WASHINGTON — The most surprising element of Saturday’s Million Man March was its women.
The 20th anniversary celebration of 1995’s landmark gathering included women of all racial origins, religions, creeds and cultures. They filled the National Mall from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.
Christian women wore jeans. Muslim women donned veils. Palestinian women dressed in head scarves. Native American women appeared in their traditional clothing. Latino women spoke of justice for all people of color. White women also joined the crusade.
The thousands of women present last weekend were a much larger presence than at the original Million Man March.
Twenty years ago, the Million Man March was planned as a day of atonement. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan urged women not to attend, saying it was a day solely for black men to affirm their commitment to family and community.
But last weekend’s mass gathering on the National Mall was noticeably different: Women were at the forefront of the occasion dubbed “Justice or Else.” From beginning to end, women made their presence felt.
Women stood next to their husbands and boyfriends. Women held their babies. Women waved signs that read: “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Women said they traveled from all across the country to offer moral support for African-American men.
Holding a sign that said, “Black is Still Beautiful,” Howard University student Jalisa Goodwin said she feels strongly about her role as an African-American woman and proudly supports black men.
“If you look at the history of liberation struggles, black women have always been a part of the movement and have always been leading the movement,” Goodwin said. “As a sister, I say if I want to be loved and I want to be supported, then I have to love and support. The intersection of being black and being a woman is where we meet, and when we meet, we advocate for each other.”
Many of the young female protesters held signs and wore T-shirts bearing the name of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Waller County, Texas, on July 13, three days after being arrested in the wake of a traffic stop. An autopsy ruled that she died after “self-inflicted asphyxiation,” although her family and supporters dispute that conclusion.
“I have a son — and from Sandra Bland to Trayvon Martin — I don’t want to have to teach my son that he has to fear the people that are supposed to protect him,” said Ebony Peterson, a Prairie View A&M University student, who traveled from Texas to Washington to join the march.
“We need justice, the system is unjust,” she said. “We’re tired. It’s time to do something. We have to fix our own community, and we can’t depend on anybody else to fix it. We have to fix it ourselves.”
Saturday’s “Justice or Else” movement appeared to draw a much younger crowd than the first Million Man March.
“I feel a huge generational responsibility to be here today,” said Angel Dye, a Howard University student. “I think it’s significant that this is happening when we are in our twenties. At the time of the original march, we were babies.
“I was a year old when the first march happened,” Dye said. “And now, I’m old enough that I understand the importance of the movement that happened then, because it’s still affecting me as a young black woman now.”
Women are usually at the forefront of civil rights movements, Dye said, but they don’t always get the recognition that they deserve.
“Often times we don’t look for the recognition. We’re doing it for larger reasons than ourselves,” Dye said. “But I think it’s important now that we demand that kind of equality and that kind of respect within our communities, because we are the helm of our communities. We’re community builders, and we’re gate keepers. So my role here today, as a woman, is to essentially affirm to myself that I matter as a black woman within the black community.”
Saturday’s festivities were not exclusive to black and brown women. Heidi Wolff, a white woman from Chicago, said she attended because she felt compelled to join women of color in their fight for racial justice.
“I care about all people of all colors,” Wolff said, standing on the Mall with thousands of female civil-rights advocates. “I have a lot of black friends, and I feel like not enough white people represent.”