencies made 3.5 million arrests of blacks in 1994, which was 30.9 percent of all arrests, the FBI said. (By comparison, they made 7.6 million arrests of whites that year, which was 66 percent of all arrests.) By 2013, the latest available data, African-American arrests had decreased to 2.5 million, 28 percent of all arrests.

Anti-Muslim protesters plan to demonstrate at mosques around the nation on the same day.

President Barack Obama, who attended the first Million Man March, will be in California on Saturday.