e-mail us
‘Renewal and hope’ in Philadelphia

Special Report Writer

They arrived in Philadelphia by the bus load to announce a day of “repentance, resurrection and restoration.”

Detroit sent 101 buses; Brooklyn, N.Y., Cleveland and Baltimore 50 each; Dallas 30; Chicago 25; Washington 23; Atlanta 20; Newark, N.J., and Minneapolis 12 each; St. Paul, Minn., 10; Milwaukee 6 and Lexington, Ky., 4.

Buses continued to roll in Oct. 25, bus after bus unloading scores of African-American women in Philadelphia for the Million Women March.

The tired and stiff passengers joined their sisters -- many of whom had flown in from places like Albuquerque, N.M., Kansas City, Mo., Tulsa, Okla., even Zimbabwe and South Africa -- to begin the work they had set for themselves in the nation, the neighborhood and in every black family.

Estimates of how many came varied. Police put the crowd at between 500,000 and l.5 million. March organizers claimed 2 million, saying that many women gathered as early as 5 a.m. for the predawn prayer service at Penn’s Landing and left the March at midday as tens of thousands more joined it.

“When I heard Winnie Mandela declare ‘This is a holy day,’ I felt renewal and hope. This was an awesome event,” said Felicia Muldrow, director of religious education at Our Mother of Sorrows church in West Philadelphia, who participated along with several other parishioners.

Unlike many marchers, she was near enough to a speaker set up on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to hear all the presenters from South African liberationist Mandela to rapper Sister Souljah, from Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to actress Jada Pinkett.

“Not everyone goes to church or is even interested in church,” Muldrow said, but black women could say “Amen,” she added, to Mandela’s message that faith can overcome all obstacles and is required in the struggle for freedom and justice.

They could also laugh heartily when the former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela said, after pointing to Jesus’ birth as the greatest event on earth: “No man had anything to do with it. It was between a woman and God.”

Waters relayed some depressing data for black women: They constitute 50 percent of U.S. women in prison; they are dying of AIDS at a greater rate than white or Latino women; heart disease and breast cancer are attacking them; 55 to 60 percent of black households are headed by women; their median income is $20,000 annually and they’re paid 63 cents for every dollar a man earns.

However, black women are not that depressed, Muldrow said.

Despite the facts, “the pulse of African-American women is healthy. We are psychologically and spiritually whole,” Muldrow told NCR. “When you think about the odds -- against all odds -- African-American women are strong,” she said.

For Muldrow the highlight of the march was when a l2-year-old black girl ran up to her, saying, “I’m special,” and asked Muldrow to autograph her composition book as a memento of the historic day.

Muldrow said she would bring back to her parish the goals of the march: unity and universal peace. They are messages that go well with Catholic faith, she said, and ones that are or can be incorporated into the liturgy, the catechumenate program and evangelization efforts geared to children in the parish school -- many of whom are not Catholic, she said.

“We know we are all on a faith journey. We try to teach the importance of staying in touch with God, of putting God at the center of our life. We know everyone will die and transcend this life, but while we’re here, we must do our best for one another,” Muldrow said.

Many commentators as well as hundreds in the crowd seemed baffled by the sheer size of the gathering. Phile Chionesu and Asia Coney, two Philadelphia activists who began to organize the event a year ago following the Million Man March on Washington, eschewed the mainstream media and did not seek corporate sponsors for the March.

Instead, news spread sister to sister, via the Internet and the black press. Many who came said they had learned of the event only a day or so before.

Maria Dirkson, a 59-year-old mother of five daughters and grandmother of 10, volunteered the past six months in the office of the organizing committee, working on transportation, publicity and fundraising. She photocopied fliers in the office of her state senator and state representative and distributed them wherever she could.

A member of St. Martin de Porres church in Northeast Philadelphia, Dirkson is also a member of the church choir, its hospital club and the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of St. Peter Claver.

Dirkson said she “found time” to work on the march because she felt it was important for all black women. “Those of us sitting in on committee meetings got the feeling that women all over the country were facing the same problems,” she said.

So the organizers prepared a 12-point platform calling for programs to help women make the transition from prison back into the community; for black independent schools and for the release of political prisoners, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia journalist convicted of killing a local policeman.

The platform also expressed concern about inadequate health care, poor schools, unemployment, teen pregnancy, crime and family breakdowns.

It included a cause dear to Waters’ heart -- investigating allegations that the CIA played a role in allowing black neighborhoods to become infested with crack cocaine. African-American women are so concerned about ridding their communities of drugs that “they wouldn’t mind having the military come in” to help get the job done, Dirkson said.

She told NCR that 800 children attend the parish school, that none are drug users and yet twice this semester the students have heard gun shots or seen a robbery in progress. Dirkson blamed the incidents on the fact that a “quick cash” facility is across the street from the school yard and that drug dealers often congregate nearby.

Parishioners have petitioned the city to have the facility moved or to provide more protection for the children. Recently the police increased patrols of the area during school hours.

As a result of the march, which several members of the parish attended, Dirkson said that black women are “feeling more empowered. ... The big corporations are eating up everything and not sharing the wealth. We want to train our people to own and run enterprises in their own communities.”

Dirkson said she regretted that so many vendors showed up and could not be turned away even though they had not been invited or licensed by the organizers. Many women complained that hawkers had turned the day into a street fair rather than a hoped-for spiritual revival.

For Dirkson, the best part of the march was its overarching peace. There were “no cuss words, no fussing, no fighting. ... People think that nothing can be done without quarreling, fighting and shooting. But we women aren’t made of that quality. We can do things without violence.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 1997