Voices from the Million Woman March
by Debbie Lang
Revolutionary Worker #931, November 9, 1997
On October 25 at least 1.5 million Black women took part in the Million Woman March in Philadelphia. According to local news stations, the march was one of the largest events ever held in Philadelphia history--topping even some of the July 4th celebrations. The idea for the march came from two women from Philadelphia, Phile' Chionesu and Asia Coney.
The purpose for the march was set out by the organizers in a statement on their web site on the Internet. It read, in part: "And Black people will never be the same because from this event the lives of Black men, women, and children will be set in motion to obtain further upliftment and qualitative change. We look forward to this glorious endeavor. For the day and the time for Black women, (African women) has come, and the time for self-destruction, injustice, racism, and all such practices put to end."
The event began at 6 a.m. with a sunrise service at Penn's Landing, the spot where Black people were first brought to Philadelphia as slaves. This was followed by a drum procession "to initiate the call for Black women to stand together in the spirit of peace, unity and empowerment." The official program began at 9:00 on the steps of the Art Museum. Speakers included Phile' Chionesu and Asia Coney; Pam and Ramona Africa; Julia Wright, Richard Wright's daughter; Rep. John Conyers; Rep. Maxine Waters; Winnie Mandela; Sister Souljah; Dick Gregory; Ilyassah and Camilla Shabazz; Jada Pinkett; Tynetta Muhammed; and Khadijah Farrakhan.
RW reporter Debbie Lang went to the Million Woman March and filed the following report.
It was a cold, bleak rainy day, the kind of day where usually you want to be just about anywhere but out on the street. But on this day, hundreds of thousands of women were streaming into Philadelphia from around the country to march in the streets. As I drove down from New York, I had the same feeling many women told me later they had--I didn't know quite what to expect. When I got to Philadelphia and walked toward the speaker's platform, it was clear the march was successful in drawing at least hundreds of thousands of women. Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a four-lane-wide street, was packed for over a mile with women. Later, I learned that there were over a million sisters in the house that day.
Black women of all ages came, though the majority appeared to be in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They came from many states and as far away as Africa and Europe. Most were middle class, students and professionals of various levels, but there were also some proletarian sisters there. There were contingents from colleges and universities. But I didn't notice any large contingents from political groups or unions. Most of the women seemed to have come more based along family, neighborhood or friendship ties. Some came with all the women in their family--grandmothers, mothers and granddaughters together. Others came with their kids or their friends. There were also small and large groups from community organizations and churches. Some men also came, though they were a small minority, and there were also a smaller number of women of other nationalities.
It was a wild, beautiful mix of sisters who were proud to be counted as part of a movement to unify Black women and Black people to fight against the injustices in this society. Most of the people in the crowd had on T-shirts, hats, jackets or buttons that said, "I Was At the Million Woman March" or with the march's logo on it. A smaller number of women wore Muslim robes and head wraps or African-style clothing. Some of the women I talked to had come on behalf of others who couldn't make it and planned to go home and report what happened at the march.
As women looked around them, they were amazed. People really felt proud that so many women from all over had come out to march together. Many women I spoke with mentioned how the mainstream media had downplayed the march, especially since the women who organized it weren't "famous" people. One sister from California later posted this message on Essence magazine's web site: "It was truly incredible to see so many sistahs there. I have never seen so many black women gathered for something so positive in all my 25 years of life. This wasn't a concert, and it wasn't a fashion show. It was sisters from the diaspora coming together in the name of saving our communities. In the name of collective unity. Dark. Light. Perms. Naturals. Muslims. Christians. Didn't matter 'cause we's women first. This was a drumbeat call. There was no media coverage, and yet we came in full force. It showed me how powerful we are..."
The huge turnout for the march reflected the deep anger and dissatisfaction among the masses of Black women--as well as the desire to be an organized force on the political stage. The speeches from the stage represented a lot of different political perspectives. This included some more radical and revolutionary views, some very reformist politics, as well as some very conservative ideas, especially on the role of women and the family, represented by different groups including the Nation of Islam. I don't have time in this report to do a serious critique of the platform put out by the organizers or all of the speakers. But the issues raised by the Million Woman March--like the CIA-drug connection, health care, education, women prisoners, and human rights--had really connected with people's desire to come together and find solutions to these problems.
Everyone I talked to said they came because they wanted to be part of making history. Most of the women I spoke with thought this was an event people would remember, that it would change people's lives, though they weren't all quite sure how. Some came to hear specific speakers, others came for the spirit of unity with their sisters, but everyone had an urgent sense that things need to change. A woman from Alexandria, Virginia said: "The reason I'm here is because I wanted to be supportive of my African-American sisters. I wanted to show support for the movement, for the revolutionary movement, the inspiring of African-American women to raise up in their communities and make a positive influence. And I'd like to go home at this point this evening and share with my sisters who could not be here, with my daughter, what a powerful message was given here and, you know, just get back and work in the community, do it from the grassroots...."
Others spoke of the system's war on the people, the cuts in social programs and lack of jobs. I spoke with one woman from New York who pointed to the crowd and told me: "This is an army of no guns but it's nevertheless an army. It's a fight. It's a fight to support yourself, to take care of your children with not enough money, with not enough support from the government. It's a fight. It's a daily fight that women go through every day. And today is not a day of rest from that fight. We are just here to show support for one another, from whatever state we're from--that we can do this, we can get together, not just for one day but for the rest of the year, for the rest of our life, actually, and be supportive of one another, not divided. A lot of times because we have more money than another person, we are divided, but today just showed us--I'm sure if you took a survey of the people out here, they're from all walks of life. And that's what the march shows, that people from all walks of life have a common bond, which is the need to live better or the need to save our sons and save our daughters and save the planet. And it's hard to do when you're in separate states because everybody thinks my problem is different. But this just goes to show us that if we want to, we all have a common ground, we all have a common fight and hopefully we'll go back in our neighborhoods and rather than separate into the various organizations, we can come together no matter what religion, no matter what political situation we are under, persuasion we have, we'll talk to one another now, not just look at each other, as women, as human beings, really."
An engineer originally from Nigeria now living in Ohio spoke about this as well: "And where do we keep our elderly? Most elderly Black women are poor. You know, what do you do with them? You can't even put them in homes. People are in the streets. Lots of Black people have become homeless, not because they can't work or can't do anything but because there's probably not enough appropriate jobs for them. I've seen engineers like me, because I'm an engineer, are now driving taxis. Black engineers are now driving taxis. Not that driving taxis isn't important, but hey, come on, after all those fees and school years and everything, you're either in the street or you're doing some menial jobs that don't need you to be in school anyway...So pulling yourself up by the bootstraps doesn't seem to be making it."
Other sisters were looking for collective ways of solving problems like raising children, getting drugs out of the community, reconnecting with those youth who'd bought into the system's hustle mentality. Some people talked about "domestic violence" and one woman from Louisville, Kentucky referred to how she thought the march might make a difference in this regard, "Sometimes when we are fighting against the enemy, the enemy can be poverty, the enemy can be abusiveness with maybe our men or it can be abusiveness towards our children. I think that when you come together like this as a family that you can unite one another and pour the strength with one another and you can combat these things that are so negative within our communities."
Some people spoke of being tired of the ways the system sets people up against each other--the violence, crime, hatred, even things like gossiping that goes on among the people. They said they wanted a more cooperative, friendly, caring atmosphere where they lived and worked. There was a tendency to blame these problems on the masses of people, but there were also many comments about the role of the government and the media.
Over and over again sisters pointed to their concern for the care and well being of the next generation. And a number of people spoke to the problem of police murder and brutality. A team of people was there from New York distributing the RW poster "Killed in Cold Blood by the NYPD," which lists police murders in New York. They also got out copies of the "Stolen Lives" book which contains pictures and lists of those who have been killed by the police in cities all over the United States. Women would stand in groups and read the names on the poster, looking for names they recognized. Others flipped through the pages of the Stolen Lives book, looking for the list from their city. People would walk away shaking their heads in anger and sadness. Some thanked the people for bringing this issue to the march and said, "keep up the fight!"
Mumia, MOVE and the
Criminals in Philadelphia's
I was able to speak with Pam and Ramona Africa after the march and learned about some interesting things about what happened when Philadelphia's Mayor Rendell took the stage. After the march, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Mayor Rendell talking about how great the march was because "this kind of kinetic energy can be a great lobby for changing things." What the news report didn't say was that Rendell was booed when he got on stage for all the crimes he's committed against Black people--including the bombing of the MOVE house, his role in the police frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the police murders of young Black people and racist policies such as his support for the death penalty. It was outrageous for someone like Rendell, who has literally built his career on the murder and imprisonment of MOVE members, supporters and other Black people, to talk about his support of Black women's efforts to change their situation.
As I walked through the crowd, there wasn't noticeable support for Mumia and while many women knew a little about his case, most had not closely followed the struggle to free Mumia. But when Pam Africa spoke from the stage and explained how urgent it is to take action now especially given the changes in habeas corpus laws regarding death penalty appeals, thousands of sisters chanted "Free Mumia!" Julia Wright also got what Pam called "an overwhelming response" when she read an open letter to Mayor Rendell, exposing how he refused to meet with an international delegation to discuss a new trial for Mumia. International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal passed out 80,000 fliers.
During the day I did meet one sister from California who was holding up a copy of a book on political prisoners with Mumia's picture on the front. She had spent her rent money to come to Philadelphia. She said, "I came here to be part of a sea of Black women talking about struggle, liberation and things that have affected our community and this is very close to my heart because of all the work that I do for women prisoners. I spent 10 years inside and also I've seen who the new target is and for me it translates to genocide and the genocide is when you take so many women of color, not just Black women but Black women and other women of color and lock them up all of their reproductive lives behind these so-called drug laws. It's genocide. It translates to genocide. And I'd like to say too that who gets the longest time, the longest sentences are Native American women inside, who come from the prisons outside called reservations to the prisons inside and many of these women who are convicted of crimes that would only be a few years in state time, but in federal time, they're there for the rest of their lives. It's an outrage. It really is.... I'm just awed to be here at this Million Woman March and I was just wishing that there was more about Mumia because to me Mumia is essential. It's essential that his life is saved. It's essential that everyone stop what they're doing and put some more work into saving the life of this political prisoner because after him there are so many other people and it's not okay that the state kills in my name or the name of the people because there are no rich people on death row. And that wouldn't make it okay with me either. But Mumia's life must be saved...he can't be sacrificed. We can't allow that. I wish everyone would give all of what they have and concentrate on saving the life of Mumia."
What Difference Did It Make?
People listened to the speeches from the stage, but people had also come to talk, meet people, network, and exchange ideas. The literature tables of different political groups along the sides were packed. Sisters would approach other sisters they had never met and strike up a conversation. Others wanted people to sign their T-shirt, book, pictures, whatever--mementos of the march that they could pass on to their families. After I interviewed one woman she asked me to sign a beautiful lithograph she had bought. Many left the march making plans for how they would take the positive energy of the day back to where they came from, build organizations, unite already existing groups to struggle against the problems people face.
A lot of the people at the march had reformist ideas but others were more radical. And there were revolutionary politics of different kinds both from the stage and amongst the crowd. Ramona Africa, who spoke for the MOVE organization, said: "When I look out here and see all you sisters, I don't see just sisters. I see soldiers. I see warriors. I see people that's ready to fight to do what's got to be done to get this oppression up off of us. That's what I see. I want to say thank you to all of you for coming here and thank you on behalf of my MOVE sisters who are in prison and cannot be here today, four sisters that are serving 100-year sentences for a murder they didn't commit and I want to just deal with the issue of prisons. They are the fastest growing housing projects for poor people, for Black people. That's where they're housing us, in prisons...We've got to demand freedom for our people because they ain't the criminals. We know who the real criminals are and this is something that we're gonna have to deal with.... We've got work to do, we've got a war to fight, we are at war."
One sister from New York told me she thought the significance of the march was: "I think it started with two women and from two women it grew into I don't know how many hundred thousand. And it's a very positive feeling to see women coming out to fight for themselves and fight for, actually fight for the future.... Today just showed us that if there's a call put out that we could organize and make things better for not only women but the future, any human being that's on the face of this earth."
Toward the end of the day, I walked up to two sisters standing on the side just watching the sea of women go by. They were proletarians from Baltimore who'd come with their community center. They took a copy of the "Message from the RCP to the Million Woman March" and the RW as part of the things they were collecting for a display about the march when they got home. I asked one of the women what she thought about the march. She said, "Right now I'm just amazed of all the people here, especially women. I didn't think the women would come out like this...if all of us stick together like we're here today, something can be done."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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