More than 3,000 people marched from the D'Army Bailey Court House to the National Civil Rights Museum Saturday in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington.
A day following the inauguration of Donald Trump, Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and Adrienne Bailey, the former chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South who married Civil Rights Museum founder Judge D'Army Bailey, took to the steps of Court House and spoke to a sea of people — parents and their toddlers, teenagers, the elderly — lifting signs and chanting.
"This is the most serious threat to the constitution ever in our lifetime," Cohen said. "A threat to the environment, a threat to world peace, a threat to women's rights, a threat to the rights of everyone. This is supposed to be a 'non-truth' period — but truth always wins in the long run."
Addressing the young women in the audience, Bailey said it was when she entered college in 1969 that she understood how important women were as change makers.
"We didn't wait to see who was gonna be the president of the student body or who was going to be the president of the debate team," Bailey said. "It was all women. We learned from each other and we taught each other."
Bailey's late husband was pulled into the civil rights movement, she said, because he "knew the importance of making change."
"My husband dedicated his life to social justice and civil rights," Bailey said. "You are continuing the struggle. It's our time to rise up again. This is a party, this is a celebration, but it's time to roll up our sleeves. Our work is just beginning."
Tamara Fain, a "a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, and a health-care professional who believes in women's rights," brought her six-year-old granddaughter to the march so she could see people unifying.
"I want her to know it's important to support other women and men and that it's important for her to stand up for her rights and other's rights," Fain said. "And that she is capable of doing whatever she wants to do with the support of others."
Sabrina Wilson, a 16-year-old Muslim American and member of the Bridge Builders Change Program, said she attended the march because the United States should be "comfortable for everyone because it's everyone's home." She'd like to eventually work in policy change, Wilson said.
"As a Muslim woman, I want to represent minorities in America because we don't have enough representation," Wilson said.
Zach Ferguson, who was walking down Main Street towards the rally, chimed in. “As a gay man, I’m concerned about where we’re headed in the next four years with a Trump presidency, with the vitriol we’ve seen in our country. I stand with women who want to control their own bodies. I’m concerned that a Republican controlled Congress doesn’t believe that, and has a platform to affect minorities. It’s time to stand up and fight. It’s time to go back to grassroots movements like this.”
“In 1969, I marched after Dr. King’s death. We marched in solidarity for justice for all people," said Vanessa Webster. "I saw a change. My mother was once called ‘girl’ in my presence. Now she’s Ms Anderson. I have my daughter here today for that reason. That resonated, peace and justice, back then. I’m 56 years old, and I’m marching today.”
Kevin and Brandi Newton brought their 20-month-old daughter Magnolia to the march in her stroller. “I’m here to represent my little girl,” Kevin said. “Women’s rights are human rights. When we march for women, we march for everyone. In addition to that, I’m also here to protest Trump and his policies to ignore science and take out the rights of the LBGTQ community and every other marginalized community in our country.”
Brandi, who had never taken part in a demonstration before, agreed. “It was really important to bring Magnolia today so she could be a part of this with us.”
Beside the Newtons, their friend Victoria brought her son Jack. “I guess we’re here today, because I want to set a good example to my son. He’s got a brother coming in May. As a mom of two boys, I want to teach them that everyone is equal, and that everyone is deserving of respect, no matter what. That’s what makes a real man, is respecting everybody.”
She, too had never marched before. Why now? She shrugged. “It’s a beautiful day!”
As Cohen spoke, Jennifer Van Deveer held a sign with a Putinist propaganda image altered to make the Russian premier appear to be holding a baby Trump. On the back were the words “Our bodies, our minds, our power.” What does she think of the reports the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian intelligence to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign? “I think it’s terrifying. I hope the Senate Select Committees gets into it and conduct a bipartisan investigation. It is a serious, serious situation.”
The 55 year old woman had never been to a protest before. “If I didn’t have children, I might not be so anxious. I am truly frightened for the future. Our rights are being whittled away. The possible defunding of Planned Parenthood is just awful. I hope our representatives listen to us.”
Natalie Worlow, director of the march, was standing in a doorway calmly coordinating and communicating. Was she an experienced community organizer. No, she said. “None of us have ever organized anything.
“After the election, we felt we had to do something. We couldn’t just mope around the house…We didn’t like the vitriol and the divisive rhetoric," Warlow said. "We think our diversity is what makes America great already, and when we join together, our diversity is what is going to bring about change. The rhetoric surrounding women that the president has used, when he says it, that makes it alright for everyone. We’re over half the population, but we’re relegated to minority status. When we come together, we have an amazing voice. Let’s use it.”
Marchers flowed south on Second street like a river of humanity, bearing homemade signs with slogans like “LOVE NOT HATE MAKES AMERICA GREAT” and “WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.” American flags fluttered alongside the rainbow pride flag, and knit, cat-eared pussy hats were ubiquitous, despite the 70 degree weather. The most common human image on the signs was of Carrie Fisher in costume as Princess Leia, the rebel commander from Star Wars. The first chant of the day was the call and response made famous by the 2008 Obama campaign: “Fired up! Ready to go!” In the moment, it took on a strange poignance. The last marchers cleared the Adams intersection at 10:35 AM.
“This election was a travesty,” said a woman named Betty. “There’s so much misinformation, so much mendacity, and so many people not realizing what we’re losing. We’re going to fight, and we’re going to get it back.”
Betty’s first vote for president was cast for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Had she ever seen an election like this one? “No. Never. Never. On both sides, we always had people who had sophisticated knowledge of the issues. They just had different viewpoints. This is something scary, something different. I’m very concerned that this president is just going to profit off the United States of America.”
Jose Davalia, a seasoned activist, said, “I am marching because I believe that the new administration of Donald Trump has very little respect for women and women’s rights. I think this needs to be stopped, and we need to let him know that is a loser—because he really lost the election—and he has no right to oppose the rights of women.”
How does this compare to other protests he’s attended over the years? “This is one of the largest ones I’ve seen.”
His friend was dressed in the garb of an Islamic cleric. He was Dr. Nabil A. Bayakly, a professor of Biology at LeMoyne-Owen College. His first march was in Los Angeles in 1991 to protest the police beating of Rodney King. “This is really great. I’m so happy to see so many people here. This is probably the largest protests we’ve had since when Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq, and the whole country came out. I see that this one is even bigger than that protest. That’s really very important and very significant, to send one message: that we here in Memphis and Shelby County are all one. We are not going to be divided by our religion, our ethnicity, our gender, our sexual orientation, our color, the tongue we speak, our age, disability, whatever. We see people from all walks of life. This sends a strong message to the local officials that we are all united. We have already sent some letters to the mayors and to the sheriff that we don’t want Memphis city or the county to accept any federal money to use police to arrest immigrants or cooperate with ICE.”
The crowd seemed to be expanding as people joined the march from side streets, leaving apartments and hotel rooms. Monica Kennedy stood to one side searching the crowd for the group of 5 professors from Ole Miss with whom she traveled to the protest. “I’m here to express my solidarity and be a part of a group of other people getting together to protest Trump, and protest everything he represents. There’s a very substantial portion of the population that absolutely disagrees with everything he stands for, with what his presidency represents, and with how it happened. There are issues that need to be addressed that might not be addressed, that might be marginalized now. Look at all these people, what’s on their t-shirts, what’s on their posters. Climate Change, Black Lives Matter, common sense gun legislation., all of it. That’s why we’re here. I’ve been active before in politics, I now want to be more vocal.”
Aside from a rumor about a guy driving a confederate flag-bedecked truck hurling insults at the women marchers, the Trumpers were a complete no-show.
“I think it’s time to show solidarity with all of the people who are marginalized and are likely to become more marginalized and unrepresented under the Trump administration," said filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox "This march is specifically for women. I think it’s important for allies of women to show support for women. I’m here to kick ass.”
Fox is a longtime activist whose film This Is What Love In Action Looks Like
brought the issue of forced gay reparative therapy to the national spotlight. What does a march like this accomplish? “It’s not about what it accomplishes in the day or the moment. It’s about the spark, the magic that may come from the people you meet that day, or the inspiration from the people you might find from being with a lot of likeminded people in a show of solidarity. That will build upon your life’s narrative for years to come, and will help you fight in the future.”
Under the Lorraine Motel sign is Maxine Strawder, a 78-year-old dancer and educator. “I am a citizen of this country. I am a resident of this city. I am a member of the human race. I am black, and I’m female, and I ain’t pleased.”
Strawder marched against segregation in Ohio and Nashville during the Civil Rights movement. She carries herself with a dancer’s dignity; the look in her eyes one of a seasoned warrior called back to active duty to defend her country. “Unfortunately, we’ve got this job to do,” she said.
What does a lifelong artist think about the possibility that the National Endowment for the Arts will be shuttered under Trump? She shrugs gracefully. “It’s been endangered all our lives. Nothing new,” she said.
Susan Lacy is an OBGYN with the women’s clinic Choices. “I am here to demonstrate peacefully and to support reproductive rights and women’s health issues. The Affordable Care Act is in the process of repeal. Planned Parenthood is likely to be defunded. There are many indicators that reproductive rights, women’s health, and women’s choice are under assault.”
Her clinic has treated a rush of women seeking help since the election. “We see people coming in to get IUDs and contraception, because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Women are chanting “I BELIEVE WE WILL WIN.”
Nearby is Ed Wallen, who is wearing a hat proclaiming him a 101st Airborne Vietnam Veteran, and a shirt for his organization Veterans For Peace. He’s standing next to his wife, Janice VanDerHoff. “I’m out here in a show of peace and all respect for the rights of women. Women should be equal with men, and I think we are trying to affirm that today.”
What does a combat veteran think about the reports of Russian election interference? “I tend to believe it. It’s lousy. It sucks.”
Did he ever think he would see the day when the President could be credibly accused of being a Russian intelligence asset? “No, I did not. Or anybody like Mister Trump. I was a chaplain in Viet Nam. People are running him down. But he’s our commander in chief now, and I will pray that he do the right things. That’s the only way I can look at it right now. I meet a lot of despondent people, and I tell them, ‘Pray for him. He needs it.’”
Cohen, who led the march with a sign that read "women's rights = human rights," had veered marchers onto Mulberry Street and past a mural of civil rights leaders and sanitation workers holding the now-iconic "I Am A Man" signs from the strike of 1968. Before ending the march in front of the Civil Rights Museum, some protestors paused to reflect on the ethos that embodied that movement, bearing similarities to 2017.
"For many, today is the first time you've take any step to publicly demonstrate your commitment to justice, freedom, and equality," said NCRM President Terri Lee Freeman. "For many others, this is simply another day in the struggle. What's important today, however, is that your motives are genuine and today becomes a beginning for your continued commitment and actions to ensure freedom and justice for all — or your recommitment to those principles."
Images by Chris McCoy, Justin Fox Burks, and Susan Ellis