Charlotte 2019 women’s march hosts seek unity amid national strife over anti-Semitism

Can the Charlotte women’s march sustain itself in 2019 without tapping the partisan outrage that gave birth to the worldwide movement two years ago?

Can it overcome the “white women’s march” stigma that arose by the second year, while distancing itself from an anti-Semitism controversy that has engulfed this year’s march in Washington, D.C.?

Is it reasonable — or even possible — to celebrate women’s unity in such divided times?

Local organizers hope so.

The Jan. 26 event at Charlotte’s First Ward Park has a new name: Women United March.

It’s a week after the Jan. 19 “women’s wave” marches in Washington and other cities, because that date clashes with Charlotte’s traditional weekend of activities honoring Martin Luther King Jr. (The 2019 Women’s March on Raleigh is also Jan. 26, for similar reasons.)

And there’s a new partner for the Charlotte march, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Queen City chapter, whose tax-exempt nonprofit status bans partisan politics. That means speakers will be asked to shun the Trump-bashing that sparked the first women’s marches and inspired a slew of signmakers who turned out in 2017 and 2018.

“The main purpose is women’s equality,” said event co-chair Autumn Watson, who has been an organizer since the first Charlotte march. “We’re not a political march. We’re not a political entity.”

This year’s event follows a 2018 midterm election that saw record numbers of women elected to office, often with the support of women who got engaged in politics in the last couple of years, the Observer reported in November.

The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners now has six women on the nine-member board, after three Democratic women — one of whom was inspired to run by the 2017 women’s march — unseated three Republican men. And three female Democrats from Mecklenburg County defeated Republican male incumbents in state legislative races, though women will still hold only 45 of 170 seats in the General Assembly.

Race, religion collide

But any jubilation is countered by the tensions among women who come from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds — the challenge of intersectionality, to use the progressive label. For instance, African-American women may be critical of white women’s approach to feminism if it ignores or tacitly supports racism.

The New York Times recently reported on clashes among the founders of the national march that have led to allegations of anti-Semitism based on an organizer’s ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

“The rift is now so dire that there will be two marches on the same day next month on the streets of New York: one led by the Women’s March group, which is billed as being led by women of color, and another by a group affiliated with March On that is stressing its denunciation of anti-Semitism,” the Times reported.

Tamika Mallory, the national Women’s March co-president who has voiced support for Farrakhan, is slated to speak at UNC Asheville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week on Jan. 24.

In the wake of the controversy, Women’s March Chicago canceled what has been a huge annual rally, the Chicago Tribune reported. New Orleans did the same this week, according to The Washington Times. The National Organization for Women, which describes itself as a proud sponsor of the 2017 and 2018 marches, announced Dec. 21 that it would withhold financial support this year “until the current questions regarding leadership are resolved.”

Thousands packed First Ward Park at the start of the 2018 women’s march in Charlotte.

In Charlotte, organizers issued a statement denouncing anti-Semitism — “including statements made by any of the national Women’s March leaders” — and emphasizing the independence of the local group. The website for the Charlotte march, WomenUnitedMarch.org, touts the event as “Non-Partisan. Grassroots. Locally Homegrown.”

Long before the latest national flare-up, Charlotte organizers had been talking with Rabbi Judith Schindler, a social justice activist and Jewish studies professor at Queens University of Charlotte. Schindler will be a keynote speaker on Jan. 26.

“I welcome the hard conversations and the struggles,” Schindler said recently. “It’s not just a march. It’s a movement toward justice.”

Confronting race

Almost immediately after the first women’s march, held the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, critics said white feminists had dominated the demonstrations and ignored crucial issues for people of color.

“Was the women’s march just another display of white privilege?” said a Washington Post headline posted three days later.

Charlotte organizers, most of them white professional women, worked at building broader connections. Charlotte Women’s March, a group that supports the January rallies and works year-round on such issues as health care, immigration and education, partnered with the Black Women’s Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg to host a reception for women elected to public office in 2017. They lined up a racially diverse panel of speakers for the 2018 march.

Marchers at the 2018 women’s march in uptown Charlotte.

But the diversity question lingered.

“In a city where African-Americans make up at least 35 percent of the population, the second annual Charlotte Women’s March was decidedly white,” editor Glenn Burkins wrote in a Jan. 23 post in Qcitymetro.com, a site for news about Charlotte’s black community. “That’s not to say women of color were absent from the march; they simply weren’t there in numbers anywhere near their population percentages.”

In February Laura Meier and Beth Davis of Charlotte Women’s March submitted a guest column to Qcitymetro.

“Can we talk, ladies?” the piece began. It went on to acknowledge “complaints by black women” and invited women of color to join the group. “Can you help us, and we help you, be a part of the solution? We cannot change the past, but we can help change the present and the future.”

That triggered a barrage of criticism from readers who said the piece was tone-deaf. Some said the references to “complaints” were condescending, and that the white women were still trying to control the conversation.

Meier, who is the new co-president of Charlotte Women’s March, said that was a painful but valuable lesson. She listened to the criticism and emerged with some new friends and a better understanding of privilege and racial equity, she said.

“That’s part of the journey,” Meier said. “You’re going to make mistakes and missteps. You have to own them.”

On Dec. 30 the Washington Post reported that organizers of a women’s march in majority-white Humboldt County, Calif., had canceled their event, scheduled for Jan. 19, because previous marches were “overwhelmingly white” and the organizers want to “take time for more outreach.”

The 2019 version

Tiffany Hemmings-Prather, president of the Queen City 100 Black Women chapter, said her group eagerly accepted the Charlotte march organizers’ invitation to join them in highlighting concerns that unite women. The National Coalition of 100 Black Women is a group of professional women whose goals include gender equity, economic empowerment and racial justice.

While Charlotte Women’s March has not filed for tax-exempt nonprofit status, 100 Black Women is bound by the tax code’s 501(c)(3) section, which bans partisan political activity. Organizers say they can’t control what signs people bring, but speakers are being instructed to talk about issues.

“What we’re trying to do is bring to attention that there’s still injustice,” Hemmings-Prather said. “I think it doesn’t matter politically where you stand.”

While Trump may have mobilized this wave of activism, organizers say, issues such as voting rights and access to health care are much bigger than any one president. “After Trump is gone, the women’s movement will still be here,” Anderson said.

The 2018 women’s march in Charlotte featured plenty of anti-Trump imagery, including his portrait attached to toilet seats.

The first two Charlotte marches were done on a shoestring, but this year the organizers are trying to raise about $10,000 to cover costs for a stage, sound system and other expenses.

And before they start setting up their own event, women’s march activists say they’ll participate in Charlotte’s Martin Luther King Jr. parade on Jan. 19 and staff a table at a breakfast in King’s honor.

Challenges remain

Still, organizers know they face a challenge trying to unify a wide circle of people who are passionate about their own issues.

For instance, the group faced a barrage of questions on Facebook about its stand on abolishing the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

The lengthy response that the organizers eventually posted supports reforming but not abolishing ICE, a stand that didn’t satisfy some who posed the query.

“If ‘women’ does not include immigrant women, imprisoned women and undocumented women, then you need to reconsider the name of this March. It’s either all women, or it’s not,” one person commented.

Desiree Zapata Miller, president of the Mecklenburg Evening Republican Women’s Club, said she’s intrigued by the notion of liberal and conservative women uniting on issues such as human trafficking and criminal justice reform. But she said she doubts that the march would be the right setting.

“I can’t imagine there would be a lot of conservatives that would show up,” said Miller, a community columnist for the Observer’s editorial page.

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP chapter, said that even with 100 Black Women involved the march fails to represent the people who suffer most from oppression. “When you talk about the most disenfranchised women, it’s not the 100 Black Women,” Mack said. “It’s not the people who have BA’s and MA’s.”

Organizers say they’re committed to learning and staying engaged, even in the face of criticism. “I think we do what we can,” Anderson said. “Hopefully we make a difference. ... It certainly is better than doing nothing.”

And while organizers say they hope to see a crowd that matches previous years — estimates ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 — the turnout isn’t the real goal.

“Marches alone don’t create sustainable change. Marches can inspire change,” Schindler said. “It’s just one step on a journey to change.”

What to expect

Women United March will start at 11 a.m. Jan. 26 at First Ward Park, 301 E. Seventh St. After hearing from speakers, the group will march through uptown Charlotte around 12:30 p.m., returning to the park for entertainment and networking. The event is scheduled to end at 3 p.m.

For information, including opportunities to volunteer or donate: www.womenunitedmarch.org.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.