Word of Mouth Draws Throngs to March

Called via the Internet and church groups, the Million Woman March became a forum for what matters to black communities.

For Margie Armstrong, a feeling of solidarity developed even before she reached Philadelphia. After a long drive from Michigan, she became mired in a traffic jam on the Pennsylvania Turnpike amid cars filled with black women.

"Everyone was saying, 'Hi, sister,' " says Ms. Armstrong, a custodian at the University of Michigan. "It was great."

From its chaotic inception to its vigorous culmination on Saturday, the Million Woman March in Philadelphia was about the grass roots - about black women from all walks of life determined to come together and tell America what matters to them.

"We don't want anyone to tell us what our problems are," Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, told listeners assembled on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. "We want to tell them."

The event was modeled after the Million Man March of two years ago, when hundreds of thousands of black men answered a call for male responsibility by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. But the women did not bring the same sense of atonement to their march that the men did. Instead, the women's gathering was aimed at healing and strategizing on how to achieve a better future for segments of the black community that remain embattled.

The march comes at a time when many black women in America face a difficult reality. Federal statistics show 53 percent of black families are headed by women. Moreover, black women rank behind white and black men and white women in earning college degrees, with 12.9 percent of black women completing four years of college.

The march also provided a forum for issues that many blacks feel are ignored by mainstream groups. Among them are human rights abuses against blacks, the start of independent black schools, help for women transitioning from prison back into the community, and a demand for an investigation into allegations of CIA involvement in the crack trade in black neighborhoods.

BUT above all, the event signified that national civil-rights and women's groups don't necessarily speak for a majority black women in America. In fact, the event's organizers, two community activists virtually unknown outside Philadelphia, largely bypassed the circuits of black influence, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Instead, they relied on the organizing skills of local community leaders like themselves, and spread word of the march through churches, college campuses, and the Internet.

Neither did the organizers shy away from controversial issues or political figures. Keynote speakers included US Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California, who has called for investigating CIA involvement in the crack trade, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who has been accused of being involved in the torture murders of eight South Africans.

But any disorganization seemed to be forgiven by the estimated 500,000 to 2 million women who turned out Saturday. The goal was to achieve a mood of solidarity, and many here found it.

"I feel connected. I feel like I'm meeting with family, and I'm excited about meeting with my sisters," said Charlene Ryan, a great-grandmother from Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

To Mona Kelly, a bookkeeper's assistant, the march was "about sisterhood, bonding, unity, gaining strength from each other."

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