The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom stands apart as one of the most well-known events of the modern civil rights movement. On August 28th, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the Washington Mall in a peaceful demonstration meant to draw attention to matters of social, political, and economic struggle. The event, by and large, was a success. It was also a reflection of a longstanding problem – the sidelining of Black women’s leadership in the public eye. The march showcased several prominent Black male leaders but did not feature a single Black woman as a program speaker. On closer examination, the planning, execution, and aftermath of the event reveal a different narrative of the presence and influence of Black women leaders.
Before the march, civil rights activist and attorney Pauli Murray wrote an impassioned letter to her comrade A. Philip Randolph, a key march organizer and founding president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters labor union. In her letter, she expressed frustration with the way Black women played significant roles in the grass-roots struggle while being shut out from key decision-making roles. She took exception to the idea of Randolph calling for a national march and neglecting to include any women leaders in the call.1 Murray had been a longtime supporter of the March on Washington movement since its beginnings in the 1940s. She knew all too well that women in the movement had to face the dual problem of fighting for racial justice while challenging the gender inequity of their activist brethren.
Murray was far from alone in her complaint. A quick glance at the call-to-action flyer for the march shows a total of 24 leaders and administrators involved in the execution of the march. Only one woman, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, was in that number. Hedgeman, another veteran of the original March on Washington movement, was a tremendous leader with years of experience in politics, education, and religious associations. She was a vital contributor to the intellectual and organizational activity of the march, and as a member of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race, she mobilized a group of over 30,000 white Protestants to attend the event. Hedgeman acknowledged the failure of the march’s organizers to add even a single woman speaker to the program, lamenting the second-class status afforded to Black women in the movement for civil rights.
Even up to the very morning of the march, Hedgeman, Murray, and others appealed for a woman speaker. But Bayard Rustin, a longstanding friend of Murray’s and executive director of the march, would not budge. Not even Dorothy Height, the leader of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) – a major civil rights organization at the time – was given space to speak on the program, much less an opportunity to be involved in any other formal way in the march. In her memoir, Height recalls that Rustin believed women were included in all the groups represented on the platform – the churches, the synagogues, and labor unions. The all-male speaker lineup, however, reflected a lingering patriarchal sensibility—women were certainly included, but men were in charge. As a rare woman leader of a major civil rights organization, Height regarded the men of the movement as peers. Nevertheless, her friends Murray and Hedgeman drew attention to the inferior treatment and marginalizing tactics to which she had been subjected.
The words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. solidified the events of August 28th, 1963, in public memory. However, August 29th is an important moment in the interpretive history of the march. The organizers requested that no Washington, D.C.-based groups hold any gatherings after the march. However, Height seized the opportunity to assemble a group of her colleagues to process the events of the previous day. Without fanfare or attention, Height convened a company of women to discuss what they had learned and might gain from the march. Gathering under the theme “After the March – What?” Height and her colleagues acknowledged a need for greater attention to the acute daily concerns of women and children, not just Black men.
Height’s gathering was an acknowledgment that Black women needed to create alternate contexts for social and political communities. Following this event, Height invited Murray to speak at the next convention of the National Council of Negro Women. At the convention, Murray argued that the struggle for civil rights had deepened the marginalization of Black women under the dual burden of Jane and Jim Crow. She spoke about the threat of stereotypes that cast Black women as domineering and immoral, which undergird social and economic barriers to their advancement. Murray also emphasized the urgent need for Black women to be prepared to support themselves extensively and indefinitely.
While Black men were striving with white liberals to gain authority and control in social movements, they were also being designated as de facto representatives for the interests of Black communities. As such, Black women were left to carry water for the movement while being relegated to the background.
How do the experiences of these three Black women – Murray, Hedgeman, and Height – shift our thinking about both the March on Washington and Black freedom movements at large? First, they reflect the extent to which popular narratives about events in the civil rights movement have often smoothed out the rough edges of sexism in the leadership ranks. As activist and suffragist Mary Church Terrell wrote, Black women had to wrestle with the “double handicap of race and sex,” fighting for rights alongside men who frequently resisted their advancement. Second, they highlight the fact that social movements were and are frequently subject to internal conflicts within their ranks. Shared ideological goals do not automatically translate into a seamless agreement on strategy and tactics. Finally, they illustrate the profound degree to which Black women were influential at all levels of civil rights movement leadership, even when they were edged out of the spotlight. Even without a place in the program, Murray, Hedgeman, and Height unquestionably set the stage for the advancement of social and political transformation.
- Pauli Murray, “Letter to A. Philip Randolph,” August 21, 1963, Box 39, Anna Arnold Hedgeman Papers, National Afro-American Museum, and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio. ↩