On the occasion of the recent sixtieth anniversary of the March on Washington, many of us celebrated and remembered those who made it possible. Although some contributors to the March have been made more visible than others, it is important to recall that everyday people, willing to do extraordinary work, also contributed to both the movement and the March on Washington. In Netflix’s upcoming movie Rustin, set to be released in November, the world will learn more of this story and more about one of the significant organizers of the March, Dr. Joyce Ladner. Women’s participation in the March on Washington has been often overlooked, and as Ladner recently explained in a New York Times article, “There was not a spotlight in the country focused on parity for women. And race was such a dominant, overbearing issue in my life that being a woman didn’t even factor into it. I lived during two lynchings in Mississippi. The last one in 1959 occurred 15 miles from where I lived. So, there was little room for me to delineate women out of that larger group of oppression.” Despite it all, Ladner knew that she would be part of a generation that enacted change, and her contributions illustrate that women were monumental in organizing the demonstration.
Joyce Ladner was born October 12, 1943, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her mother, Annie Ruth Perryman, instilled the importance of education and advocacy in her children from a young age. Growing up in Mississippi and witnessing racism and segregation created in Ladner a desire to change and challenge injustice. Throughout her life, and at the height of the 1960s Movement, Joyce Ladner used her time, energy, and voice to contribute to efforts regarding equality and justice. At the young age of sixteen, she and her sister Dorie Ladner, would help spearhead an NAACP youth chapter in Hattiesburg under the mentorship of Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, Clyde Kennard, and Eileen Beard. Both sisters would contribute greatly to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the efforts to organize and implement the March on Washington. Ladner would balance her commitment to education with her dedication to working towards civil liberties regarding voting and racial justice. Her work as an activist and sociologist would break new ground, as she published her first book in 1971, Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, and spent her life as a leading race woman. Her work in the March on Washington main headquarters office with Bayard Rustin and others would be one of many efforts she would lead to help cement the foundation for future generations.
Though the March on Washington was the first large-scale demonstration of its kind, with over 250,000 in attendance, a lot of prior work helped set the Movement and the March in motion. Small cities like Hattiesburg were instrumental in producing students and young people like Joyce and Dorie Ladner, among others, who were everyday people willing to challenge the inequities and racial terror that reigned in the South and elsewhere. The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 produced what Ladner coined as the “Emmett Till Generation.” This generation was charged with changing things, becoming civically engaged, and working to avenge young Emmett’s death by challenging the systems and policies that perpetuated harm to Black lives and communities. Understanding the context and history that spurred the March on Washington gives us a lens to better understand and appreciate exactly what went into such an event. And while, historically, the Big Six have often been at the forefront of the story when the March on Washington is mentioned, we must also give credit to the many others who were formative in its success. People such as Dorie and Joyce Ladner, Courtland Cox, SNCC members, and others worked to fundraise, organize, and plan details for the event. Black educators who worked to prepare young students for the racialized world in which they would enter, and who challenged and encouraged them to stand up to injustice is an important contribution that cannot be overlooked. Similarly, we must consider the names and contributions of the women who worked tirelessly to make calls, organize, and propel both the Movement and the making of the March. The backbone of both, in many ways being the strong Black women who helped lead its efforts.
Joyce Ladner broke new ground in so many instances preceding the March. She began kindergarten at the age of three years old, started the NAACP youth chapter, joined SNCC, became a sociologist, graduated with her doctoral degree, published a book based on her study of young Black women in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, was the interim President at Howard University, and so much more.
The March was a small part of her many contributions to Black history, activism, and coalitions. Like many other women of the time such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ellie Dahmer, Dorie Ladner, and so forth—these women dismantled boundaries and left lasting legacies for Black women to see as examples. These efforts challenged misperceptions about race and gender, illustrating that at the center of the greatest movements and important protests were Black women. I only wish I would have known her story sooner. It is a story all young people and future generations need to know.
One of the greatest lessons and reminders we must learn from the March on Washington lies deep within the story—it is ultimately that at the center of great moments in time, are the histories, lived experiences, and oral histories of people like Joyce Ladner who went from a girl from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to a foot soldier of the Movement who helped change the trajectory of equality and justice. Her determination and appreciation for lifelong learning ultimately helped make the Movement and the March possible. She broke proverbial glass ceilings, challenged gender and race barriers, and ultimately illustrated that through a dedication to curiosity, education, and coalition, anything is possible.
Reflecting on the recent sixtieth anniversary of the March on Washington reminds us that women are powerful, and history has lasting relevance, leaving lessons and stories to pass down to current and future generations. We should all be honored to walk in what Joyce Ladner and others made possible. We walk amongst giants—everyday people who accomplished extraordinary feats.permission.