Pressing for a more substantive inclusion of women in the 1963 March on Washington program, Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women, addressed Bayard Rustin–who just last month received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, largely for his role in organizing the March.
According to Height, Rustin responded, “Women are included. Every group has women in it.” Height later observed: “Clearly there was a low tolerance level for anyone raising the questions about the women’s participation.”
Amid the avalanche of histories and retrospectives of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last week, the role black women played and the ways they were sidelined at the March itself has received only cursory mention in public, largely repeating their marginalization of 50 years past.
SNCC leader and now-Congressman John Lewis remains the only living speaker from the March. That wouldn’t be the case if two women still alive today–Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Diane Nash and Gloria Richardson, co-chair of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee–had been allowed to speak on that August day in 1963. They were recognized in the program with Lewis, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. Their voices weren’t heard.
Angered at these omissions, civil rights activist lawyer Pauli Murray wrote A. Phillip Randolph,
“I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions… The time has come to say to you quite candidly, Mr. Randolph, that ‘tokenism’ is as offensive when applied to women as when applied to Negroes.”
Yet criticisms such as this were treated as demands for inappropriate recognition, at odds with the spirit of the event. March organizers worried about how to pick one woman. The idea that multiple women might speak was too far-fetched to contemplate.
Randolph and Rustin circulated a memo with their proposed resolution to the problem. This “Tribute to Women” was slated to highlight six women—Rosa Parks the most recognizable name among them—who would be asked to stand up and be recognized by the crowd.
No woman would formally address the crowd.
That day, the main march was led by men with Randolph at the head and King and others a few paces behind processed down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial. The wives of the leaders were not allowed to march with their husbands. The five women to be honored–Myrlie Evers was not present–led a small, separate side march along Independence Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial.
Daisy Bates introduced the Tribute to Women—a 142-word introduction written by the NAACP’s John Morsell that pledged women’s continued role in the struggle for civil rights. Indeed, the only words spoken by a woman at the March were written for her and contained a pledge to support the men of the movement, despite the fact that the women on the dais and in the crowd that day had risked their lives for years —some even decades—to press for civil rights. Bates began:
“Mr. Randolph, the women of this country pledge to you, Mr. Randolph, to Martin Luther King, to Roy Wilkins, and all of you fighting for civil liberties, that we will join hands with you, as women of this country.”
Randolph himself seemed flummoxed during this portion of the program, at one point forgetting which women were actually being recognized.
“Uh, who else? Will the …”
Someone said to him, “Rosa Parks.” Randolph continued:
“Miss Rosa Parks… will they all stand.”
Parks stood up and offered eight words of acknowledgment:
“Hello, friends of freedom, it’s a wonderful day.”
Richardson, who was interviewed on Democracy Now! last week, managed to get out a “hello” before the microphone was taken from her.
Right before King was about to speak, Richardson found herself put in a cab along with actress Lena Horne and sent back to the hotel. March organizers claimed that they were worried the two would get mobbed and crushed. No one else was sent back to the hotel.
“They did this,” Richardson believed, “because Lena Horne had had Rosa Parks by the hand and had been taking her to satellite broadcasts, saying, ‘This is who started the Civil Rights Movement, not Martin Luther King. This is the woman you need to interview.’”
Richardson started helping Horne bring reporters to Parks. “We got several people to interview Rosa Parks. The march organizers must have found that out.”
After the rally’s completion, no women got to be part of the delegation of 10 leaders that met with President Kennedy. Height observed, “I’ve never seen a more immovable force. We could not get women’s participation taken seriously.”
Parks was dumbfounded that actress Josephine Baker (who was also on the dais) was not allowed to speak, and told Bates that afternoon how she hoped for a “better day coming.” Awed by the assembled crowd, organizer Anna Arnold Hedgeman nonetheless reflected:
“In front of 250,000 people who had come to Washington because they had a dream, and in the face of all the men and women of the past who had dreamed in vain, I wished very much that Martin had said, ‘We have a dream.’”
The dual experience of the March–the power of the experience and the marginalization of women–stayed with many women activists who according to Height, became “much more aware and much more aggressive” in calling out the sexism of the male leadership of the movement. While white women are often credited with the flowering of the feminist movement of the mid-sixties, black women also sowed these seeds in the wake of the March on Washington.
As we honor the March and the civil rights movement going forward, we need to make sure our histories reflect the breadth of that history. Otherwise, we’re just reproducing the marginalization women experienced that historic August day all over again.
Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.”