Photos by Julianna Hunter.
They exited the bus about a half-hour after sunrise on January 23, stretching their travel-worn limbs in an early morning mist. Clear plastic backpacks stuffed with snacks and first aid kits were hitched onto shoulders. Signature pink knitted caps were crammed on heads, a show of solidarity that doubled as an effective barrier against the mid-January chill.
It wasn’t a gathering you would necessarily expect from Alabamians, a state which was among the reddest of the red in the 2016 presidential election, with a U.S. senator who is such a trusted advisor to President Donald Trump that he’s been tapped as the next attorney general.
But dozens of women, along with a handful of men and children, boarded charter buses in Birmingham Friday evening, headed for Washington D.C. The group would lend their bodies and voices to a protest some experts are calling the largest demonstration in the nation’s history.
In sum, the Alabama coalition would spend two-thirds of the entire trip on the road, around 13 hours each way, bolstered by fitful naps and gas station snacks, to attend the Women’s March on Washington.
But the exhausting trip was worth it, participants say, as a respite from an oft-isolating political and social climate in Alabama.
Beth Resha, a rider on Birmingham Bus #2, hailed from Guntersville, Alabama. “It’s redder than red,” Resha said of Guntersville’s political leanings. “It’s practically burgundy.”
Resha, whose seatmate to Washington was her mother, wouldn’t have considered herself politically active before the 2016 election. Trump’s rhetoric about women never sat well with her, but an encounter with a hometown acquaintance last year flipped a switch in her head.
“This woman said, ‘I don’t think I even know a Democrat,’” Resha said, chuckling and shaking her head. “And I said, ‘Well yes, you do.’”
Being a blue dot in a red state can be overwhelming, Resha said, and often lonely.
“You always feel like you’re outnumbered,” Resha said, “but something like this restores your faith again.”
It’s difficult to estimate total crowd size, but there’s no doubt attendance exceeded initial forecasts. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority reported more than 1 million “entries” into the capital’s Metro (subway) system on Saturday, a rough estimate that tallies passenger trips and likely counted people on return trips twice.
Regardless, the Washington Post reports Saturday’s Metro numbers are the second-biggest daily volume in Metro’s 40-year history. President Barack Obama’s first inauguration still holds the record.
The Women’s March Metro trips nearly doubled the number of trips taken on Friday, President Donald Trump’s inauguration day.
Birmingham’s bus fleet joined a registered 1,200 charter buses from across the country in a sprawling parking lot of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Many of their fellow bus riders had traveled longer trips than theirs.
“It was overwhelming,” Lisa Brackett, a Birmingham rider who hails from Gadsden, said of the size and diversity of the crowd. “To see women in their 90s on walkers, dads holding up their kids, teenagers climbing trees to get a better view.”
Unlike some riders, Brackett has considered herself politically active all her life. “We were a very political family. The moment you turned 18, you registered to vote,” she said.
But despite a life of activism, the 2016 campaign was difficult. She thought Trump’s chances were dashed after reports broke of him mocking a disabled New York Times reporter. Then the sexually explicit recordings leaked and sexual assault allegations bubbled up. But for every stumbling block that Brackett thought would trip Trump up, his supporters seemed to push back the line of what they deemed acceptable.
“I’ve been surprised by the people I thought I knew,” she said.
Brackett, who identifies as a gay woman, said she was marching in solidarity for gay and minority rights, but she was galvanized Saturday by the community of people marching for so many different issues: “It’s been overwhelming to see in action people who are compassionate and on the right side of history.”
The charter buses from Birmingham and Huntsville weren’t the only ones on the road from the Yellowhammer State to D.C. this weekend; many people caravanned themselves. As Alabamians are wont to do, Auburn and Alabama school colors were on display alongside political buttons and pins. School slogans were exchanged alongside high-fives in the shoulder-to-shoulder traffic on the National Mall, camaraderie of origin in a diverse crowd.
Courtney Chapman Thomas of Tuscaloosa was wading through the crowd when she spotted an Alabama sign one of the bus riders carried. Thomas and her friends say they decided the week of the march to attend and drove up together.
“If I didn’t come, that would [be] an action; a definite choice not to participate,” she said. “And not participating is not acceptable anymore. It’s time to do something. I can’t be a bystander to injustice anywhere.”
Alexa Hayes, a Birmingham native, also chose to drive up to D.C. herself. Hayes said she considered herself politically active before the march, though much of it was relegated to the online realm.
Though the Women’s March was not organized strictly as a political protest against Trump, Hayes believes it’s a direct response to rhetoric Trump encouraged during his campaign. The campaign brought out the worst in people, Hayes said, including sexism, racism, and xenophobia.
“They’re standing proud now, crowing like they ‘won’ and that their ‘good old days’ way of life is coming back,” Hayes said. “It’s not. The popular vote said it’s not. The polls said it’s not. Trump’s toilet approval rating going into the inauguration said it’s not. We march to demonstrate that we the people will not accept that way of life and refuse to go backwards, retreat inwards and recreate a white, male-dominated country. …
“We were really marching against that way of life, that perspective of what America should be. We see a world of open arms, peace and equality. We’ll march to demonstrate that and we’ll fight for it if need be, I have no doubt.”
After an hours-long rally, the Women’s March officially began on Saturday afternoon. Hundreds of thousands of people inched their way up Independence Avenue, Brackett and her group among them.
But at the back of the massive crowd, many were unsure if they would get a chance to finish the route behind so many people. Groups began to break off, crossing the National Mall in the opposite direction of the official march route. They coalesced on Pennsylvania Avenue, spilling onto the sidewalks and risers erected for Friday’s inaugural parade as they marched toward the White House.
Brackett said the sight of the original march meeting another wave of people was her favorite moment of the day.
“Suddenly there was another parade of hundreds of thousands of people. It was amazing to see the two groups knit together,” Brackett said. “There were so many women, but there were disabled people, people in their 90s, children, men. It was really about humanity.”
Though the march, in D.C. and across the world, garnered a bigger turnout than expected, participants know that continued steps at home will be necessary to ensure the protection of women’s rights going forward.
“[Young people] are the generation that’s got to deal with this. You’ve got to get involved at the state and local level,” Brackett said. “Just run for something. Run to be the dog catcher. Put yourself out there.”
Resha also headed home ready to encourage the younger generation, and to speak louder in her burgundy corner of the world.
“I can’t just sit by anymore,” she said. “I think that’s what got us to this point, trying to be too nice and not express your views because they might be different. I’m going to go home and encourage my daughter that it’s not as bad as we felt on Election Day. There’s hope. And we’re not alone.”