Strong women were pillars behind civil rights movement
Steph Solis, USA TODAY12:01 a.m. EDT August 19, 2013
The March on Washington was a sign of unity and hope, but women were all but written out of the history surrounding that day.
A lesser-known fact of the March on Washington is that there were two lines of civil rights leaders marching on separate streets on Aug. 28, 1963: one for male civil rights leaders and one for their female counterparts.
Civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height walked down Independence Avenue, while the men proceeded down Pennsylvania with the press.
“Two separate parades were held,” said Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, who attended the march as a teenager.
The March on Washington was a sign of unity and hope, but women were all but written out of the history surrounding that day. Many African-American women took charge of the movement at the grass-roots level, while some worked alongside Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph and other civil rights icons.
There was Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women and a key organizer of the march, and Ella Baker, who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Evelyn Lowery was involved in campaigns with her husband, the Rev. Joseph Lowery. Daisy Bates, a mentor to the nine students who in 1957 integrated Little Rock High School in Arkansas, was active alongside her husband, L.C. Bates, throughout the civil rights movement.
In Tallahassee, the Stephens sisters gained a reputation as leading student activists. Patricia and Priscilla Stephens mobilized students at Florida A&M University to do sit-ins at Woolworth’s. They were once jailed for 49 days.
Despite their contributions leading up to the march, none of them was invited to speak at length.
“We need to tell the story of the power of women in our movement,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
Although male and female activists alike campaigned for civil rights, women typically didn’t receive credit for their contributions. Women often took background roles, such as preparing food and training young activists, but they also strategized the campaigns.
Campbell and others are working to preserve their mentors’ stories and imparting them to the next generation.
The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation holds a roundtable to discuss women’s advancement and train black women in civic engagement. On Aug. 22, the roundtable will recognize the women behind the march and look at the role of women today in an event with the National Action Network, the National Council of Negro Women, Planned Parenthood and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
“It’s about building inclusion and opportunity in this country for not just (those of) us who are here, but those coming up,” Campbell said.
Before the March on Washington, the leading men of the movement invited celebrities and activists like Height to stand with them before the Lincoln Memorial. Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson were scheduled to sing, but there were no female speakers.
“That’s when we really got ticked off,” Brown said. “We could sing, but we couldn’t speak.”
Brown recalled that Randolph eventually allowed for Myrlie Evers, widow of assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, to address the crowd, but she couldn’t make it. Instead, Daisy Bates had the microphone handed to her so she could briefly recognize female activists.
“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,” Bates said that day. “And we will sit-in and we will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote.”
Bates’ speech lasted 148 words, Brown recalls. Randolph spoke afterward and briefly recognized the wives of civil rights leaders like Evers and Herbert Lee, who was killed in 1961 for helping register voters in Liberty, Miss.
Decades later, the A. Philip Randolph Institute is a part of the effort to give credit to female leaders of the movement. The Institute holds sessions where students learn about the unsung female heroes of the civil rights movement.
“We have young activists from across the country who learn how to do non-partisan voter registration and education (campaigns),” Brown said.
Recognizing the women behind the movement helps raise awareness about the power of female civil rights activists, Brown said. She hopes it means that more recent leaders will get noticed, such as NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn Brock.
Brown also hopes that, along the way, she will see new volunteers join the movement. She expects the 50th anniversary of the march to be an important starting point.
“It is a commemoration to honor the legacy of women who are in the struggle,” she said, “but also to turn a new page on their commitment to the continuation of fighting for freedom, for jobs, for dignity.”