Million Man Mystery
Last week, as Denver Public Schools officials announced they would not permit another Nation of Islam rally to take place at George Washington High School, Alvertis Simmons was asked to comment. "Don't lump us all together," Simmons complained. "I'm sick and tired of people trying to pigeonhole us as one. All black people are not monolithic."
Simmons, who is the executive director of the Local Organizing Committee of the Million Man March, ought to know better than most people. Since the inspirational gathering of black men in Washington, D.C., last fall, the national Million Man March organizing committee estimates that 350 communities have established local chapters. Denver, it turns out, is doing more than its share.
A records search at the secretary of state's office turns up at least 3 million Denver men: the Denver Million Man March Coalition Inc.; the Local Organizing Committee, Denver Chapter, Million Man March; and, simply, Million Man March. A call to the 800-number directory yields another Million Man March. There's even a 900 number that connects you to a Million Man hotline.
National organizers say that such a proliferation of people trying to ride the momentum of the original Million Man March is not surprising--and not necessarily harmful. Still, at the very least, the sheer number of Million Man Marchers can be confusing. All three Denver groups, for example, are raising money, sponsoring events and throwing themselves into various disputes--a grab for money at Park Hill elementary schools, a student walkout at George Washington High School, a huge rally planned for April 29.
According to state records, the area's first Million Man March organization, the Denver Million Man March Coalition Inc., was formed on November 9, 1995. Jeff X, a Nation of Islam follower and owner of the Black Market in Five Points, remembers the seeds being sown even earlier.
"Prior to the Million Man March," he says, "up to even a year before it taking place, Minister [Louis] Farrakhan indicated he'd be doing this, so I was preparing for it by organizing meetings for black men." Yet as the date of the event drew closer, Jeff X continues, he says he noticed that people he talked to were being misled about the upcoming march.
"People were thinking it was going to be just a Muslim event, and the media was portraying it as just a Farrakhan event. So in late August or early September I called a meeting at the All World Seafood Restaurant. It was an emergency Million Man March meeting. The goal was very simple: one, to get together a group of people interested in attending the Million Man March, and two, to organize that group to get support and raise money.
"That's when I formed the Million Man March Coalition Inc. The goal was just to go to D.C.--nothing after that."
Jeff X pauses. He is sitting behind his desk in a room behind the Black Market, which sells Afrocentric art. On one wall is a Million Man March poster; on another is a clock made out of an issue of Emerge magazine with Farrakhan on the cover. "It was about three and a half weeks later," he says, "that I was contacted by Alvertis Simmons."
Although Simmons has been active around Denver for years, he first caught the public's eye a year ago when he worked aggressively to re-elect Mayor Wellington Webb. (Some staffers working for Webb's opponents during the campaign claimed that Simmons physically threatened them.) He has since worked for the city as Webb's neighborhood watch anti-crime coordinator, although recently he has taken a leave to work full-time on his Million Man March organization. Simmons did not return calls from Westword.
Simmons, Jeff X continues, "said he was interested in helping and that he could bring corporate funding to the event--'the big bucks.' This caused a big ruckus at the time."
The reason, he explains, is that "the men were not looking for corporate sponsorship. So while we allowed him to pursue those other avenues, we continued doing the grassroots things--fortunately, as it turns out, because no corporate funding ever materialized."
Still, Jeff X says, Simmons didn't come to the Denver Million Man March Coalition empty-handed. "What Alvertis brought to the table was two things: first, he worked for the city and so had those connections. And then he has a knack for liking to call press conferences."
The Million Man March happened on October 16, 1995. About three hundred Denver men attended. On the Saturday before, dozens of well-wishers gathered at Jeff X's Black Market to see them off as they boarded buses and piled into cars for the 1,900-mile trip. "This is a march of unity, love and a spiritual march," Simmons said.
"After the Million Man March," says Jeff X, "is when all the chaos began."
Two months after the march, on December 17, Jeff X released a three-and-a-half-page statement titled "DMMMC Inc.'s official position on Mr. Alvertis Simmons." It began: "This official position statement is to point out the actual facts regarding the history of DMMMC Inc. and hopefully shed the light of truth on those who may be confused by the split initiated by Mr. Alvertis Simmons who was one of our former members, we believe for his personal political future."
The problems apparently began soon after Simmons joined the Denver Million Man March Coalition. Jeff X wrote:
"A major concern of DMMMC Inc. was Mr. Simmons's behavior and attitude toward the group as a whole. He was rude and callous. He talked down to the group and apparently thought he was in a position of superiority by constantly stressing that he was an 'educated man' and knew the right way things should be done. One occasion he even openly argued with one of the black women regarding money. We all agreed he was totally disrespectful to her and out of order. We will not mention the confusion he caused in Washington concerning the hotel reservations and the poor leadership he exhibited as we marched on Sunday around the Washington Monument."
According to Jeff X, Simmons began edging away from the Denver Million Man March Coalition directly after returning from Washington. "When the group returned from the Million Man March Mr. Simmons seized the enthusiasm and energy of those who did not attend the march but were possibly interested in getting involved with DMMMC Inc.," Jeff X wrote in the December 17 statement.
First, says Jeff X, Simmons organized "a rush press conference and rally" at Union Baptist Church on October 21 without informing anybody at the Denver Million Man March Coalition. (The rally was attended by Mayor Webb and Jamal X, the Nation of Islam's Denver representative, who is now known as Jamal Muhammad.) "The coalition's membership learned of the rally at Union Baptist Church only after hearing about it on KDKO," Jeff X wrote, adding, "Yes, this created total confusion."
At that rally, he wrote, Simmons circulated a mailing list "and took up a charity collection under the guise of the Denver Million Man March CoalitionEThose in attendance, as well as the members of DMMMC Inc. had no idea Mr. Simmons was making his move to split from DMMMC Inc. to set up his own coalition."
The idea caught on quickly in some circles. A January 15, 1996, Denver Post profile of Simmons highlighted his role in getting Denver's delegation to the march: "Then came the Million Man March and its loud and clear theme--it's time for black men in America to take responsibility. Simmons took charge of the Denver arm of the event, raising money and awareness."
"After the Million Man March," Jeff X hypothesizes, "I think Alvertis began to feel uncomfortable with the grassroots level. It was less mainstream than what he felt comfortable with."
In a subsequent commentary he wrote for The Urban Spectrum, called "Lights, Camera, Alvertis," Jeff X proposed a debate between representatives of the two Million Man groups and concluded: "I am looking forward to the black press closely scrutinizing not only those outside of our community who don't have our interest at heart but also those inside our community, particularly your black leadership, who should be held accountable for their actions." Although the debate never took place, the two men agreed to co-exist at a rally held several weeks ago, Jeff X adds.
If the split has caused consternation among people looking to carry on the spirit of the Million Man March, it has caused confusion to the public trying to sort out who's who in Denver activism.
(A quick primer: The group that attempted to wrest control of a $2.4 million federal education grant intended for Park Hill elementary schools in early July was the Denver Million Man March Education Committee--Jeff X's group. The group that helped George Washington High School students organize a walkout to protest racism is the Local Organizing Committee of the Million Man March--Simmons's group, with whom Jamal Muhammad has most closely aligned himself. The group planning the Million Man March rally on April 29 at the Denver Coliseum is also Simmons's group; Jeff X says he will attend if Farrakhan shows up.)
Indeed, on March 15, when Simmons called a press conference to announce that the April 29 Million Man March rally originally scheduled for Mile High Stadium was now going to take place at the Denver Coliseum for security reasons, he felt compelled to try to clear up some of the Million Man mystery. "The local organizing committee in Denver is the only recognized organization by the National Million Man March Organization in Washington, D.C.," he declared.
"As far as any officially chartered Million Man March organizations, that process has not actually taken place yet," clarifies Lou Andrews, a spokesman at the Million Man March national headquarters. Still, he adds diplomatically, "There were many organizations that participated in mobilizing people to come to D.C., and now they have continued on."
Like the Denver Million Man March Coalition Inc.
"Exactly," says Andrews. "That's Alvertis Simmons's group, right?"
No, it's Jeff X's group.
"Oh," he says. "I see."
At the same March 15 press conference, Simmons also warned that other Million Man March organizations not as official as his were trying to cash in on the name. "Some," he added, "even have an 800 number."
"Million Man March," a woman answers. Susie Gantt is volunteering to answer
the phones at 1-800-666-7119, which, she explains, is the "Washington, D.C., local office" of the Washington, D.C.-based Million Man March organizing committee, which is being led by former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis.
"Susie Gantt? I don't even know her," says Lou Andrews. "I don't believe we even have an 800 number or a local office. But I would be interested in finding out who this is and what they're doing."
"There's going to be a Million Man Rally in Denver?" Gantt asks. "And what phone number are they using? And what is the organizer's name?"
After gathering all the information, she explains, "Many organizations are carrying on with the spirit of the Million Man March. We are not all one."
(Andrews later calls back with Gantt on a conference call to show there are no hard feelings, but neither will explain their organizations' relationship to one another.)
Rodney Long appreciates that the Million Man March has many scattered descendents.
Long is the owner of Rod's Cars ("Ride Large for Little") on the corner of 38th and Walnut streets in Denver. His secretary says her boss became interested in carrying the message of Farrakhan after the Million Man March. "He was there," she explains, "and he wanted to continue the work here when he returned." She adds that Long was out showing a visitor a building that his organization, Million Man March, was hoping to purchase and convert to a business that would provide economic benefits to disenfranchised young black men.
According to the secretary of state's office, Rodney Long incorporated Million Man March on January 31, 1996. "We're the Million Man March panacea," he clarifies after returning from the real estate showing. "When I got back from the Million Man March, I wanted to do something positive, to provide economic help for the black community. The Million Man March was very spiritual. And so when the spirit hit me, we formed a group."
Actually, it was a bit more complicated than that. When Long returned from Washington, he says, he went to some rallies sponsored by the Alvertis Simmons Million Man March. But he soon became antsy. "A lot of people were going to meetings," he recalls. "And I got tired of going to meetings."
So Long, tearing a page from Simmons's organizational book, split off and formed his own Million Man March. There are many differences between the two groups, he says.
"Alvertis don't know if he's going up or down," Long says. "For one, nobody gave him that title, 'executive director of the Million Man March.' He gave himself that title. When he sees a cameraman coming, he wants to run up there. And that wasn't what the Million Man March was about. I was there. So I felt what the Million Man March was about.
"We're not in front of the cameras. We're behind the scenes. You won't hear us talking. You'll be seeing what we're about."
Long says his Million Man March--which he says has about thirty members and meets twice a week--hopes to buy a building near the old Stapleton airport and convert it into an auto business that will employ black youth.
"Just donate to the cause," he says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.