The Rampant Sexism at the March on Washington
Gloria Richardson, one of the few women listed on the program, shares her memories with The Root.
By Keli Goff
August 22, 2013
GLORIA RICHARDSON, CENTER, LEADS A 1964 CIVIL RIGHTS DEMONSTRATION IN MARYLAND. (FRANCIS MILLER/GETTY IMAGES)
(The Root) – The March on Washington is considered one of the greatest gatherings for equal rights in human history. Yet while the crowd congregated to push for the equality of black Americans and workers’ rights, female participants in the march, and the civil rights movement as a whole, struggled for equal treatment, acknowledgment and respect.
Though famed entertainer Josephine Baker ultimately flew in from France and was granted a speaking slot at the march, the organizers faced criticism that the initial March on Washington program featured no female speakers. As a result they created a special “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.” Myrlie Evers was supposed to be the featured speaker for the tribute, but she was unable to attend at the last minute. (Her name, however, was already listed on the programand would remain there.)
The other women listed to be honored in the tribute included Diane Nash, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Prince Lee, the widow of murdered civil rights activist Herbert Lee; Rosa Parks; Daisy Bates, who had served as head of the Arkansas NAACP during the Little Rock Nine crisis; and Gloria Richardson, co-founder of Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee.
Richardson, who is now 91, took some time to share her memories from that day as well as her perspectives on Russell Simmons, President Obama and the modern-day civil rights movement.
When asked for her most profound memory from the March on Washington, Richardson lit up. “The thousands of people that came and the buses! And then the whole energy from those people there, but then I had a bad experience,” she explained. “Because when I got to the platform they took my chair away.”
Asked to elaborate, Richardson recalled that there was a separate tent for the female speakers. When the other women exited, she thought they were headed to the ladies’ room before the official program began. She sat there alone in the tent until march organizer Bayard Rustin came frantically looking for her and explained that she was about to miss the program. “Today I read on the Internet that there was a separate place for the women to march.”
Richardson was referring to recent reports in outlets like USA Today that noted that while the male civil rights leaders walked to the march down Pennsylvania Avenue with the press, the women were relegated to walking down Independence Avenue. This is likely where they were when Richardson thought they had disappeared to the powder room.
By the time Richardson arrived to the stage with Rustin, her chair with her name on it had been removed. “Lena Horne and Josephine Baker said, ‘They took your chair away. You need to raise hell.’ ” The indignities didn’t end there. Though Richardson had specifically been invited to give two-minute remarks, she recalls that when her name was called and she approached the microphone, “As soon as I said 'hello’ the marshal took the mic away.” She added, “I thought it was such a great occasion that all of those people from all over the country had gotten there, that I didn’t raise hell, I just went on about my business.”
But the most disappointing moment came later. Richardson missed what was widely considered the march’s highlight. “Before it ended, two marshals came to Lena Horne and me – she had been taking Rosa around to take her around to European satellite stations and saying, 'This is the woman who started the Montgomery Bus Boycott.’ So before it was over, these marshals came over, saying they thought we’d be overwhelmed [by fans] and escorted us out, so when Martin [Luther King, Jr.] spoke, we were in a cab on the way back to the hotel.
"I think they were annoyed with Lena taking Rosa around. So that part of the march was not a good experience for me.”
Asked if she believes female civil rights activists were treated as second-class citizens, she said, “Oh, yes! Oh, yes! In terms of the march, yes.”
Richardson lamented that she fears that much of the work she and others fought for has been undone in recent years and that too many younger people of color don’t seem to know or care. “Most of the schools across the country are resegregating. Health care for black folks, whatever their coverage, is second rate. What from the Civil Rights Bill and voting rights are left?”
She was particularly disappointed in what she considers the lack of mobilization at the grassroots and legislative levels against disenfranchising voting-rights laws.
“Maybe it’s because they were too busy trying to protect Obama,” she said. Richardson believes the first black president’s election has not had a positive impact on civil rights. “It was amazing to me that everyone sat down and shut up and didn’t challenge him on anything.”
Asked to give him a grade on civil rights efforts, she replied, “An F. I don’t think he’s a fighter.” While she doesn’t think the president lacks good intentions, she said, “It’s like a professor or preacher getting up with beautiful words … I guess he’s laid back.”
But she stressed that “Stand your ground” and stop-and-frisk laws prove that the country still has some serious civil rights battles, and most leaders today don’t seem up for the fight. “Maybe because the leadership now is of another generation and doesn’t understand you really have to fight like hell and you can’t be gentlemanly or ladylike in that fight.” Though she said that many younger people of color seem to take her work and that of other civil rights activists for granted, she praised Jumaane Williams, a member of the New York City Council who has been a vocal opponent of stop and frisk.
But she is disappointed in the hip-hop community and was particularly critical of the controversial “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” video that appeared on an online channel supported by Russell Simmons, as well as lyrics by the rapper Lil Wayne denigrating the memory of Emmett Till.
She blamed the corporatization of media for encouraging such behavior. “Something is going on to obliterate the actual history and move towards this postracial thing.”
Before her interview with The Root concluded, she recalled that when she was first contacted about participating in the Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom, she was told she couldn’t wear her traditional protest uniform. “They call them jeans today, but then they called them dungarees and said you can’t wear that; you have to dress up. I wouldn’t have worn dungarees anyway, but I found a jean skirt and a blouse, and I wore that.” She let out a laugh, before adding, “The traditional leaders didn’t like me. The White House kept trying to find someone to rein people like me in.”
Note from fighting misogynoir (a.k.a the original black woman): I couldn’t copy and paste the pic and slideshow from the article (I had to find pics through a google search) so if you would like to view the slide show please click on the link provided at the end of this post to view the slide show at the end of the actual article.
The Badass Women of the March
Without women like Lena Horne or Prince Lee, the epic gathering never would have happened.
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It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of one of the greatest human rights movements in history. The civil rights movement, which did so much to advance equal rights for African Americans, struggled to demonstrate gender equality in its treatment of female civil rights activists. In an interview with The Root, activist Gloria Richardson, one of a handful of women granted a slot on the official March on Washington program, recalled how some women activists were made to feel as second-class citizens that day, and throughout the duration of a movement intended to erase the concept of second-class citizenship here in America. Click here to read our interview with Gloria Richardson. Please also check out some of the other women who made the March on Washington a success.
Though Marian Anderson was scheduled to officially kick off the March on Washington with her performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” she had travel delays and Williams stepped in her place. In 1946, Williams had made history by becoming the first black opera singer to receive a contract with a major American opera company, the New York City Opera. Her performance at the March on Washington further solidified her place in history.
Camilla Williams (John D. Kisch/Getty Images)
Jackson is remembered not only as one of the greatest gospel singers in history but also for her role as one of the civil rights movement’s most visible celebrity supporters. She put her fame to good use performing at a number of fundraisers on behalf of civil rights causes at the behest of Martin Luther King Jr. Just two years after performing at the inaugural ball of President John F. Kennedy, she performed at the March on Washington. Her stirring renditions of “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been 'Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” are considered highlights from the program, but it is something she said, not something she sang, which is credited with shaping the day.
According to the History Channel, Jackson said to King, “ 'Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ ” And at that moment, as can be seen in films of the speech, King leaves his prepared notes behind to improvise the entire next section of his speech – the historic section that famously begins, 'And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream … ’ “
Mahalia Jackson sings at the 1963 March on Washington. (Bob Parent/Getty Images)
If the activist wing of the civil rights movement had an official first lady, her name would be Diane Nash. According to the book Freedom’s Daughters, Nash’s beauty secured her a finalist position in a local pageant in her native Illinois. But anyone who underestimated her as just a pretty face did so at his peril. Nash is considered one of the civil rights movement’s most brilliant tacticians.
A co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she helped direct the sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., that led to its becoming the first major Southern city to desegregate such facilities. After violent attacks on Freedom Riders almost ended the trips intended to desegregate Southern establishments, Nash stepped into gather groups of volunteers to keep them going, despite being warned by other civil rights leaders that she was risking her life. "It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence,” Nash recalled in a later interview. Nash was one of the women included in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.”
Though best remembered for her beauty and helping to break Hollywood’s racial barrier, Horne lent her star power to the civil rights movement. She regularly performed at fundraisers and events for the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women. While she did not perform at the March on Washington, her attendance added heft to the event.
Lena Horne holds up an NAACP banner while speaking with NBC News’ Nancy Dickerson at the 1963 March on Washington. (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Her role as president of the National Council of Negro Women made Height one of the most influential black women in America. She regularly advised presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson on civil rights matters, making her attendance at the March on Washington a given. Height, who was never photographed without wearing one of her signature hats, was also a pioneer on the issue of reproductive rights for black women, co-founding African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom.
Dorothy Height (Susan Biddle/Getty Images)
PRINCE E. LEE
Like Myrlie Evers, widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Lee was invited to participate in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” because of the courage she showed in the wake of her own husband’s murder. (Evers ended up being unable to attend the march at the last minute, despite being listed on the program.) Herbert E. Lee was killed by a member of the Mississippi Legislature for refusing to abandon his work with the local NAACP chapter that was attempting to register voters. In 2010, at the age of 93, Lee attended the unveiling of an official marker commemorating the location in Liberty, Miss., in which her husband gave his life for the cause of civil rights.
Prince E. Lee (Jerel Harris, Enterprise-Journal)
After graduating from Howard University, Richardson settled into a comfortable life with a husband and two daughters. But when her teenage daughter Donna became active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Richardson was inspired and helped co-found Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. CNAC focused on efforts to desegregate accommodations in Cambridge, Md. The violence sparked by opponents to integration resulted in the National Guard being dispatched to Cambridge from 1963 and 1964. Richardson’s assertiveness put her at odds with both the Kennedy administration and some of the civil rights movement’s more prominent leaders. She would eventually become an ally of Malcolm X, but as a testament to the effectiveness of her work in Cambridge, she was one of the women included in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.”
Baez, a renowned folk singer of Scottish and Mexican heritage, performed “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington. Though she did not originate the song, her moving rendition would become one of her trademarks, and she would perform it at future events on behalf of civil rights and social justice causes. Her 1964 song “Birmingham Sunday,” about the church bombing that killed four young girls, was used in Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls.
Joan Baez (David Gahr/Getty Images)
JOYCE AND DORIE LADNER
Natives of Mississippi, Joyce and Dorie Ladner worked with the SNCC on civil rights protests in their home state. They were arrested and faced the reality that they might lose their lives for their efforts. They had worked alongside Medgar Evers, the NAACP worker who was assassinated months before the March on Washington, which the Ladners attended.
Dorie Ladner (the Washington Post/Getty Images); Joyce Ladner (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Next to Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks is probably the most recognizable and revered figure of the civil rights movement. Referred to as “the mother of the freedom movement,” her refusal to move from the white section of a bus to the designated colored section resulted in her arrest and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. The move cost Parks her job as a seamstress but secured her place in history. She was one of the women included in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.” As further testament to her towering legacy, upon her death in 2005 she became the second African-American and first woman granted a viewing in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor usually reserved for heads of state and similar dignitaries.
Rosa Parks (Paul Schutzer/Getty Images)
Anderson was originally scheduled to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” that day, but because she was delayed, Camilla Williams ultimately performed it in her place. But Anderson would go on to perform “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” later in the program. The moment was particularly symbolic for Anderson. In 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her permission to perform at Constitution Hall, then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson perform an acclaimed outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where she would later perform for the March on Washington attendees.
Marian Anderson sings to the crowd of civil rights demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Alongside civil rights icons like Rosa Parks, Bates was one of six women honored during the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.” Bates’ presence in the program was a nod to her role orchestrating one of the civil rights movement’s defining moments. As president of the Arkansas branch of the NAACP, Bates guided the famed “Little Rock Nine” on their journey to integrate Central High School. In her later life, Bates would go on to work for the Democratic National Committee.
Daisy Bates (Thomas D. McAvoy/Getty Images)
Baker is best remembered for glamorizing the image of African-American entertainers globally. She experienced her greatest success abroad and would ultimately receive the French government’s highest honor for her work in aiding the French resistance. But Baker was also a tireless fighter for civil rights, striving to integrate venues where she performed long before the American civil rights movement was in full swing. As such, she was the only woman to deliver a full address at the March on Washington, which can be read in its entirety here.
Josephine Baker speaks to attendees at the 1963 March on Washington. (Francis Miller/Getty Images)
After spending her early career as the choir director at Morgan State University, Jessye founded the Eva Jessye Choir, which had a featured placement in the March on Washington program.