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“Freedom!”: Black Women Speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

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The forthcoming Volume VIII of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a detailed discussion of the planning, execution, and consequences of the major events from September 1962–December 1963. This section will showcase our research into some of the more unfamiliar aspects in our volume research, giving a broader glimpse into King’s activities and the nationwide scope of the civil rights movement.

Female demonstrators at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963.
Female demonstrators at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963. Photo by Warren K. Leffler. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection.

By Meghan Weaver, Research Assistant

While King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech and addresses at the March on Washington by prominent male activists, such as John Lewis and A. Philip Randolph, have been widely published and studied, the female participants were sidelined both at the event and in the historical record. In their own search to cash the check of freedom and justice that America’s founding fathers promised to its citizens, the men of the civil rights movement overlooked Black women as fellow beneficiaries of that unpaid check. This affront exposed sexism within the movement and inspired female leaders to broaden their activism to include issues concerning gender equality.

Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women was the only female member of the “Big Six” march organizers, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman of the National Council of Churches served as the lone woman on the event’s administrative committee. When the march’s recommended program was presented at a 16 August organizing meeting, it included no female speakers. An attendee proposed that Randolph should ask female activists to stand as he discussed the historic role of Black women and that they could take a bow. According to her 1964 memoir, Hedgeman was offended at this slight but decided not to comment during the meeting to avoid embarrassing the male chairmen.

After the meeting, Hedgeman convened with Corinne Smith and Geri Stark, fundraisers with the Negro American Labor Council, to strategize the role of women at the march. Smith and Stark were disturbed by the lack of female speakers and insisted a woman be put on the program. Hedgeman then wrote a statement memo to Randolph and the other chairmen addressing her concerns. When she received no response, Hedgeman read the statement to the male leaders at the final organizing meeting on 23 August. She said in part, “In light of the role of Negro women in the struggle for freedom and especially in light of the extra burden they have carried because of the castration of our 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.” Hedgeman suggested that Myrlie Evers be allowed to speak during the program and present the other women to be honored during the “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.” After Hedgeman’s address, Roy Wilkins spoke up first, agreeing that she had made the case for a female speaker. As a result, Evers was added to the program as the presenter of the women’s tribute.

On 28 August 1963, crowds first assembled at the Washington Monument at 9 a.m. Actress and activist Ruby Dee emceed the program with her husband Ossie Davis. The morning program included performances from Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary; Odetta also sang a medley of freedom songs. After additional musical performances, march organizer Bayard Rustin introduced “two great, great heroes of the struggle”: Rosa Parks, of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Daisy Bates, NAACP chapter president and an advisor to the Little Rock Nine. In what would be her only opportunity to speak to the crowd, Parks said:

Hello friends of freedom. It’s a wonderful day and let us be thankful we have reached this point, and we go farther from now to greater things. Thank you.

Next, Bates delivered a short address to the roaring crowd:

Thank you very much. This is indeed a happy day for me. You know, sometimes in your life when you are fighting for freedom and human dignity your faith fails you, and you wonder whether democracy is worth fighting for, or whether you can ever be an American citizen in this country. But, something happened that renews faith in democracy and in America and its people. It happened to me in 1957 when the students of Little Rock walked alone through the mob. You cried with us, but we had to walk it alone. But your presence here today testifies that no child will have to walk alone through a mob in any city or hamlet of this country because you will be there walking with them. Thank you.

Actress and activist Lena Horne was introduced next and shouted a single word into the microphone: “Freedom!”

By 11:30 a.m., approximately 100,000 persons had gathered at the Washington Monument, and organizers began preparations to march. Parks and Bates were to accompany other female civil rights leaders and wives of the “Big Six” in leading the march down Independence Avenue toward the Lincoln Memorial, while male leaders marched down Constitution Avenue accompanied by the media.

To kick off the afternoon event, renowned singer Mahalia Jackson performed the national anthem. Height recalled the moment in her memoir: “That moment was vital to awakening the women’s movement. Mr. Rustin’s stance showed us that men honestly didn’t see their position as patriarchal or patronizing. They were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household!” The program suffered a delay while organizers worked behind the scenes to edit John Lewis’s controversial, fiery speech. To fill the time, additional speakers were brought on stage at the Lincoln Memorial, including Josephine Baker, an American-born Parisian entertainer, civil rights activist, and former agent for the French Resistance. Baker spoke for just over two minutes, in the longest address that day by a woman:

I want you to know that this is the happiest day of my entire life. And as you all must know, I have had a very long life and I’m sixty years old. The results today of seeing you all together is a sight for sore eyes. You’re together as salt and pepper just as you should be. Just as I’ve always wanted you to be and peoples of the world have always wanted you to be. You are a united people at last because without unity there cannot be any victory. You see, I’m glad. I’m glad that in my homeland, in my homeland where I was born in love and respect, I’m glad to see this day come to pass. This day, because you are on the eve of complete victory, and tomorrow, time will do the rest.

I want you to know also how proud I am to be here today, and after so many long years of struggle fighting here and elsewhere for your rights, our rights, the rights of humanity, the rights of man, I’m glad that you have accepted me to come. I didn’t ask you. I didn’t have to. I just came because it was my duty and I’m going to say again you are on the eve of complete victory. Continue on. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.

Due to traffic delays en route from the airport, Evers missed her speaking slot and never made it to the stage. Instead, Bates again stepped in to address the crowd, which had grown to over 200,000. She said:

Mr. Randolph, friends, the women of this country [inaudible], our pledge to you, to Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins and all of you fighting for civil liberties—that we will join hands with you as women of this country. Rosa Gragg [president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs], Vice President; Dorothy Height, the National Council of Negro Women; and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; the Methodist Church Women, all the women pledge that 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.

The honored women included Parks; Bates;  Evers, Diane Nash, Elvira Turner, widow of assassinated NAACP activist Herbert Lee; and Gloria Richardson, cofounder of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, who felt that women were treated as second-class citizens during the event. She was invited to give a two-minute speech, but an event marshal took away the microphone after she spoke one word: “Hello.” In a 2013 interview, Richardson recalled that after the tribute, she and Horne were on the event grounds with Parks. Told by event marshals that they were causing a commotion, Richardson and Horne were escorted to a taxi, missing King’s “I Have a Dream” address.

In her 1977 memoir, Hedgeman recalled listening to the speeches of the male activists. She wrote: “Wryly, it occurred to me that women, too, were not yet adequately included in man’s journey toward humanity,” and she noted the fact that Parks was only casually introduced to the crowd despite her status as a pioneer of the movement. The morning after the march, Height assembled female leaders at a meeting called “After the March—What?” to discuss lessons learned from the event and plot their course forward. At the meeting, lawyer Pauli Murray delivered remarks criticizing the exclusion of women from the Lincoln Memorial program. The group reached a consensus that future activism needed to focus on both gender and racial equality, heightening momentum for the women’s empowerment movement to come.