Black men call for change at Million Man March anniversary

Thousands of black men from around the nation, including dozens from Baltimore, came to the National Mall Saturday to honor the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March — and to call for changes in policing and in black communities.

They carried signs that said "Justice or else" and "How will the media misrepresent us today?" Students from Howard University held their fists high in the air and chanted "Black power!"

Among the attendees was Cortez Elliott, 32, of Baltimore, who organized a bus trip down from North Avenue carrying 28 people.

"I wasn't able to go the first time," Elliott said. "It was something I had to do."

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who spearheaded the original march, led an anniversary gathering Saturday at the Capitol.

Farrakhan, who spoke for more than two hours, covered a wide range of topics, and condemned both police brutality and violence among African-Americans. He also praised the young protesters behind the Black Lives Matter movement, calling them the next civil rights leaders and asking older activists to support them.

"What good are we if we don't prepare young people to carry the torch of liberation to the next step?" Farrakhan said.

Elliott said he felt invigorated after attending.

"What resonated with me was the message about oppression and justice," he said. "I'm going to come back to Baltimore and spread my experience to my social peers."

National 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, Mo. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray, 25, died after suffering a severe spinal injury while in police custody in April.

Deaths of unarmed black males at the hands of law enforcement officers have inspired protests under the Black Lives Matter moniker around the country.

From the stage, the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant of Baltimore introduced the families of people who have died in police custody, including Brown's father.

"Rise up, black people," Bryant implored the crowd. "It's our time now."

Bryant called the event "exhilarating," "monumental" and "inspiring." He said it showed that Christians and Muslims can unite over social justice issues. He also said that the family of Michael Brown said they were heartened by the outpouring of support.

"We showed there's unity for Christians and Muslims to stand together," Bryant said. State Del. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat, attended with his brothers from the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

"To me it was important to get down here, given all that's going on," Hayes said. "The march covers a gamut of issues that affect cities like Baltimore. It's important to me to be a part of the history that I felt like I didn't have an opportunity to be a part of before."

The original march on Oct. 16, 1995, 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 welcomed all on Saturday, saying 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.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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