Why I Didn’t March

A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr.

THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO, with pride and without hesitation, I participated in the inspiring 1963 March on Washington, holding the hands of my two children, Stephen and Karen, then aged 11 and 8. I was exhilarated by the occasion, proud to be a participant, and ad­mired all of the organizers of that March.

Yet I could not participate in the Million Man March. This was an anguishing decision for me to make. My problem was my inability to separate the message of hope for all African Americans from some of the dialogue of the predominant messenger, Mr. Farrakhan.

The March promoted a protest that dealt with many mutual con­cerns that he, I, and most African Americans have. Of course there is much to march about. The unemployment rate for African Americans remains twice that of whites. In our inner cities, there are very few jobs for teenagers and young adults. Among teenagers, unemploy­ment ranges from 40 percent to 70 percent. The crime rate is dazzling and accelerating. Drug addiction and drug use are pervasive, and there are hundreds of "Mark Fuhrmans" who, as police officers, ha­rass and abuse innocent citizens.

Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America" will weaken Head Start programs, eliminate some school lunch programs, and destroy many of the safety nets that have made some upward mobility possi­ble. As President Clinton recently noted: "Last year alone, the federal government received more than 90,000 complaints of employment discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or gender."

Because of my own misgivings in not going, and because I have received so many inquiries about my reasons, I write this article.

To the extent that anyone focuses on African American males as­suming their full level of responsibility for supporting their children and their families, I join in that rationale and support the concept vig­orously. I have attempted to exemplify my concerns about family sta­bility in my personal life and also, for decades, as an active board member in several organizations dedicated to the improvement of the options and leadership of African Americans. I have always sup­ported black male responsibility, and, simultaneously, I have insisted that black males must, by our explicit action, demonstrate our contin­uous respect for the dignity and full sharing of power with women. When I became a federal judge in 1964, my first law clerk was a woman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who now serves so brilliantly as the congressional delegate for the District of Columbia.

I have always had persistent concerns about the protection, safety, and full development of the potential of all of America’s chil­dren, and since 1992 I have served as chair or vice chair of the Ameri­can Bar Association Presidential Working Group on the Unmet Legal Needs of Children and Their Families. From the days when I was the 17-year-old president of my NAACP college chapter to the early 1960s, when I was president of the Philadelphia NAACP (then the na­tional organization’s largest branch), I have opposed racial discrimi­nation, and I have spent much of my intellectual energy in writing and discussing these issues as a judge, a professor, and, since my res­ignation from the court, an activist. I am reluctant to cite this litany of personal experiences, but I do so to make it clear that I, and thou­sands of persons who did not join in this March, have viable records of effective advocacy for the African American community.

My decision not to participate came about because I believe that in its operational reality, the March was initiated, organized, orches­trated overwhelmingly, and almost exclusively controlled by the agenda established by Mr. Farrakhan and his major aides. This March was far different from the one in which I participated in August 1963. I submit respectfully that Mr. Farrakhan and some of his purported values are not those of the speakers in 1963: Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz.

I recognize that many of my most thoughtful friends who do not agree with Mr. Farrakhan joined the March. I do not mean to be­smirch them or denigrate them in any way. This is a classic case where reasonable people can differ on suitable strategies. But my views have been captured most precisely by Mary Frances Berry, chair of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, who said she could not endorse the March because "Mr. Farrakhan expresses the most despi­cable, anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes imagina­ble. Mr. Chavis’s role in practically destroying the NAACP makes any enterprise in which he engaged suspect."

I had always hoped that Mr. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam would eliminate any shade of ambiguity and possible deception by publicly announcing that participation in the March was an advocacy of a broader, nonpolarizing agenda and was not intended to be an en­dorsement of Mr. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam’s political and religious views. If I had reason to question whether I should join the March, the statements of Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., the national director of the event, and Leonard F. Muhammad, chief of staff of the Nation of Islam, assured me that my hesitation was justified. The Oct. 13 New York Times reported that Mr. Chavis said: "The attempt to separate the message from the messenger is not going to work." And Mr. Muham­mad said: "People coming to Washington, D. C., are coming because they support Minister Farrakhan. He’s become a major, major factor in this country."

If I had gone to Washington, I would have gone because I support all responsible programs that advocate family stability, male and fe­male responsibilities for family and community, economic and social justice for everyone, full equity and parity for all women in both pub­lic and private sectors, and, particularly, viable programs for disad­vantaged children.

As Jewel Jackson McCabe and others have observed, African American "needs are not served by men declaring themselves the only ‘rightful’ leaders of our families, our communities, or our ongo­ing struggle for justice. Justice cannot be achieved with a march that excludes black women and minimizes black women’s oppression. Justice cannot be served using a distorted racist view of black man­hood with a narrowly sexist vision of men standing ‘degrees above women.’"

I did not go because I cannot support those statements of Mr. Far – rakhan, and those of some of his key aides, which minimize women and are polarizing, antiwhite, and anti-Semitic. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether one should have joined in the March, and I still have some discomfort for not having been there. But now that the March is over, those who did not march and those who marched, those who criticized the March and those who praised it, must avoid racial and gender polarization and join hands so that as a nation we refocus on our primary task of ensuring equal justice to all citizens, eradicating poverty, and preserving educational opportunities.