The Women Behind the Million Man MarchRoundup
tags: African American history, Maya Angelou, archives, public history, womens history, million man march, Louis Farrakhan, Cora Masters Barry
Natalie Hopkinson is an author and associate professor at Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies.
Just over 25 years ago, Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, realized he needed help in his quixotic quest to summon a million Black men to the National Mall.
A key supporter of the event was Marion Barry, who had just returned to the Washington mayor’s office after a stint in federal prison. Crucial to Mr. Barry’s unlikely mayoral victory was D.C.’s first lady, Cora Masters Barry, who had led the effort to get nearly 20,000 previously unregistered voters to the polls.
Mr. Farrakhan wanted Ms. Barry to work that same electoral magic on the Black men he hoped would join him on the National Mall in 1995. He also wanted access to the first lady’s network of powerful Black women. Ms. Barry recalls standing in her husband’s office as Mr. Farrakhan — whom she refers to as “the minister” — pointed to a photo of her husband’s January 1995 inauguration, a star-studded affair. “The minister said, ‘Sister Cora, I want this woman, Maya Angelou, to do a poem for the Million Man March. And you know what, Sister Cora? She can get any man she wants to read it for her.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘Uh-huh.’”
This exchange, which comes from an interview I conducted with Ms. Barry, is part of an oral history that is now housed in the District of Columbia Public Library’s “The People’s Archive” — an unedited version of historic events from individuals and everyday people who witnessed them.
Community archives such as the District of Columbia’s are critical interventions into the omissions of history. This one, like others, makes clear that behind every great feat in the public record lies an untold story of the unsung foot soldiers, architects, analysts and fixers — and these are often women.
The Million Man March is a case study in how even in the most patriarchal spaces, women have powered history. As Ms. Barry told me, “Men have never done anything by themselves without women.” This lesson feels particularly instructive in this election year, when it is more important than ever for Democrats to mobilize Black voters.
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