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Women were ubiquitous in the trenches of the civil rights movement, but were nearly left off the official program of the historic 1963 March on Washington.
It was not surprising at the time.
The list of female pioneers in the movement was long, but men ran the show. Scratch that: Women ran the show, too, but mostly out of public view. Few women were in pulpits, although church ladies kept the houses of worship in order. Next to no women were leading labor unions, even as increasing numbers of them joined the workforce. And the largest civil rights groups were run by men, although plenty of the organizers, thinkers and volunteers were women.
After some of the women who had the ear of march organizers protested the slight, a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” was added to the program. It had the makings of a Sunday morning women’s day program: flowery words and little substance.
That wasn’t the only snub. The female activists, many of whom had risked their lives alongside men, were assigned to walk with the wives of civil rights leaders on that day.
That included Dorothy Height, who was president of the National Council of Negro Women, and Rosa Parks, the seamstress who began the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Parks was an NAACP activist who had been involved in the fight against Jim Crow for longer than many of the men given speaking roles.
“We were waiting for Dr. Height to speak,” says Thelma Daley, director of Women in the NAACP. “We didn’t know the full story. We didn’t know the dynamics. We didn’t know the inner workings. She was too much of a diplomat to tell us.”
There would be no opportunity for a woman to lay out full remarks on the need for freedom and jobs.
Pauli Murray, a fiery lawyer and activist who was there for the march, chafed.
Parks wrote later that in the future, “women wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”
“This had been going on since the 1940s,” says William P. Jones, author of “The March on Washington,” a book published this summer that examines the dynamics behind that day. “Height and a lot of women had been saying the civil rights movement is gaining traction and we want to support it, but at the same time the way in which black women are getting ignored and the way in which they are affected by sexism is getting worse and worse.”
That exclusion created a moment of clarity.
Women needed to band together, Height told Daley and other women as the march approached.
On that day, she stood on the podium in one of her signature fancy hats, alongside other leaders. Photographs show her looking on with approval as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks. In years to come, she would rarely be left out of a meeting of the nation’s top civil rights leaders.
Height defied the request of March on Washington Chairman A. Philip Randolph that marchers not remain in the city after the event. The day after, Height convened an interracial gathering that pulled in women from the civil rights groups and such organizations as the National Council of Catholic Women and the National Council of Jewish Women.
In time, black women would find themselves on the edges of the feminist movement, which did not always speak to the issues that were most important to them. But in 1963, they saw the value of joining together with those of their own sex.
It was a commonly held belief that a woman’s place was in the home — even though most black women worked outside their homes. The same condescending attitude pervaded the civil rights movement.
“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.