Still Marching for Justice, Health, and Black Women’s Lives

Guest post from Reverend Dr. Geraldine Pemberton, Assistant Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia and member of PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council. 

As a 74 year old retired nurse, I can remember the original March on Washington well.  I wasn’t able to be there in person that day, but many of my family members were.  After marching with Dr. King and more than 200,000 other Americans, they were inspired to come home and fight for justice.

I myself am of the Jim Crow era.  The injustices that Dr. King described that day as the “chains of discrimination” were injustices I faced first-hand.  My father, who was born in North Carolina, would take my family down from Philadelphia for visits to his home state.  He would try to prepare us as much as he could, but it was always overwhelming.  I remember that once we passed the Mason-Dixon line, we couldn’t use most bathrooms.  We would have to use outhouses behind gas stations instead.

Today I can see how far we’ve come, but also how much further we still have to go.  I have spent much of my life fighting the injustices that drove the first March on Washington, especially health disparities facing women of color.  Justice, I have learned, is a very big umbrella that must include equality for women.  A just society has to be one that values women’s voices and fights back against health disparities that threaten black women’s lives.

Twenty years after that march, I went to another major event that inspired people from all over to drop what they were doing and travel across the country – the 1983 Spelman College conference on women’s health, which birthed what is now the Black Women’s Health Imperative.  My friend and I saw a flyer for it but didn’t think we could afford to go.  We maxed out our credit cards and drove down to Atlanta. Thousands of women showed up for the conference – young women, older women, women with children, women who had hitchhiked there.  We just showed up - we had to be there.

That conference unfolded into a lifetime of work in pursuit of improving the health outcomes of African American women.  As a former Director of Nursing and a current Health Committee Director for an alliance of Black clergy in Philadelphia, I know that women of color need improved access to care and greater provider sensitivity.  Women need more information on the diseases that affect us most.  And as a 74 year old Philadelphian, I’m still fighting for women’s health and justice.  This year I am organizing health forums at churches throughout the city to give women more information about diseases, healthy living, and greater access to health services though the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act commonly known as “Obamacare.”

The first health forum is this weekend – fifty years after the March on Washington.  In so many ways, we are still marching.

PFAW Foundation