WASHINGTON— Twenty years later, Victorious Hall still remembers that day on the National Mall, hoisted up on his father’s shoulders and looking out on a sea of black men as far as the eye could see.
The anticipation had been building all week and Hall, 13 at the time, couldn’t wait to pile into his father’s station wagon with his five brothers — and however many other guys from the neighborhood could cram in alongside them — and head to the Million Man March.
Would there really be a million men? A million black men?
A young Hall couldn’t fathom what a million black men in one place at one time would look like, but as he peered out from his perch on his father’s shoulders that October day in 1995, there seemed to be at least that many.
“It was a moment, a moment that is still in my soul today,” said Hall, now 33. “The biggest thing that I remember from the event was the ability to unite and to be with all of those black men, and for it to be in complete contrast to what the media was saying what black men were.”
“I just remember the unity, I remember the love,” he said. “I remember, I remember it changing my life.”
The Million Man March, a gathering of hundreds of thousands of black men, was at the time the largest gathering of black men ever, called together by the Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan. That march was billed as a day of atonement, reconciliation and responsibility a means to spur healing in America’s black community.
To mark its 20th anniversary, Farrakhan has again called for a mass gathering, this time including other marginalized groups – Native Americans and Hispanics among them – with a theme of “Justice or Else.”
The march comes amid a broad call for greater police accountability for what many believe is a system of law enforcement that criminalizes and routinely brutalizes non-whites. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killings of a host of unarmed young black men and women by police has energized a new wave of young activists, many of whom were still in diapers during 20 years ago.
Like the first march, this one has been touched with some controversy as critics of Farrakhan have accused him of stoking racial discord and violence against police and whites. Last week, an email from the intelligence of the U.S. Capitol Police to it’s 1,800 officers warning of the potential for violence at the weekend’s commemoration rally was made public.
“Given today’s negative racial climate and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement,” the letter warned, according to reports, “there are legitimate concerns that the second march may not be as peaceful.”
By Friday, Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine, who had since rescinded the letter, and senior organizers of this year’s march met and apparently cleared the concerns, releasing a joint statement that in part said the letter characterized Farrakhan in an unprofessional and inappropriate manner and, that those characterizations “do not reflect the viewpoint or values of the USCP, but did serve to create uncertainty about the willingness of the USPC to work cooperatively with march organizers and participants.”
But the controversy has not dimmed the excitement for many of those who say they plan to attend, including a number who were at the first march so many years earlier.
Hall, now a vice principal at a middle school in the D.C. suburb of Fort Washington, Maryland, is a father himself now and plans to attend the march with his father Acem and his 8-year-old son, King.
“It’s a moment of celebration to be able to share that with my son,” Hall said. “And to be able to share that with my father is a very powerful thing.”
Looking down at his son, Hall recalled seeing the mass of humanity – black men and boys sharing handshakes, hugs and positive words.
“It was the opportunity; it was the proof. Everything that we were taught in my home, the Million Man March was the proof behind the facts that we were given,” Hall said. “And you know, it served as a springboard for everything else that we wanted to accomplish in life.”
When he first joined the march, Hall was the age that many of his students are now.
Walking the corridors of Oxon Hill Middle School on a school day last week, Hall greeted students with hugs, calling each one a king or a queen. He responded to progress reports with big smiles and scolded a few students who were being too rambunctious or playing too roughly. He ha been at the school for about five years, first as a teacher and behavioral specialist, before joining the so-called tur- around team to lead the chronically failing school to better days.
Now, Hall says he’s taken much of what he learned from his father as a child, lessons bolstered by what he felt at the Million Man March, and applied it all to his school.
All around the school are reminders of aspiration, including college banners hanging near murals of Malcolm X and Che Guevera.
“We want them to be constantly reminded of peace, and constantly reminded of greatness, constantly reminded of people who fought for struggles and for the liberation of their people – consistently everywhere they go, it’s very important,” Hall said. “Planting the seed ain’t difficult. The difficult part is helping to nurture it and helping it grow … First it’s a little bit like, ‘whoa, why are you calling me a king, why are you calling me a queen?’ But after a while they get very used to and accustomed to being treated like royalty.”
“I think that’s the biggest thing because what I received at 13 was something that no one can take away,” he added. “It was a very special moment in my life, it was a moment that actually changed my life, so my main goal is to try to expose young people to that same thing.”
Back at Hall’s home, Hall’s father teared up as he sat back and listened to his son talk about feeling grateful that his father dragged him to the march.
“I saw all the people and the unity that they were trying to express, and that was when we started this full-body hug … and to me, that was the moment that let me put out there what I was always trying to instill in my sons in the house: You have to have fellowship; you have do better with numbers; and we are great people, there’s no doubting that,” Acem Hall said.