MLK 50th Anniversary of “I have a Dream” speech, Women Had an Identical March but were unrecognized

Rosa Parks is fingerprinted by police Lt. D.H. Lackey on Feb. 22, 1965, in Montgomery, Ala. GENE HERRICK/AP

Effort underway to publicize female civil rights activists’ contributions

By Steph Solis

USA Today

A lesser-known fact of the March on Washington is that there were two lines of civil rights lead­ers marching on separate streets 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. 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 Jr., 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.

Little credit

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.

‘Ticked off’

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,” said Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, who attended the march as a teenager. “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.

Hoped-for results

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.”


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