By Barnett Wright
Times staff writer
They gather from all corners of the metro area into one room, for one evening, for one purpose and with one voice.
The artists at the annual “The Women Gather” program at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute have often been the highlight of Women’s History Month at the Institute. This year’s event is needed more than ever given the political discord often found in today’s public discourse, say organizers.
“The theme for Women’s History Month is ‘Working to Form a More Perfect Union,’” said Priscilla Hancock Cooper, poet and BCRI Vice President of Institutional Programs. “This program will honor women in public service and government. However, with the issues that have arisen in the past year, one segment of ‘The Women Gather’ will be devoted to the poets’ visions of the problems and prospects for our nation in forming ‘a more perfect union.’”
The program is entitled “The Women Gather: An Evening of Poetry and Music” and held annually but reaches beyond the evening of poetry or Women’s History Month. The message is one that resonates year round.
“I am constantly floored by how many talented deep thinking women performers and poets there are in this community,” said Laura Secord, one of the artists featured in the production. “I’ve been involved in poetry and poetry performance in Birmingham since 1996 and I have had the opportunity through that performance to meet many, many incredible women. The Women Gather has been one place that I have connected with some really incredible talent.”
LaQuita Middleton-Holmes, a Birmingham native, who does a mixture of original spoken word and monologues that sometimes include singing, said the event is a unifying experience.
“It gives women an opportunity to be in union with one another,” she said. “This is an event where people can come in and see women unify and be together as one, having a good time and being creative in our own respective fields.”
Middleton-Holmes said she focuses on stories of unsung women during the civil rights movement.
“A lot of times we hear about Dr. (Martin Luther) King and Rev. (Ralph) Abernathy and (Rev.) Andy Young and Rev. (Fred) Shuttlesworth — just about the men,” Middleton-Holmes said. “Nobody really understands the true role of woman in the civil rights movement . . . Every role was important. Everybody in the movement made the movement work.”
Secord, a nurse practitioner, said her poetry touches on a lot of personal issues.
“Very important to me is to give voice to ordinary people — especially women,” she said. “I’ve been writing that kind of poetry for 20 years. I’ve also made my living as a nurse practitioner in HIV so I write poems about people dealing with HIV especially women. I write poems about powerful women who have changed the world. I write poems about ordinary women who are struggling and how they are still inspired to transform things despite the difficulties of survival.”
Secord said she moved to Birmingham in 1976 from California and has been impressed by the growth of the Magic City.
“I’m a northern California white girl who really looked at Birmingham as a terrible place before I came here because I only had what the press said, but . . . this is a place with the spirit of change and the spirit of improving the lives of others (a place that) has survived over the past 50 years and still thrived,” Secord said. “And that’s what this event is for me: a connection of the women in this community that have been fighting to make this a better place.”
Other local poets and singers featured in the 2016 production of “The Women Gather” include Shaunteka Curry; Wafiyyah El-Amin; Shirley Ferrill; Alicia Johnson Williams; Ashley Jones; Jessica Lockett; Kerry Madden; Thelma Nance; Jennifer Sanders and Evelyn Dilworth-Williams.
The public celebration of women’s history began in 1978 as “Women’s History Week” in Sonoma County, California. In 1981, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) co-sponsored a joint Congressional resolution proclaiming a national Women’s History Week. In 1987, Congress expanded the celebration to a month, and March was declared Women’s History Month.