Washington, DC— “I have some hard truths to say,” Louis Farrakhan, the 82-year-old leader of the Nation of Islam, boomed. It was a cool October afternoon and he stood on the steps of the Capitol Building; an ocean of black and brown faces moved before him.

“Tell it,” one brother shouted.

“C’mon, speak!” said another.

We have been living, Farrakhan told us, “under a strange man in a strange land for 400 years.” He was talking about the oppressed people, about us, the men and women, boys and girls set out before him on the National Mall who have been locked out of the gated communities, or wherever it is, where privilege lives and sleeps and plays lacrosse.

“We are now living in the day of judgment,” he said. “America has entered the time of divine judgment.”

Applause shattered the fall air.

It had been 20 years since Farrakhan convened the Million Man March here, filling the Mall with an immense crowd and filling the American mainstream with consternation. For the anniversary, he had designated this event, October 10, as the Justice or Else! Rally.

And what are these hard truths you bring, Minister?

Well, to begin: We can no longer abide by the rules we have been living under if we are to survive (“There must come a time when we say enough is enough”); we must love and fiercely protect our women (“Her womb is the workshop of God”); politicians are immoral and cannot save you (“How then can you look in the mirror at yourself when you are a bought and paid-for whore?”); law enforcement is corrupt (“You kill us and blame it on another gang”); Farrakhan himself was not involved in Malcolm X’s assassination (“OK let’s deal with it. Do you know any murderer that white folk don’t like that they could pin a crime on and he’s still here standing, speaking with a foot deep in their backside?” Well— I mean—that is a valid point); most importantly, freedom is something only you can give yourself.

This is what we were really here for, one by one in the hundreds of thousands, not just to mark the anniversary, but to talk about the erasure of our people, to ask why our grand American democracy, and our grand notion of American justice, insists that we accept black death as normative; we were here to name names and honor all the black souls that circle the graveyard at night; we were here to love on each other as only kinfolk can. We were here to talk about that old, familiar tale: How to get free.

“You’re yearning for something that the government can’t give you,” Farrakhan said. “You are born to be free! The Muslim program says we want full and complete freedom. But that’s not just what Muslims want, that’s what every human being wants.”

“Go ‘head, Minister, teach!” another brother said.

Again, the crowd burst into cheer, but he was just getting started.

“Can this house give you that?” Farrakhan said, of the Capitol Building behind him.

A chorus of NO resounded throughout the National Mall.

“Well, you don’t have it! So what are we petitioning this for? They can’t give you what’s not in their nature to give you.”

There was more ground to cover. Farrakhan was equally intent on talking about government failures (“There is no government on this earth that can give the people what they want—freedom, justice, and equity”), ownership (“White folk been knowing you they property”), the brave men and women who stood up in Ferguson, how “the middle class is becoming the new poor,” and the circus of Republican candidates who want to be our next president.

“They are really like the pretty girl who is well formed and showing her wares so that some man with money will buy her,” he said of the 15 GOP candidates: “Who wants to be a whore?! ... That’s what makes this a farce—3.3 billion dollars in the last few years has been paid by lobbyists to this house. Well, what are they lobbying for—laws that may not be in the best interest of the people?”

The crowd erupted, a mix of agreement and shock. A man standing to my left turned to his friend and asked a question to which he already knew the answer. “Did he just call Congress a whore on their steps?”

It’s Louis Farrakhan, after all: the last great black preservationist, the man who incites disdain in millions, the man will say some real wild shit you probably won’t agree with—why would you?—but who, for the last four decades, has attempted to chart a new course for black Americans, a course built on self-determination, in a country that has tried to blot them from existence.

Farrakhan’s gospel is not one you will find in the churches of Tyler Perry movies or in the books of James Weldon Johnson. It is a gospel that is often full of contempt for the “poisoned doctrine” of white supremacy that has washed over our nation. But it is also a gospel of self-love and God-fearing love and Black Nationalism; his is a teaching of racial preservation. It is a gospel that spares no man and pardons no injustice.

So yes, of course he called Congress a whore on the steps of the Capitol Building. That is what he does.

“But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster.” —James Baldwin

Twenty years ago, it is said a million men came to Washington, DC to atone for their sins. From Cincinnati and Detroit, New Orleans and New York City. From St. Louis and Trenton and Raleigh and Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Who were these men—these grandfathers and fathers and brothers and cousins and uncles and husbands? These men came by the busload, by plane and by car and by train. Some of these men were the type of men Eartha Kitt knew in her lifetime, men who always want to lay women down but never want to pick them up. Some of these men were scholars and teachers who had earned degrees at Yale and Morehouse and North Carolina A&T. Some of these men lived paycheck to paycheck, trying to do right by their family. Some of these men were lost and looking for direction. Some of these men were new to the world, fresh out of high school or college, wanting to be part of the moment, the movement that was taking shape in our Great Nation’s Capital. One of them was a 34-year-old community organizer and aspiring political candidate from Chicago.

Some of these men were looking for forgiveness, some for solidarity. And so they came.

On October 16, 1995, Louis Farrakhan, along with the NAACP and prominent black activists like Jesse Jackson, convened one million men—the head count, like so much else, subject to dispute—on the National Mall for a day of atonement and reconciliation. The event joined the long tradition of black freedom fighting and followed, most notably, in the footsteps of 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a grand show of unity and brotherhood. “It was a day of spontaneous embraces, public tears and straight-in-the-eye greetings,” the Washington Post wrote then.

But the man who had called these men to D.C .was, at the time, a notorious, headline-grabbing preacher known for bombastic proclamations and separatist teachings. The New York Times, one day before the march, published an editorial that accused Farrakhan and Ben Chavis, the former NAACP executive and director of the rally, of being hate-filled malcontents. “They want to prolong and exploit the nation’s racial divisions,” the Times wrote, before concluding, “Mr. Farrakhan remains a symptom of our ills, not a physician who can heal them.”

Time magazine branded Farrakhan an opportunist; it believed his reason for holding the Million Man March was to “prove that he was the man who could make it happen,” after which he would “capitalize on the prominence he hoped it would confer.”

But Time’s accusatory prediction didn’t exactly come true. Although Farrakhan’s divisive politics had dominated media coverage leading up to the landmark rally—the Times all but dragged him through the mud—Farrakhan didn’t quite end up capitalizing on the history he’d made. If anything, the media coverage following the rally only demonized him more.

Aware of the media storm surrounding the day’s events and what might follow, Farrakhan observed during his speech in 1995:

I wonder what you’ll write in your newspapers and magazines, tomorrow... Will you respect the beauty of this day? All of these black men that the world sees as savage, maniacal, and bestial. Look at them. A sea of peace. A sea of tranquility. A sea of men ready to come back to God. Settle their differences and go back home to turn our communities into decent and safe places to live.

In true Farrakhan fashion, he had turned the camera inward. The day really wasn’t about him or what he hoped to gain, it was about confronting the lack of respect black men had for their women, their communities, and themselves.

In Farrakhan’s eyes, this Day of Atonement and Reconciliation, this provocation, was mainly about what critics now call respectability politics. In his speech, he implored black men to “demonstrate your gift, not your breast. Demonstrate your gift, not what is between your legs. Clean up, black man, and the world will respect and honor you. But you have fallen down like the prodigal son and you’re husking corn and feeding swine.”

Two divergent schools of thought formed around the legacy of the original march: One was that it had been a triumph, a day that showed unwavering unity among a class of people who had been labeled “thugs” and “dead-beat dads” and “no-good hustlers.” It was a stand against all the negative stereotypes surrounding black men that plagued the American conscious and subconscious.

The other theory was that it was only a modest success, if one at all, and that it was nearly impossible to separate the message from the messenger. Therein, though, lies the paradox of Louis Farrakhan—and one I found myself questioning constantly on Saturday, 20 years after the fact.

It is easy to believe what you hear about Farrakhan. Over the years his many detractors have labeled him a fire-breathing bigot, a callous self-promoter, an unholy zealot, “the black Hitler,” a combustible anti-Semite, sexist, and downright wicked. He is, critics say, anything but honorable.

Yet my feelings about him remain in conflict. There’s no denying Farrakhan is unpredictable and at times appalling (He once famously said “Hitler was a very great man”; and certain views he has on the role women should play in society often read like something out of the Dark Ages). In spite of that, he remains a fierce defender of, and advocate for, black Americans.

Standing among the crowd on Saturday, which at times felt as though it was swaying, as if we all had been adrift in some mighty sea for decades, it became harder and harder to pinpoint my personal beliefs about Farrakhan. He had certainly made justifiable points, but I had become so caught up in the intoxication of his words and in the solidarity on display, I felt myself losing the ability to discern what was truth and what was theater.

“You been working all this time to use your love to clear up the hate that’s in the hearts of white people,” Farrakhan said. “Fifty years after, it’s still the same. Turn your attention to yourself. Come home and teach love for one another. Teach love of the neighbor. Teach us to forgive each other for our acts of evil done under the oppressor’s mind that he put in us.”

Consider this: We are living in a time where black death greets us on our TV screens nightly. According to Mapping Police violence, more than 100 unarmed black men were killed by police in 2014. As of September 2015, a black person is killed by law enforcement every 31 hours. Those are terrifying statistics. Even more terrifying is the fact that these are the names we know of—what hundreds more who were unjustly shot in the dark, through the years? Also consider that one in three black men is destined to go to prison in his lifetime, and the so-called War on Drugs, waged in and against poor communities where black and Latinos disproportionately fill projects and tenements, claims black men at a higher rate than comparable offenders. According to Drug Policy Alliance, blacks comprise 14 percent of regular drug users, but account for 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed, we live in the most sinister and unforgiving carceral state on the planet. And that is to say nothing of unequal access to quality healthcare and jobs, to education, to middle-class wealth, even to fresh groceries.

Consider all of that, then consider Louis Farrakhan, working to position black Americans and their concerns at the forefront of the national agenda. Granted, previous iterations of his vision did not include all black people—individuals who span varying religious beliefs and sexual identifications have felt his scorn—but his beliefs have, in some measure, evolved over time, and one begins to wonder, even if only for a second, if Farrakhan has the interests of black America in mind more than our first black President does.

In a 1995 profile, Barack Obama, a lawyer and community activist preparing for his first election, told the Chicago Reader about his concerns surrounding the Million Man March, which he had attended two months prior and which he cited as one of the reasons he had decided to run for the state senate seat:

“There was a profound sense that African-American men were ready to make a commitment to bring about change in our communities and lives.

“But what was lacking among march organizers was a positive agenda, a coherent agenda for change. Without this agenda a lot of this energy is going to dissipate. Just as holding hands and singing ‘We shall overcome’ is not going to do it, exhorting youth to have pride in their race, give up drugs and crime, is not going to do it if we can’t find jobs and futures for the 50 percent of black youth who are unemployed, underemployed, and full of bitterness and rage.

Obama’s criticisms then—that black America can’t seal itself off from the larger economy; that bad-mouthing white folks won’t get the job done; that racism was not the sole barrier impeding the progress of blacks, etc.—could have been applied to the separatist talk many in the crowd appreciated as Farrakhan spoke Saturday.

“Moses was not an integrationist, and neither are we,” Farrakhan said. “Let me be clear: America has no future for me or you. She can’t make a future for herself, much less a future for us. The scripture says: ‘Come out of her my people.’ And we are going to have to come out.”

Preservation through separation.

Obama was not in attendance.

“An unpleasant taste bloomed in my mouth now as I bit the end of the yam and threw it into the street; it had been frost-bitten.” —Ralph Ellison

At 82, Farrakhan is an old-school minister. He is often heavy on hyperbole, concurrently callous and loving, rarely sticks to his script, and is fueled by the euphoria of the crowd. As he stood before us, flanked by Nation of Islam members in crisp navy-blue regalia, it felt more like a home-going than anything, a last-chance effort to spread his gospel to those who dared listen. Because Farrakhan, more than anybody, is aware of his own mortality.

“I don’t know how long I got,” he said, “but I’m not worried.”

This admission came before his grand finale, in which he mapped out how black Americans might go about building a new nation:

  • “Our war is on two fronts: we gotta stop the killing in the inner city, and stop the killing of us from police wickedness.”
  • “I need 10,000 fearless black men. We gotta clean up our community.”
  • “We have to take over the educational system… The education you are receiving has not made you a better person... it made you a more willing tool for your oppressor.”
  • “I need 10,000 fearless women.”
  • “We need a Ministry of Defense. We need a Ministry of Justice. We gotta resolve our own conflicts.”
  • “We’re asking the government for 100 million acres—as a start”
  • “We’re gonna have to feed ourselves.”

The final point was of particular interest to me. Together, we had all journeyed to the National Mall hungering for some type of nourishment—brotherhood, Farrakhan’s words, some semblance of justice, recognition in a shared struggle, a shoulder to lean on or a hand to shake—and here we were, rapt, devouring what we could.

Or maybe these men and women, men and women who have for generations been told to discard any modicum of self-respect and self-pride like a dirty dishrag, had not really come to hear Farrakhan. Maybe it really wasn’t about him. As he ended his speech, I began to believe something bigger, something black elders in grand church hats and impeccable dress sing about on Sunday mornings was at work. I could hear it in the Go head, say that! and C’mon now! declarations, could see it in the warm-armed embrace of black men, young and old, and in the clinched fists of black mothers and daughters held high in the air.

When I asked a young man, who had traveled from Detroit with a few others, what he thought of Farrakhan’s speech, he said: “Powerful, just powerful.” He had come to grasp that intangible, all but unattainable, feeling so many black men and women go an entire lifetime without—power. And here it was on display in front of me, a sea of black endearment, men and women in Obama t-shirts and Divine 9 apparel who had gathered from Philadelphia and Charlotte and Atlanta to be among family, who had journeyed to revel in each other’s power, a power that by itself was no big thing, but when in harmony with kinfolk was a sight and a feeling to witness.

I left thinking maybe it didn’t really matter what Farrakhan had said, whether you agreed with him or believed he was some bumbling fool on his way to the grave, because what he had done, what he had accomplished twenty years ago and accomplished again today by amassing an army of black folk, was the only message of true value. In a time where we must challenge the image reflected back at us as the world declares us to be something other, something else, something less than, here we all were, our blackness on full display, our laughter and our joy in abundance. Justice would not come soon, or ever, but maybe this was what we needed. Maybe today this was enough.

[Photos via AP]