It had been a decade of increasing drug violence, rising rates of single motherhood, and increasing rates of black men in prison.
The controversy surrounded the principal organizer, Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan asked black women to stay home and let the men handle their own affairs. Some African American women were supportive, while others perceived their exclusion as symbolic of the "second class" role assigned to Islamic women.
Farrakhan had come under criticism for calling Jews "financial bloodsuckers" who practiced a "gutter religion." Other intemperate remarks infuriated Catholics, gays, feminists, and whites in general. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich predicted that the Million Man March "will polarize us and drive us apart." Still, Minister Farrakhan had claimed the mantle once worn by Malcolm X, and he wore it well. He formed a coalition of groups in support. Churches, fraternities, schools, recovery groups, and neighborhoods sent buses, and, on the anointed day, nearly a million black men showed up at the nation's Capitol. Themes of self-help and self-respect were struck constantly throughout the day. The crowd fell silent as Farrakhan called upon them to pledge to improve their lives and the lives of their wives and children. They were encouraged to go back home and "build your own communities, avoid drugs and violence, register to vote, build black political power, and invest in black businesses."
The march drew groups from churches of all denominations, social organizations, and schools. Clayton Pasley, a twenty-four year old pastor from St. Louis, described the atmosphere as "strong - young black men being empowered with other black men. It's beautiful." The speakers included Farrakhan, civil rights veterans Benjamin Chavis, Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, Dick Gregory, poet Maya Angelou, and singer Stevie Wonder.
On the one-year anniversary of the March, Alvertis Simmons, a community activist in Denver, described how his local Million Man March organization returned home, then went door-to-door in black neighborhoods to investigate crimes and decrease community violence. They registered over 500 voters and visited public schools to encourage self-respect among black teens. Farrakhan declared that the march should take credit for the 7% drop in the murder rate the following year. Armstrong Williams, a syndicated talk show host, described talking with men who, after attending the march, started paying child support, spending more time with their children, and returning to the church. Although a national movement failed to materialize, the most important contribution of the Million Man March may have been personal.
"The most powerful aspect of it," said Ron Walter of the University of Maryland during a discussion of the march's impact, "has been really the individual expressions…of people…who stood there in camaraderie with their brothers, and those people who committed themselves to a regeneration of the spirit of the black community. That was a very powerful thing."