“It was the culture of our time. You can’t go back and undo,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson says with regret, comparing the treatment of women during that time to the sort of prejudice that the march’s lead organizer, Bayard Rustin, was subjected to by others in the movement because he was gay.
In the backrooms of the planning committee of the march, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who was then on the staff of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches, was the only woman invited to be on the march’s administrative committee, which worked alongside the men who would headline the event. She strongly opposed going forward with a program that had not one female speaker — Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson were among the women invited to sing. Hedgeman offered such speakers as Height or Bates or Diane Nash, who kept the Freedom Rides going in 1961 when it seemed as though they would falter.
The tribute to Negro women was added to the program, and Randolph would deliver it. Hedgeman had other ideas and wrote a letter that she read aloud at a planning meeting 12 days before the march.
“In light of the role of the Negro women in the struggle for freedom and especially in light of the extra burden they have carried because of the castration of the Negro man in this culture, it is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March on Washington Meeting at the Lincoln Memorial,” she said. Her protest resulted in Randolph allowing a woman to give the tribute.
Still, it is often said that no woman spoke at the “Great March,” as it became known. The program lists Mrs. Medgar Evers as a speaker. She had lost her husband, the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi, a month and a half earlier to a racist’s bullet. But Myrlie Evers had double-booked her schedule and was caught in traffic on her way to the Mall from the airport. She missed her speaking slot.
Daisy Bates, who guided and advised the Little Rock Nine as they attempted to integrate the city’s high school, took Evers’s spot.
On Thursday, Melanie L. Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, gathered in a banquet room full of female activists for a luncheon to recall their foremothers in the movement, including Bates, Hedgeman and Height, all of whom have passed away.
Angela Rye, a young Democratic activist who spoke at the luncheon, pointed to Bates’s remarks as worth remembering.
“She only spoke 142 words,” Rye says. “She talked to us about action, about what we can do after the march. She is saying, ‘We will act. We don’t need to talk.’ ”
Bates packed power into her few minutes on the big stage. She showily called out the names of many female leaders and then made a commitment on behalf of the women present to keep up the fight. Rye delivered a portion of Bates’s 1963 remarks to those gathered: “We will join hands with you. We will kneel in; we will sit in until we can eat in any corner in the United States. We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States. And we will sit in and we will kneel in and we will lie in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.”
Bernice King, the only one of King’s children to follow their father into the ministry, took the stage after Rye. With portraits of Height perched around the room, she reminded those present that the Montgomery bus boycott would not have happened without women and that the protests in Alabama prepared the country for the March on Washington.
“We must ensure that the story of women in the movement is told and the record is accurate,” King says. “Oftentimes it’s in the periphery, in the backroom, somewhere on the fringes where the story of women is told.”
She is chief executive of the King Center in Atlanta and will co-host a march commemorating the iconic event. All week she will be front and center.