Much of the national memorialization of the civil rights movement maintains a “great man” version of history. Women regularly appear in tributes to the movement, but a clear sense of their leadership, lives and organizing efforts is often missing.
One key example of that marginalization took place at the 1963 March on Washington. The crucial roles Black women played and the ways they were sidelined at the march have received limited mention in the ways the march has been memorialized. Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis—these names rang out in 50th-anniversary celebrations for their significant roles in the march.
In August 2013, the White House announced a posthumous award for Bayard Rustin, largely for his key role in organizing the March on Washington. But where were the women? What about Anna Arnold Hedgeman, the only woman on the march committee, who was largely responsible for the significant presence of white Christians at the march?
Raised in Minnesota and a graduate of Hamline University, Hedgeman worked for the YWCA and then the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. In 1954, she became the first Black woman to hold a cabinet position in New York City government before taking a job with the National Council of Churches. That role led to her inclusion on the march organizing committee, the only woman on it. With King and Randolph initially planning two separate events, Hedgeman arranged the meeting where the two civil rights leaders sat down and patched their differences and agreed to press forward with a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
As coordinator for special events for the Commission on Religion and Race, Hedgeman played a determining role in getting large numbers of white Christians to the march. Indeed, as Hedgeman’s biographer Jennifer Scanlon notes, the interracialism of the march wasn’t happenstance— Hedgeman organized to make the sizeable presence of white Protestants a reality. This was not a given; white Christian support of civil rights had been limited up to this point and needed to be shamed, cultivated and brought out. Part of Hedgeman’s organizing genius was the way she managed to bring many white Christian leaders and laypeople into the civil rights struggle. The March on Washington would be the first mass civil rights event with a large percentage of whites (estimated at 25 percent of the marchers). Hedgeman also facilitated many of the day’s logistics, including Operation Sandwich, in which she commanded a massive volunteer eff ort to produce eighty thousand box lunches for marchers.
From the outset, Hedgeman pushed for the inclusion of women on the organizing committee and in the program itself; however, no women were slated to speak. Increasingly frustrated at the last organizing committee meeting in Harlem, she read aloud a letter she had written Randolph, saying that it was “incredible” that not a single woman was slated to speak. National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) president Dorothy Height was not given a formal role in the events. Nor was she included in descriptions of the march leadership, despite NCNW’s considerable fund-raising for the march and Height’s having met with all the other leaders for more than a year as part of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership.
Height, along with Hedgeman, pressed for more substantive inclusion of women in the program. 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.”
Angered at these oversights, civil rights activist lawyer Pauli Murray wrote A. Philip 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.
Murray was dismayed that Randolph was willing to speak at the gender-segregated National Press Club and that no woman was part of the delegation to the White House after the march. Graduating as valedictorian from Howard Law School in 1944, Murray had been a trailblazer for years in highlighting the twin harms of racial and gender injustice. Murray “coined the term ‘Jane Crow,’” according to historian Brittney Cooper, “to name the forms of sexist derision she encountered during her time at Howard” and aft erward. Part of Murray’s work would be used by Thurgood Marshall and Spottswood Robinson in their legal brief in Brown. Indeed, it was as a law student at Howard that she made a bet with Robinson, her law professor, that Plessy would be overturned within the next quarter century and wrote a paper on how to do it.
In 1940, Murray had been thrown off a train when she refused to sit in the back; like Ida B. Wells, she hated—and challenged—bus segregation because it “permitted the public humiliation of Black people to be carried out in the presence of privileged white spectators, who witnessed our shame in silence or indifference.” In the 1960s, Murray was one of the first to argue that the equal protection clause could be used for gender as well as race, but when she had brought up this legal reasoning at Howard, many laughed.
Over and over, Murray pushed against societal boundaries of race and gender that prevented Black women’s advancement, even in the plans for the march. Murray’s close friend Maida Springer allowed Murray to stay at her apartment and organize from there—but refused to take part in Murray’s protest, worrying that it would take away from the larger goals of what the march sought to accomplish. Murray had considered picketing the National Press Club, where Randolph was speaking, because of its prohibition against women sitting on the first floor. But Dorothy Height persuaded Murray not to do it.
Hedgeman continued to object within the committee, asserting the march should really be called “Rosa Parks Day,” since Parks had started it all. Yet all their criticisms were treated as demands for inappropriate recognition, at odds with the spirit of the event. March organizers worried about how to pick one woman to speak, even though Hedgeman had offered to caucus and come up with a selection. (The idea that multiple women might speak was too far-fetched to contemplate.) Randolph and Rustin then circulated a memo with their proposed resolution to the problem:
The difficulty of finding a single woman to speak without causing serious problems vis-à-vis other women and women’s groups suggest[s] the following is the best way to utilize these women: That the Chairman would introduce these women, telling of their role in the struggle. . . . As each one is introduced, she would stand for applause, and after the last one has been introduced and the Chairman has called for general applause, they would sit.
This “Tribute to Women” was slated to highlight six women—Rosa Parks, Gloria Richardson, Diane Nash, Myrlie Evers, Prince Lee (the wife of slain civil rights activist Herbert Lee) and Daisy Bates—who would be asked to stand up and be recognized. No woman would formally address the crowd. The wives of civil rights leaders would be allowed to sit on stage with their husbands.
On August 28, 1963, the main march, led by men—with Randolph at the head and King and others a few paces behind—proceeded down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial. The wives of the leaders were not allowed to march with their husbands. Scott King later wrote that she was “not pleased” but “had to accede to their wishes. . . . I felt that the involvement in the Movement of some of the wives had been so extensive that they should have been granted the privilege of marching with their husbands and of sharing this experience together, as they had shared the dangers and the hardships.”
The women to be honored led a small, separate side march along Independence Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial. Cambridge Movement leader Gloria Richardson recalled that gendered treatment began even before the event started. The NAACP had called her beforehand, instructing her to not wear jeans but instead a hat, gloves and a dress. Richardson did not appreciate the dress code requirements and scoured the Eastern Shore of Maryland till she found a jeans skirt.
Richardson had long refused the roles assigned to her. Born of a middle-class family, she attended Howard University and returned to Cambridge, Maryland, chafing under the racial restrictions of her hometown. The movement Richardson led in Cambridge had been inspired by SNCC. Richardson herself had joined initially because her daughter was involved. The movement she helped build married economic demands with calls for desegregation—they had surveyed the community for priorities and found housing and jobs were key needs for Black Cambridge. Using nonviolent civil disobedience, and with the participation of students and many working-class community members, they began conducting regular protests and sit-ins in 1963, employing personal self-defense when whites reacted violently to their activism. In response to the escalating situation, the governor ordered the Maryland National Guard into Cambridge, where it remained for nearly a year.
This upheaval in Cambridge led U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy to convene a meeting with Richardson and other political figures in Cambridge. Richardson was able to negotiate an historic agreement, the “Treaty of Cambridge,” with him, which included implementation of federally funded job training, acceleration of public-housing construction, school desegregation and an amendment to the city charter prohibiting racial discrimination in public accommodations. When whites reacted badly to that amendment and put a referendum on the ballot to change it, Richardson called for a boycott of the election. “A first-class citizen does not beg for freedom,” she said. “A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power structure to give him something that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.” Many civil rights leaders were aghast at her decision not to participate in the election.
That August day, these women of courage—Bates, Parks, Richardson, and Lee—sat silently on the dais. (Myrlie Evers wasn’t there—she was in Detroit for a previous engagement—nor was Diane Nash.) “This was very upsetting to me, especially when there were so many battle-weary female veterans who deserved to speak. . . . But that’s how chauvinistic the leadership was at that time,” Coretta Scott King later observed. Dorothy Height later surmised that the more-feisty SNCC students got speaking roles even when no woman did: “They knew that the women were not going to turn over the Lincoln Memorial, but the students might.”
Little Rock NAACP organizer Daisy Bates introduced the Tribute to Women—a 142-word introduction written for her by NAACP assistant executive director John Morsell: “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.” Indeed, the only words spoken to acknowledge the role of women were written for Bates by a man and contained a pledge that women would 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.
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 behind him says: “Rosa Parks.”] “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 managed to get out a “hello” before the microphone was snatched from her. Hedgeman, on the dais that day, described the feeling of listening to the tribute: “We grinned; some of us, as we recognized anew that Negro women are second-class citizens in the same way that white women are in our culture.” Hedgeman was frustrated that Parks (or any other woman) was not invited to the meeting at the White House that followed the events.
Right before Martin Luther King Jr. was to speak, Richardson found herself being put in a cab along with Lena Horne and sent back to her hotel. March organizers claimed that they were worried the two would get mobbed and crushed, yet 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 had helped her. “We got several people to interview Rosa Parks. The march organizers must have found that out.” Richardson also fought the pressure being put on SNCC chair John Lewis to tone down his speech. Also, Richardson’s politics were viewed as dangerous by some civil rights leaders and members of the Kennedy administration, who called Richardson “a whore” and said she “would find a way to disrupt the march and turn it violent.”
After the rally, no women were part of a delegation of ten leaders who met with President Kennedy. Dorothy Height observed, “I’ve never seen a more immovable force. We could not get women’s participation taken seriously.” Rosa Parks was dumbfounded by the treatment of women that day, telling Daisy Bates she hoped for a “better day coming.” Awed by the assembled crowd, 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.’”
Defying Randolph’s request for marchers to leave the city upon the march’s completion, Height convened an interracial gathering of women the next day to raise the interlocking issues of race and gender and women’s participation in the struggle. The dual experiences of the march— the power of the experience and the marginalization of women—stayed with many women activists. Pauli Murray addressed Height’s National Council of Negro Women in November 1963, where she noted the “deliberate” omission of women at the march. Her speech and the continuing outrage around the treatment of women at the march, and in the movement more broadly, formed the bedrock of a rising determination. Black women activists, 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-1960s, Black women sowed these seeds in the civil rights movement and in the wake of the March on Washington.
But this history of women’s leadership and marginalization is largely absent from many movement memorials. John Lewis was repeatedly described as the only living speaker during the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations—even though Gloria Richardson was alive and well in New York City. The public memorialization of the march, in many ways, has repeated the marginalization of women of fifty years ago, with little mention of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Dorothy Height, Pauli Murray and Gloria Richardson—despite the important roles Black women played in the march’s organization and their attempts to challenge their marginalization at the event.
Leadership, vision, marginalization, contention, and challenge all characterized the experiences of women in the movement. Rethining the Black freedom struggle thus requires interrogating a narrative of the movement that casts women in supporting roles. There was sexism, but women played crucial leadership, organizational and intellectual roles in the struggle, and challenged sexism at the time. Recognizing this means jettisoning the tendency to cast the fight for gender justice as occurring largely outside of the Black freedom struggle, rather than as interwoven in it. And it demands moving women out of the background of civil rights history and into the center.