Show of Strength: The Million Woman March

October 27, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: In 1995, the Million Man March took the nation’s capital by storm. Between 400 and 800,000 African-American men gathered in Washington in a demonstration of atonement and personal responsibility. Two years later–almost to the day–women took their turn. Last Saturday African-American women from across the country came to Philadelphia for the Million Woman March. The theme was “sisters healing sisters.” Organizers weren’t sure how many people to expect in part because they had bypassed the traditional media and major black organizations in advertising the event. They relied, instead, on the Internet, the black media, and word of mouth to alert people to it. But they drew a good crowd, even for the first event, a rainy, 6 AM outdoor prayer service at the Ken’s Landing Waterfront. From there it was a cold, wet, two-mile march to the Philadelphia Art Museum.

WOMAN: With the unity and the love that we’re feeling it’s cold out here but we don’t feel it. It is unbelievable.

MARGARET WARNER: The museum’s steps became the platform for the day’s speakers and singers. The keynote speaker of South African activist Winnie Madikazela Mandela, former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela. She spoke of the power of sisterhood.

WINNIE MANDELA: The very presence today–your unity–your solidarity manifests your power.

MARGARET WARNER: Khadijah Farrakhan, wife of Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan, said the whole country has a stake in the issues of concern to black women.

KHADIJAH FARRAKHAN: (Saturday) We are here today to focus on the woman, but we must not and cannot lose sight on the fact that we must rise up a nation, a family that encompass men, women, and children.

MARGARET WARNER: But most speakers focused on the need for black women to empower themselves.

SPEAKER: All of us are coming together and as black women knowing that we’ve got power.

MARGARET WARNER: The rally was organized by a small group of local women like Phile Chionesu, a local activist and owner of an African craft shop in Philadelphia. She hopes the march will inspire black women to get more involved in self-help and community activities back home.

PHILE CHIONESU, March Organizer: It is known when black women come together, there is nothing we can’t do! When black women come together, we will make the changes that had to be made in this country!

MARGARET WARNER: Unofficial police estimates of Saturday’s crowd ranged from 300,000 to 1 million by late afternoon, one of the largest gatherings in Philadelphia’s history and easily a match for the Million Man March of two years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, more on this weekend’s march from two reporters who were there: Annette John-Hall of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Lekan Oguntoyinbo of the Detroit Free Press. He and a photographer accompanied 38 Detroit area women on their bus trip to the march and back. Lekan, who were these women on the bus and what were they looking for?

LEKAN OGUNTOYINBO, Detroit Free Press: They were a motley crew. They were women who were in their 70’s; they were women who were in their 20’s; they were women who were blue collar workers; they were women who were white collar workers; they were all kinds of women. And they were going for a multitude of purposes. There were some who were going because they wanted to feel solidarity with other women. There were some who were going because they thought perhaps they could learn something. There were some who were going because this was history in the making; and some went for reasons as mundane as the fact that they just wanted to experience history.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Annette, does that scare–how does that scare with what you found when you talked to women who were there?

ANNETTE JOHN-HALL, Philadelphia Inquirer: Oh, absolutely. It was just to have a fellowship with each other. A lot of women didn’t even know what the platform issues were for the march, and so they just came to bond in sisterhood and fellowship, and they also came many with their own agendas. One woman I talked to wanted to bring the issue of domestic violence to the forefront. So there were plenty–there were 1 million women there and probably each had their own agenda, but the underlying core of what the women were coming for was to unite in solidarity.

MARGARET WARNER: And you mentioned the platform issues. Tell us about the official speakers because I gather there were just dozens. Was there a platform? Was there an agenda?

ANNETTE JOHN-HALL: Yes, there was a platform. There was an agenda. The platform issues were 12 issues that addressed the multitude of things that really focused on grassroots kind of issues, the issues that women basically in public housing face, issues of homelessness, penal reform, the establishment of rights of passage centers and black independent schools. The platform speakers were as diverse as black women themselves–everyone from Jada Pinkett and Faith Evans, a rapper, Jada Pinkett, of course, as everybody knows, is an actress–all the way to Ava Maham and Winnie Mandela. So the–I believe that the platform speakers addressed the diversity of the crowd.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Lekan, would you say this was a gathering of people with many agendas, or was there something in common underlying it? I’m now talking more perhaps about the official program but also the people who were there.

LEKAN OGUNTOYINBO: I think it was clearly a gathering of many agendas, but the interesting thing about it was all the agendas seemed to hit the same theme, which was sisters healing sisters. These were a group of women, who were–or groups of women who were getting together because they’re trying to address problems in the black community, problems such as teenage pregnancy, problems such as unemployment, problems such as the empowerment of women, and problems such as how black women and black men can better get along and help each other and help build a community together. So the agenda was diverse, yet it was not diverse. It hit the same theme of just trying to better the black community.

MARGARET WARNER: And so are you saying they were more looking to themselves than to government? What were they looking–

LEKAN OGUNTOYINBO: No. They were clearly looking more to themselves than to government. I spoke with a woman who said, look, there’s a lot of things to cover men can’t do. The government can’t give us businesses to run; the government can’t teach us those old style values that black people hold so dearly, values such as cherishing the extended family, values such as religion, values such as respect, and love, and things like that that held blacks in this country together for hundreds of years through slavery and through segregation times. Those are things the government can’t legislate. We need to go back to those kinds of values so they can build us up and so we can do more things for our community because there are too many problems in our community right now. The government cannot address all those problems.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, both of you have covered these other mass marches recently. Annette, you covered the Million Man March, I gather, and Lekan, you covered the Promise Keepers just a few weeks ago.

LEKAN OGUNTOYINBO: Actually, I attended the Promise Keepers marches as an observer, right.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, you attended. So, Annette, let me ask you first. Did you say in the two events you went to–is there a common denominator between them in terms of what people are looking for?

ANNETTE JOHN-HALL: Yes. First let me just say what was different because I think that has been addressed as well. In the Million Man March women–men came to make a vow. They came to atone. They also came to bond because African-American men will–men in general–but African-American men in particular don’t do enough of that. They also came to make a statement that they can come together and be orderly and not be murderers and not do drugs and can be decent because the media has portrayed them to be otherwise. For the women, though, it was not so much of a toning thing but it was women coming together to support each other. It was as simple as two women making a call to come together and other women coming together. It was also to validate themselves, to let each other know that what they were doing for their communities and their families were right and to keep fighting. I think the underlying thing for both the marches was to build ourselves up in our communities. As Lekan indicated I talked to a lot of women who said that government was stripping the programs. When they marched 30 years ago for civil rights, it was to have the government give them programs, have the government acknowledge them. Now those same programs are being stripped away, and it’s all about self-empowerment for both African-American men and women.

MARGARET WARNER: Lekan, draw on your experience at the Promise Keepers. Why do you think–and maybe you can’t make a generalization–but why do you think people come to these? They can’t just do this at home with their neighbors and their friends. Why come together with another, you know, million people?

LEKAN OGUNTOYINBO: Well, I think a couple of reasons. I think, No. 1, when you come together with that many people, you are losing yourself anonymity. It’s easier to go up to a stranger from maybe Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and you come from maybe South of Michigan and go up to that person and give that person a hug and say, “I love you, Brother,” or “I love you, Sister.” I mean, you do that to your next door neighbor, you’ve lived next door to her for ten years, I mean, she looks at you kind of strange.

So I think that’s one of the reasons. But I think a second reason, frankly, is that why this is going on is that there’s a theme of reconciliation. The Promise Keepers march was clearly of a reconciliation. Million Woman March was also clearly of a reconciliation. It was about women who wanted to be reconciled with themselves. A lot of women told me things about how they just don’t get along. They just don’t come together as a group. They also told me that this fact or this idea–this problem of not getting along has destroyed a lot of opportunities, and so I think the women we can look in to be reconciled not just for their community, not just for their kids, not just for their husbands and brothers and sons, but also with a greater community wanted to do more and just reach out to one another, keep each other out of prison and keep each other off drugs. And so there’s a theme that’s coursing through America right now–reconciliation–which I think would just be–if the high keeps up, it’s going to be stupendous.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Lekan and Annette, thank you both very much.