Fatherlessness, Million Man March and the Reality of our “Or Else”

By Kenneth Braswell

On the eve of the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March, press coverage, conversation and even acknowledgement seems to be noticeably absent. Much of the feelings, apprehensions, debates and confusion, are today, as it was in 1995. The question is, have we made any progress over the last 20 years?  And, why would we expect that progress would happen overnight? Unfortunately, most progress happens in our communities when it feels good to us, rather than when it’s the right thing to do. Case in point, it was in March of 1995--130 years--later that the state of Mississippi finally ratified the 13th Amendment to approve the abolishment of slavery. Progress for the right thing is always astonishingly slow.

As a relatively young man beginning my entry into community work; establishing the local organizing committee in Albany, New York was one of my first big projects. Hindsight informs me today that much of why I was so eager to be apart in the then upcoming 1995 Million Man March is the same reason I am so eager today; our communities need healing.

The streets were hot all over the nation back then. Nothing was hotter than the brewing tension between Biggie Smalls and Tupac. The airwaves were blazing with song after song fueling not only a battle between rap rivals, but also the legions of fans and supporters that divided the East coast from the West in communities all over the country. In the midst of it, the Nation of Islam’s leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, was calling for Black Men to show up on the mall in Washington, DC on October 16th to atone for our sins and to heal our land.

That same year Tupac was released from prison and on October 15th he signed his contract with Death Row Records. But the calling came too late for the two young aspiring artists from the same background, raised under the same conditions; in communities with a lack of resources, bleak opportunities, profitable drama, and fatherless households.  Both men are killed within six months of each other despite the clarion call of the Million Man March just a few years earlier. 

Although in 2015 the rap rivalry is over, our streets still have not gotten the memo that the war between us is over.   Because of that, no one thinks bringing one million black men together makes any sense.

I vaguely remember a conversation in 1995 with one of my Christian friends who challenged me on why I would follow a Muslim leader and what does he mean by “atonement”.  Recalling that conversation has prepared me for the ongoing debate around the “or else” connotation. To be honest, the very notion of the question insults my intelligence as if I/we as Black Men don’t understand the meaning of “or else” in any context.  The truth is, we have been living an “or else” reality since 1619.

In 1963 Dr. King who was sitting in a Birmingham Jail had this to say, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea.”

Dr. King was talking about the absolute necessity and the overwhelming desire for justice. Yet in doing so, he was talking to his own people about the need to come together in unity.  He recognized our condition and the criticalness to do something (nonviolent) about it. Deeper in the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written for King’s colleagues and clergy, he broke down what he believed was our accountability and the consequences (or else) for non-action. “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative,” says King.

Having toiled in my communities for over 25 years, I understand the sentiment of “the calling.” It is a calling that speaks specifically to me in the ministry of “speaking to the hearts of men.” As a result of that purpose, I know my lanes and can co-labor within the context of Justice or Else to the betterment of my work.  King makes it clear to me that “or else” is an accountability calling. It speaks to the consequences, not the actions.

Research paper after research paper points out the impact of fatherlessness in our communities.  2015 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Moynihan Report. It spoke of the consequences of not having working black fathers actively involved in the sustainably of their families. It foretold a statistical story of “or else” for black families. Furthermore, it warned about the eventual effects of not supporting or building the capacity of those men to provide for their children. Unfortunately, one of the after effects, due to the inaction of our leaders and the inattentiveness to the consequences, is that the out-of-wedlock birth rate rose from 29 percent then to 72 percent today. Now, this is not a death sentence for our children, however it is one of the first indicators of poverty and other developmental issues for black children.

This year’s Million Man March won’t solely solve our issues. However, it is an opportunity, at least in my work, to recognize both the failures and the accomplishments of Black Fathers across the nation. Pew research indicates that Black Fathers are the most engaged fathers in day-to-day activities with their children than any other cohort of fathers in this country. That is something to celebrate! At the same time we must remember we still have a long way to go.  I accept that calling and mission. I know that if I don’t accept this calling, whatever happens as a result, is my own “or else” consequence. It is unacceptable for that to happen on my watch; I pray that it’s unacceptable to you also.

In the beautiful words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he closed his letter by saying, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

We are honorable men and women in the middle of a struggle for equality. It as now in 2015 as it was in 1995, ’85, ’75, ’65 and so on. I expect and pray that a positive spirit of the Million Man March finds its place in the hearts of men and that we find ways to positively impact the consequences of “or else” for not only JUST-US but also ALL of Us.

Kenneth Braswell is the Executive Director of Fathers Incorporated in Atlanta, Ga. He is also working with both the National Committee and the Atlanta LOC of the Million Man March. He is a member of the Black Family Summit/IBW For more information on his work, visit www.fathersincorporated.com and follow him on twitter at @fathersincorp. FI is in the middle of its HONORABLE MAN campaign to sign up 20,000 black fathers. (www.millionblackfathers.com).