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Spirited Million Woman March Anniversary Faces Challenges But Plans Renewed Activism

By Michael Z. Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Nov 1, 2017 - 12:10:36 PM

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Thousands attend the Million Woman March on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Penn., Oct. 25, 1997. Hundreds of thousands of Black women, undaunted by light rain, walked through the city to show solidarity and draw attention to issues they say are ignored by some mainstream women's groups. At upper left is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo:AP/Wide World photos
PHILADELPHIA—A small but determined group of activists came to the city to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the spectacular Million Woman March (MWM) held here in 1997.

The gathering itself could serve as a metaphor for the progress Black woman have made since the original march, and current obstacles faced. Spirted desires versus funding problems, lack of local participation, communication and organizing challenges were among stumbling blocks to overcome.

Organized by Million Woman  March founder Empress Phile’ Chionesu, the commemoration was held over seven days, Oct. 23-29. With the theme “Raising Up the Mother of Civilization,” the reunion and convention included workshops and conversations across the city discussing such issues as domestic violence, the Black Arts movement, Black women in the justice movement, money management, a “Declarations of Violations” Speak Out and Forum, and an educational workshop. It culminated with a rain-soaked Million Woman March Reunion gathering and procession from city hall to the planned outdoor site for a Sunday rally.

Million Woman March Empress Phile’ Chionesu presenting at Paul Robeson House.
Another highlight was the 1st Annual International African Women’s Solidarity and Appreciation Day held Oct. 25. March organizers used historical venues like the Black United Fund building, Mother Bethel AME Church, the Paul Robeson House and the Church of the Advocate to host various workshops.

As the week’s theme moved from march to movement, the main organizer shared her vision. “We start in the spirit of self-determination and the spirit of our ancestors,” Ms. Chionseu told the audience during a Saturday, Oct. 28, Educational Workshop at the Beckett Center in North Philadelphia. “We must do for ourselves in the legacy of Marcus Garvey, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and Madam CJ Walker. We are setting an example. This (weekend) is not the big event. It will happen down the road,” she said. “We are going to do a year of celebration. There has never been a movement for Black Women. There is now. Be Black and mean it,” she declared to the enthusiastic crowd.

A lone sign is seen above the crowd during the Million Woman March in Philadelphia, Oct. 25, 1997. City offi cials prepared for up to 700,000 women to attend the daylong event, which focused on “repentance, resurrection and restoration.'' Photo: AP/Wide World photos

Winnie Mandela, former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela, right, and activist Dick Gregory raise their fi sts at the beginning of her keynote speech at the Million Woman March in Philadelphia, Penn., Oct. 25, 1997. Hundreds of thousands of Black women stood shoulder to shoulder at the march, showing their solidarity and drawing attention to issues they believed mainstream groups ignore. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

“Our theme is Raising Up the Mother of Civilization. We want to give a message of Black power that is real. It’s not a nationality but a mentality. We intend to develop seven sister cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, N.J., New York, Washington, and Baltimore,” she continued.

Million Woman March Black arts workshop participants. Photos: Michael Z. Muhammad
“We are determined to do something independent within the next three years in those cities, in the areas of education, health, arts, and culture. We are going to bring in natural products such as shea butter and other things. Million Woman March will start marketing these products, and we will become their distributor. We intend to set up an online store featuring all types of Black natural products. We will be training initially sisters coming out of incarceration in sales. We call this program M-4, Media, Marketing, Manufacturing and Merchandising units. Tomorrow we launch.”

Her independent vision didn’t come without a price. It was difficult getting the word out, venues changed and it was sometimes hard to get updated information, some told The Final Call. Events didn’t always start on time.

Pauline Thomas, Hattie Bonds, Arlene Muhammad, Elizabeth Lassiter, and tour guide Anthony Jones at Mother Bethel AME Church.
On the day commemorating the march anniversary, the skies opened up, perhaps raining the tears of the ancestors and cleansing the city.

The drenched marchers found refuge in a Black-owned dance hall where water puddled in places on the floor.

Participants came from all over the country, as far away as Los Angeles with their agendas and concerns.

Anita Belle, who came from Detroit, told The Final Call she is a member of N’COBRA (National Coalition for Reparations for Blacks in America). She attended the original march. “We wanted to be a part of the commemoration to be sure issues are raised concerning reparations,” she said.

Million Woman March Empress Phile’ Chionesu with march coordinators.
Spiritual teacher and natural healer Queen Afua from Brooklyn told The Final Call that the reunion for her was a reminder. We must never forget and stay together because with unity comes strength and power, she said.

“Each one of us has a special gift. We must connect with gifts. Bringing women together is very critical. This is a wonderful forum to continue to build on,” she said.

Shirley J. Carter from Philadelphia was present for the original march. She felt the 20-year event was needed to keep the history alive and keep Black women energized.

“Black women have not progressed enough in the last 20 years. We have a long road ahead,” said Ms. Carter.

Valerie Susan Mcloyd, also from Philadelphia, believes Black women have achieved a great deal of unity since 1997.  “We have come together tighter than what we see. We have a mutual respect and understanding for each other. Over the last 20 years, we have had so many issues that we are faced with we have a better understanding of what we are doing,” said Ms. Mcloyd. The biggest issue that needs to be dealt with is learning to respect Black men, she added.

Among reunion participants were Rita Daniels, an ancestor of Harriet Tubman from Atlanta, Ga.; educator Theresa Golden of Los Angeles, Baba Victor Gibson from Detroit, and Mama Hattie Bonds from Minnesota. There was also a performance of the stage play “Hairitage” and a musical performance by Chris Nelson featuring Suburban Station.   

Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely of Harlem, a longtime activist for justice, reparations, international affairs and Africa, told The Final Call: “This is a very historical moment purifying the mother of civilization and to bring her concerns before the world community.”

Rita Daniels relative of Harriet Tubman presenting at educational workshop. Photo: Michael Z. Muhammad (R) Ramona Africa at Paul Robeson house.