A More Feminist March On Washington

Over the weekend and throughout this week, thousands have ventured to Washington, D.C., to participate in the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

The original 250,000-strong March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963, is most famous for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, as well as for raising national awareness about civil rights. There were more members of the press attending the march than at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration two years earlier, and the demonstration continues to resonate in people’s minds and hearts a half-century later.

Women played a large role in putting together the 1963 march. Among others, actor/singer Lena Horne brought key media attention to the event, while Dorothy Height was a major organizer. Countless women volunteers helped coordinate food and hotel accommodations for the marchers.

However, while women may have been key players behind the scenes, few were allowed to speak at the Lincoln Memorial program,  though several sang, including Marian Anderson (seen about 2/3 through this historical video), Joan Baez (with Bob Dylan), Odetta, Mary Travers (as part of Peter, Paul and Mary) and Mahalia Jackson. When the organizers were putting together the speaker’s list, not a single woman was on it. Eventually, a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” was included, featuring such civil right greats as Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates and Diane Bevel. However, according to one of the speakers—Gloria Richardson, now 91—women were pushed to the side, sometimes literally. She told The Root:

As soon as I said ‘hello’ the marshall took the mic away. I thought it was such a great occasion that all of those people from all over the country had gotten there, that I didn’t raise hell, I just went on about my business.

Richardson also said that women speakers were forced to wait in a separate tent, causing her to almost miss her opportunity to speak. And the women who spoke were not allowed to go on at length: Daisy Bates just briefly thanked female volunteers. Only Josephine Baker, the famous entertainer, gave a full speech.

Women also did not participate in the main march down Pennsylvania Avenue, instead having to walk down Independence Avenue where there was no press presence. Other women who played key roles in the civil rights movement, such as Ella Baker who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee  (SNCC) and Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting rights activist who would organize Freedom Summer the following year, were not allowed to speak.

Fast forward 50 years and, thankfully, the situation has changed. This past Saturday, a commemorative March on Washington (down Independence Avenue) featured many well-known women on the dais, including Martin Luther King’s daughter, Bernice King; activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers (she was on the list to speak in 1963 but didn’t make it); Sybrina Fulton, the mother of murdered teenager Trayvon Martin; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and NOW president Terry O’Neill. The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation Black Women’s Roundtable also sponsored a forum last week on “Women Leaders of The Movement: Past, Present and Future,” focusing on the role women have played and continue to play in the civil rights movement. The National Museum of Women in the Arts held a special exhibit of feminist artist Faith Ringgold’s work.

As the recently trending hashtag #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen suggests, sexism still rears its head in social justice activism. But a new generation of activists is less likely to stand by quietly, especially as racism and sexism are part of a larger intersectional analysis of discrimination.

As we move forward we won’t forget the past. As Evers-Williams put it in her speech,

I stand here today and I ask the question, ‘Ain’t I a woman?‘ Where are the women who need to be acknowledged in this movement for freedom and justice? We must not forget Coretta Scott King. We must not forget Betty Shabazz. We must not forget all of the other women who poured in the sweat and the tears to move us further.

Picture of women in the original March on Washington from Flickr user The U.S. National Archives under license from Creative Commons 2.0