Black women hear calls for unity, power
Million Woman March draws mile-long crowd
October 25, 1997
Web posted at: 8:25 p.m. EDT (0025 GMT)
PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- African-American women flocked to Philadelphia by the hundreds of thousands Saturday, listening to impassioned calls to build political, economic and social unity within their communities.
While organizers of the Million Woman March didn't estimate the size of the crowd, city officials put the number at between 300,00 and 500,000. At its height, women filled an entire mile-long boulevard from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Speaking to the crowd, one of the event's organizers, Phile Chionesu, seemed almost at a loss of words in the wake of the strong turnout.
"This has got to be one of the proudest days of my life," she said. "Though we still walk amongst various obstacles as it pertains to us as a people, we have come together today to begin to take a stand, to work together."
The day's keynote speaker, Winnie Mandela, former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela, saluted the "unsung strugglers," African-American women who have fought slavery and injustice throughout history.
She quoted American abolitionist Sojourner Truth's observation that "if the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, all alone, then together women ought to be able to turn it right-side up again."
"Of course we can. Of course we will, and of course we are doing it," Mandela said. "We'll march into the 21st century will all our might as black women."
March began at Liberty Bell
Undaunted by chilly temperatures and light rain, marchers began with a sunrise service by the Liberty Bell. They then walked a two-mile route up Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the speaker's tent and podium set up outside the museum.
Marchers carried banners and signs. One read, "I am one in a million."
"Oh my gosh. So many. So many," said JoAnne Royster of Arlington, Virginia, as she looked out upon the crowd.
Because of the size of the assemblage, and with no large television screens or loudspeakers near the rear, those in the back struggled to see or hear the speeches.
Modeled on the Million Man March that brought hundreds of thousands of black men to Washington two years ago, the women's march was meant to show unity in the face of problems ranging from inadequate heath care and poor education to the scourge of drugs and unemployment.
CIA investigation part of march platform
The march also provided a forum for issues that many blacks feel don't receive enough attention, such as alleged human rights abuses against blacks and the demand for an investigation into allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in the crack cocaine trade in black neighborhoods.
U.S. Rep Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who is pushing for that investigation, was one of the event's principal speakers.
"After today, we will never be the same," Waters said. "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 1995.
"A nation can rise no higher than its women," said Khadijah Farrakhan. "We focus on women but cannot lose sight that we must rise as a family -- men, women and children."
Grass-roots organizing a success
Saturday's event was organized by Chionesu and Asia Coney, two Philadelphia small business owners and community activists. Their insistence on taking a grass-roots approach to organizing the march prompted controversy.
They avoided the usual channels for publicizing major events, such as courting the mainstream media and soliciting corporate donations. They also bypassed the established circuits of black influence in America, including organizations such as the NAACP.
Instead, they relied on the organizing powers of community activists like themselves. They used the Internet, the African-American media and word-of-mouth to drum up interest in the event.
Though their strategy raised concerns as to whether the march would actually succeed, the first signs that it would came late Friday, when thousands of women began arriving at Philadelphia hotels from as far away as California.
Referring to black women, Coney said, "We have a history of doing the impossible."
Margie Armstrong, from Michigan, was one of a number of women who became mired in a traffic jam on the Pennsylvania Turnpike amid cars filled with black women.
"Everyone was saying, 'Hi, sister,'" she said. "It was great."
Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist and Reuters contributed to this report.