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Million Man March, 10 Years Later


Commentator John McWhorter is a linguist and author of the book "Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority." He says in the 10 years since the Million Man March, life for African-Americans hasn't changed all that much. But he admits change happens slowly, and he has some suggestions on what people could do when this weekend's march is over.


So tomorrow there'll be a Millions More March in DC to commemorate the Million Man March 10 years ago. That was a thrilling sight to look at, at least, but the question is whether we cay say that, 10 years later, the Million Man March changed a thing. The easy answer is no. In the history books, no one will record 1995 as a turning point for black America. But then apparently 1.7 million black people registered to vote for the first time, and churches had an upsurge in membership. But the question is whether any of this made for change.

If all but a few of those new voters voted for the same party, then that got us nowhere. In the 2004 election, about nine in 10 blacks voted Democratic, which means that the Democrats have no reason to cater to a group whose vote is guaranteed, while the Republicans have no reason to bend over backwards for people who refuse to hear them out. And on churches, when the Bush administration floated the faith-based and community initiatives to give churches in hard-off neighborhoods money to make a difference, most black leaders rejected the idea. We can argue over their reasons, but, meanwhile, black churches were left unable to make a real difference, however more members they had.

But there have been other changes in black America since '95. Take one: In 1993, 44 percent of black children lived in poverty. It was a well-known statistic. What we hear less is that by 2002, the number was only 30 percent. And the numbers only really started falling after '96, which was when welfare was time-limited. Plenty of good people worried that black people would end up shivering in the cold, but it didn't happen, and the Million Man March had nothing to do with it.

Change can come in unexpected ways. The Millions More March has a 10-point manifesto that's basically a call for a second civil rights revolution. But the good news is that a lot of what it calls for is happening right under our noses. The manifesto calls for an end to substandard education in our community. Well, in New York, the Harlem Children's Zone program has blanketed 60 blocks with uplift programs, including their own charter school, and it's making a difference. The manifesto decries the herding of our young men and women into prisons. Well, did you ever notice that lately Boston never seems to have one of those nasty profiling incidents that make national news? You want to know why? Check out Reverend Eugene Rivers' Ten-Point Coalition, which gets young black men off the streets and out of the hands of the law. Examples continue.

So godspeed to the Millions More March. Maybe Spike Lee will make a movie about it, and we can be sure that Cornel West will rock the house. But there's an old saying that they don't care what you know till they know that you care. Black people living in poverty would agree. It's not enough to recite the statistics about prisons and segregation. To say that black America's problems won't change until white America gets on its knees is not a way of showing that we care 'cause we all know that a second civil rights revolution will never happen. We really care when we go home and join one of the organizations across the nation that are actually doing what the Millions More March manifesto calls for in a theatrical way.

It's easier to believe that change never happens than to believe that it happens slowly. Let's make it so that in October 2015, there's really something to celebrate.

SIEGEL: Commentator John McWhorter is a linguist and author of "Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority."

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John McWhorter