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
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.
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.
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.
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.”