To make Alabama's Women's March matter, keep marching

Roy S. Johnson 

Marches matter. Or they should. Some have changed us, seismically. They've struck down unjust laws, stopped wars, even toppled presidents.

Others, not so much.

Some ignited our intolerance for wrong as they moved toward their destination like a human tsunami with a singular voice saying, "No more!" Others simply came and went, into silence.

Marches, of course, were hallmarks of the civil rights movement and, later, efforts to end the Vietnam War.

Marches also energized masses in the early days of the pro-choice and gay rights movements more than a quarter century ago.

They all brought together people from varied plateaus -- from the lowest to the highest, youngest to oldest, richest to the poorest -- and with the simplest of physical tasks, showed that true power lies not with politicians, principalities or the petty elite but with masses that move as one.

The difference between them and the marches that limped into oblivion is that people who walked in the marches that changed us -- and many who never took a single stride -- never stopped marching.

They kept moving, long after the last stragglers finished the route.

They channeled the power and the glory of their simple, collective action into an irrepressible force that sprinted toward its goals.

They marched until the battle was won. Truthfully, some of them are still marching.

Protesters gather on the National Mall during the Women's March on Washington during the first full day of Donald Trump's presidency, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington. (Lucas Jackson/Pool Photo via AP)Lucas Jackson 

I'm not sure how many people around the world participated in the Women's March on Saturday. (I am sure White House press secretary Sean Spicer would say, "Three, five people max.") Two university professors -- Jeremy Pressman of the University of Connecticut, and Erica Chenoweth of the University of Denver -- built a spreadsheet chronicling low-to-high estimates from over 600 cities where marches took place. They ranged from the one-person "march" by American Ryann Arino in Oranjestad, Aruba, signature pink cap and all, to the up to 1 million who converged on Washington, D.C., too strong to even march.

Collectively, the professors say between 3,596,000 and 4,992,000 women, and plenty of men, around the world participated in the Women's March.

Most of them -- from 3.3 million up to 4.6 million -- marched in the U.S., making the Women's March most likely the largest such event in American history, and no doubt the biggest global mass protest ever.

Roy S. Johnson 

All over our election of the 45th President of the United States.

Therein lies the challenge. As well as the opportunity.

Every effective march/movement in our history was focused on a singular cause: discrimination, war, a woman's right to choose....

This one? Not so much.

It was focused on Donald Trump.

Yes, it was birthed and billed as the "Women's March," created to protest the newly elected President's promise to attack the protections of Roe v. Wade and his degrading comments on women, but it grew to be as much about Trump's promise to drag America back to a "great" era that wasn't great at all for African-Americans and other people of color, women or the poor.

Roy S. Johnson 

"I can't believe I'm still marching for equality after 50 years," read one woman's sign in Birmingham. "But I'm here."

As I watched the protests emerge and evolve on television -- building first along the Eastern seaboard in Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia and Boston; then growing in Chicago, Detroit, Dallas and even Omaha; and finally stirring out west in the likes of Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland--my first thought was: where were all these people vote on Election Day?!

I wondered the same as a stunning crowd spanning generations (pets, too) gathered, cheered and chanted in Kelly Ingram Park on a winter cool and sunny Saturday afternoon, an estimated 5,000, say Birmingham police, some bussing from Montgomery and even rural areas of the state.

Did they all vote?

Birmingham turned out to support global anti-Trump movement

My guess is many didn't. Some were still-seething Bernie followers who stayed home pouting. Some "didn't like" either candidate and voted third party (meaning they didn't really vote at all). Or perhaps some of the marchers were among the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump over Hilary Clinton (58 percent of white women 45-54 and 64 percent of white protestant women, all according to ABC News poll), and who may be having serious voters' remorse.

Roy S. Johnson 

Whatever their motivation, or individual cause, their presence -- here and nationwide -- was heartening, inspiring, energizing. And it may have unveiled a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a true march-to-movement in which people from all social, economic, geographic and ethnic backgrounds become re-engaged with the political process after years of slumber and complacency.

It is as if a dormant beast was stirred, and it's really, really hungry.

Maybe. It depends on what happens now with all that collective anger, passion and energy.

Nationally, Women's March organizers are asking people to fill out a card available on their website ( with thoughts on the issues that matter most to them (suggestions are provided in the "Women's March Unity Principals"), send it to their U.S. senator then "stay tuned" for 10 Actions in 100 Days.

Here in Alabama, the opportunities for achieving significant change are aplenty and perhaps needed more here than in almost any other state in the nation.

We all know our shortcomings. When it comes to education, health care and economic disparities, political gerrymandering, immigration, and other critical areas, we're all but the caboose among states -- even as groups have long tried to affect change.

Last year, state legislature killed Birmingham's effort to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, waffled over expanding Medicaid to help the working poor and sat on its hands when it came to any efforts to create a law requiring employers to provide a leave of absence for parents.

Roy S. Johnson 

"No matter how much we march," says Councilwoman Sheila Tyson, who participated in the march, "if we don't change bills and laws of the legislative body in the state it means nothing."

At Kelly Ingram, 17 organizations with disparate agendas set up booths soliciting support. They included the Alabama Alliance for Healthy Youth, Birmingham Peace Project, Cahaba Riverkeepers, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Over the Mountain Democrats, Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood SE and the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.

Truthfully, if you didn't find at least one cause that excites you beyond the march, you were probably lost and just ended up at Kelly Ingram.

Verin (right) with Julie Levinson-Gabis at marchRoy S. Johnson 

Afterward, Linda Verin, a long-time Democratic activist in Birmingham and a co-organizer of the local march, recalled her own mother taking a bus from Chicago to Selma in 1965 to march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. She herself marched against the Vietnam War.

"When we started marching, it seemed futile," she said. "But looking back we brought down a couple of Presidents and changed the country. The civil rights movement did the same thing. I have seen the world change. Obviously, we want to get more people involved in various efforts.

"Alabama has been a leader in positive things happening. The national equal-pay law is named for [Alabamian] Lily Ledbetter, for instance. But also, unfortunately, we've been a leader in dragging people backward, like with immigration law HB-56."

Roy S. Johnson 

Of course, little happens in America without race and class factoring in -- all the more in our parts.

A critique of the local march was its relative dearth of women of color, which stands out in a park smack in the middle of a city almost 75 percent African-American. As in the early stages of the national march, white women were the primary organizers of the local event. But while the national group ultimately engaged three experienced women of color as co-chairs -- Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez -- that did not happen here.

Protesters cheer at the Women's March on Washington during the first full day of Donald Trump's presidency, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington. Organizers of the Women's March on Washington expect more than 200,000 people to attend the gathering. Other protests are expected in other U.S. cities. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)Associated Press 

"The days of silo organizing are over," said Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, at a town-hall event that took place in Washington, D.C. soon after the march ended.

In Birmingham, Verin says the organizers are "aware" of the criticism and have already connected with local female minority leaders to ensure future efforts are more diverse.

On Saturday, organizers passed out flyers and gathered email addresses and, like the national leaders, plan to follow up with marchers. "People supported us," said Verin. "Now support is about offering your time and money."

As well as just becoming smarter about who represents you - from your local school board and city council to your representatives in Montgomery and Washington, D.C.

And perhaps even running for office. Birmingham Forward is already conducting seminars on citizen lobbying and trying to run for local offices.

"That is the most straight-forward way to keep the momentum going."

And to make this march matter.


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