Hundreds of thousands of black women from across the country gathered here Saturday for the Million Woman March, an event that had an air of street festival and religious revival and, participants said, offered a chance to heal some long-festering wounds.
Far from mimicking the call for atonement of the Million Man March of two years ago, the women’s gathering was aimed at healing and strategizing on how to achieve a better future for segments of the black community.
Lenora Wrighton, 42, a Hempstead, N.Y., homemaker, said she came to be inspired and to stand on behalf of her female relatives and friends. “I have a husband - and a good husband - of 27 years, but I know a lot of black women without that who are both mama and daddy to their kids … Maybe we as women can do something to shake things up, to bring about a change,” she said.
The Philadelphia women who organized the march were driven, at least in part, by data on black women’s lives. According to federal statistics, 53 percent of black families are headed by females. Black women ranked behind white and black men and white women in earning college degrees, with 12.9 percent of black women completing four years of college.
As they gathered before dawn to board a bus at an African cultural center in Hempstead, 20 women formed a circle, joined hands, prayed and spoke hopeful words.
Lindell Ray, 47, a psychiatric social worker who lives in Hempstead and runs a mental health clinic in Queens Village, said she initially balked at her younger sister’s suggestion that they attend the march. But, Ray said, her sister, Paula Robinson, a substance abuse administrator from Flushing, N.Y., convinced her the event not be empty symbolism.
“I’m opposed to being symbolically involved in something just for the sake of being involved,” Ray said. “But my sister reminded me that we live in a society that has created false symbols about who we are in relation to other people … So, this symbolic representation of black women coming together to focus on themselves is very, very powerful.”
“To the women of the United States, to African American women, I say ‘amandla,”’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela told the cheering crowd, using the “power” slogan from the fight for black rights in South Africa. “The power of your call invokes your Africanism and mine. …
“We have a shared destiny, a shared responsibility, to save the world from those who attempt to destroy it.”
The speech by Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela, came at a rally at the end of the seven-hour program.
“After today, we will never be the same,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. “America, please be placed on notice: We know who we are. We know what kind of power we have. We will act on that power.”
Khadijah Farrakhan, wife of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, noted the gathering was inspired by her husband’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C., two years ago.
“A nation can rise no higher than its women. We focus on women but cannot lose sight that we must rise as a family. Men, women and children,” she said.
The march provided a forum for issues that many blacks feel some women’s groups do not focus on. Among them were human rights abuses against blacks, the start of independent black schools and a demand for an investigation into allegations of CIA involvement in the crack trade in black neighborhoods.
Patricia Ireland, the National Organization of Women’s president, said last week there are similarities between the marchers’ agenda and that of her group.
“We are all talking about women’s health, education and violence in homes,” Ireland said. “On our national agenda, the issue of women in prisons may not be as visible as the reproductive health issue, but it’s not being ignored.”
On Saturday, march founder Phile Chionesu stressed the ongoing community involvement and cooperation she wanted the march to initiate.
“This is a new day. Prepare yourselves. We are taking back our neighborhoods,” said Chionesu, a community activist whose insistence on a grass-roots approach to organizing the march prompted controversy.