AT ONE point in the 1960s, Dorothy Irene Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women, was supposed to have her picture taken with President Johnson and other civil rights leaders. The only woman in the group, Height maintained her measured, quiet dignity while the men pushed their chairs between hers and the president's. In hindsight, she is amused at the way her colleagues treated her as the invisible woman. "I don't know how we ever got that picture," she chuckles.
So how can Height support the Million Man March, first called by Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, and now endorsed by an array of African-American organizations? She tells me that she does it "in the name of love" for African-American men.
Height notes that the women who have joined the steering committee for the march, including C. Delores Tucker, president of the National Political Congress of Black Women, and Barbara Williams Skinner, head of the Black Leadership Institute, have had an impact on the public statements about the march. Their hand can be seen in materials that explicitly address the role of women and in the leadership roles that some women have been offered in march-related activities. Cora Masters Barry will spearhead a voter registration effort at the march. The local support committee is headed by E. Faye Williams, an attorney and former congressional candidate.
Endorsements have come from some (but not all) of the black sororities, from Rosa Parks, the "mother of the civil rights movement," as well as Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers and Betty Shabazz, widows of the most venerated men in the civil rights movement. Like Height, these women seem motivated by the notion that anything positive that happens in the African-American community is better than no positive action.
But, I keep wondering, how positive can the march be when it sets black gender relations back to the time when Height was the only woman in the civil rights leadership? I twist aspects of the march around in my mind, like small squares in a Rubik's cube, and no matter how much I twist them, they just don't line up.
I will give Louis Farrakhan credit -- if that's the right word -- for the master strategy here. By defining the march as "in the interest of black people," reaching out to women and Christian groups "in the name of unity," and garnering high-profile endorsements, he has effectively muzzled much of the principled criticism that comes from those who chafe at the authoritarian and patriarchal rhetoric that defines the march.
But when men are "taking control," we have to ask what control will they take, and from whom? These uncooperative words -- taking, not sharing -- not so subtly attack the women who now head almost half of African-American households. When men are "stepping up," we have to ask, will the first step will be onto a woman's back?
A Nation of Islam publication titled "Women in Support of the Million Man March" offers a soothing message for women. "Were it not for our boldness, our courage, our intelligence and forthrightness, Black men would have very little \. \. \. . We have been their leaders, their teachers, their nurses. We have patiently waited for our men to take up their responsibility. Now that they have made up their minds to stand up for us and our families, they want us to aid them in this march by staying home with the children."
This quote ignores leadership realities in the African-American community. If the NAACP is any example, women support while men lead. Women make up more than half of the membership of the NAACP (70 percent by some estimates), but just a fraction of the board of directors. With the number of female-headed families in the African-American community, it can certainly be argued that men are missed as fathers and breadwinners. But a survey of the civil rights leadership, mostly male, gives far less credence to the notion that men are missing as leaders.
We have to remember too that the Nation of Islam excoriated Anita Hill as a "tool" of the white man for her testimony about Clarence Thomas and attributed Desiree Washington's rape charges against Mike Tyson to whites (though there was no white man in that hotel room). It seems to me that when black women speak up, the Nation of Islam is quick to brand us as traitors.
So while I reject white Americans' use of Louis Farrakhan as a litmus test of acceptable black opinion, I also reject the notion that I have to embrace Farrakhan just because white America looks askance at him. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam offer an array of positives and negatives to black America. On the plus side, there is his focus on economic development and discipline. On the minus side, there is the antisemitic rhetoric and the traditionalism in gender relations.
"I saw the films of women being beaten by police and bitten by dogs in the civil rights movement," a Nation of Islam minister with a bunch of X's after his name recently told me. "I don't want to subject you to that, my sister."
His words were gentle, and if I believed in patriarchy, I might have swooned. But it will take more than soft words for me to ignore the historical legacy of broad-shouldered, strong African-American women. Not strong by default but out of necessity. A necessity that continues, given the attacks on black America: the actions of a conservative and hostile Congress; the Supreme Court's decisions against affirmative action; the increase in crime and violence in black neighborhoods; and unfair use of the death penalty.
Of course, these are some of the reasons the Million Man March has been called, but these things don't affect men, exclusively. They affect the entire black community. I can't argue with the eagerness and enthusiasm displayed by the heretofore disaffected men. Or with the sense of empowerment that some men will feel by simply showing up. Or with a display of positive action that so many yearn for.
But if this march is so important that it will change African-American life, why are women relegated to the periphery? Is this the price we have to pay for gaining a sense of purpose?
Perhaps it is the price we pay for the leadership void that currently exists in the African-American community. The NAACP has been weakened by two years worth of headlines, first about sexual harassment, then fiscal skullduggery. The Urban League is far more substantive that its public image would suggest, but few know about its job training programs, corporate partnerships and advocacy work. The sororities, fraternities and other organizations have all sliced off a piece of the African-American condition to address, but there is no sense of a coming together.
The organizers of the march say they are going to change all that. They insist that Oct. 16 is more than a march. Besides voter registration and community education, they are calling for a nationwide "Day of Absence," urging African Americans to stay home from work and school in solidarity with those who will be in Washington. Those incarcerated have been asked to refrain from sports activities; others have been asked to show support by sending money, registering voters and engaging in other positive activities.
But the march itself will be the foundation of the activities of Oct. 16 -- a foundation that is fundamentally flawed and sends a terrible signal to young women and girls. Not long ago, I met a high school junior who told me that she would like to travel and write, much as I do, but that she "needed" to find a man first. She had already assimilated the message that men's interests come before hers. I thought she needed a reality check about the meaning of family and partnership.
And so do the organizers of the Million Man March. Women like Dorothy Height and Rosa Parks support this march in the name of love for black men. I say these men need challenge, as well as love. They need women marching beside them to provide that challenge. The African-American community can't build much momentum from the imperfect vehicle of an exclusionary march. If the march really belongs to us all, then women should be encouraged to join the Million Man March. Julianne Malveaux is host of the "The Julianne Malveaux Show" on Pacifica Radio.