Interrogating the History of the 1963 March on Washington

On August 28th we recognized the fifty-third anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The crowning organizational achievement of march organizers A. Philip Randolph – president of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO – and Bayard Rustin, the 1963 march is recognized as the nation’s preeminent civil rights declaration, as embodied in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream address. But, many may not be familiar with the history of the modern civil rights marches on Washington.

Three bear mentioning.

In 1941, during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Randolph and Rustin organized the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) to call attention to discriminatory hiring by U.S. contractors in the defense industry. They demanded an Executive Order forbidding such practices. The march was to take place on July 7, 1941, and called for 100,000 people to descend on the capitol. However, on June 25th Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, establishing, among other things, the first Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), which eliminated the necessity for the march. After this success, Randolph continued to call for further action through the MOWM, which helped to yield Executive Order 9346, further expanding the coverage of the FEPC to federal agencies beyond those in the defense industry.

The 1963 march was not the first time Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a Lincoln Memorial address. This honor goes to the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom held on May 17, 1957, and organized by Randolph, Rustin and Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The march was formed to commemorate the third anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v Board of Education decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional and to encourage the government to abide by the Brown decision. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of Harlem asked the organizers not to embarrass the Eisenhower administration and to focus on the achievement of the Brown decision and prayer. On April 5, 1957, the call for the demonstration was issued by Randolph, Dr. King, and Roy Wilkins, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with over 12,000 attending and hearing Dr. King deliver one of his major addresses, Give us the Ballot.

The third march highlights an intractable struggle that existed – and still exists – in the Movement, and that is the recognition of the leadership of women.

From the beginning, African American women have been the backbone that has sustained the modern civil rights struggle. In 1941, during the MOWM, it was the Ladies Auxiliary of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that provided much needed organizational structure and outreach that pressured the Roosevelt administration into opening jobs to all through the establishment of the FEPC. Ella Baker, SCLC’s first staffer and its chief organizer, was the one person SCLC relied upon to bring the new organization to the forefront of the nation’s burgeoning civil rights consciousness. She served as one of the three main organizers of the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom and, later, as executive director of SCLC.

1963 saw Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women, serve as the lone woman of a leading African American civil rights organization on the planning committee for the 1963 march. She, along with other woman leaders, pushed Randolph and the committee for their inclusion as speakers during the march. And, while a number of woman speakers were proposed, only one of the fifteen speaking slots included a woman, Myrlie Evers, (now Myrlie Evers-Williams), widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was to introduce a hastily arranged tribute to six African American female activists – Daisy Bates replaced Myrlie Evers as speaker after Ms. Evers was delayed. The only other women with visible roles were three historic musical personalities, gospel great Mahalia Jackson, pioneering soprano Marian Anderson and Eva Jessye, the famed music director of the March on Washington choir.

The 1963 march resulted in two separate marches to the Lincoln Memorial. The main march route traveled down Constitution Avenue. The procession was led by Randolph, followed by Dr. King and other leaders. The leaders’ wives were not allowed to walk with their husbands, and the six women who were to be the subject of the tribute, led by Rosa Parks, Diane NashGloria Richardson, Myrlie Evers, Daisy Bates and Mrs. Herbert Lee, were also not included among the march leadership in the processional. As a result, with little media coverage and fanfare, these women organized a smaller, parallel march down Independence Avenue in protest of the male-dominant structure of the march leadership.

In reflecting on that time, Jesse Jackson lamented the male-dominant structure of the civil rights movement, seeing it as the culture of the day and one that regrettably cannot be undone. However, today, we can declare and celebrate the achievements of African American women in the modern civil rights struggle, achievements that laid the foundation for the nation to realize its best nature.

So, on this civil rights anniversary, let us salute the great legacy of African American women, and, together, continue on the path toward a more perfect union.

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For more information on the March on Washington Movement see Melinda Chateauvert’s Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press 1998, ISBN 0252066367; Herbert Garfinkel’s When Negroes March: The March on Washington Movement in the Organizational Politics for FEPC, New York: Atheneum, 1998, ISBN 0252066367; Jessie Kindig’s “March on Washington Movement (1941–1947)” at blackpast.org – Online Encyclopedia of Significant People and Places in African American History, Retrieved Oct 14, 2014; David Lucander’s Winning the War for Democracy: The March on Washington Movement, 1941-1946, University of Illinois Press, 2014; Calvin Craig Miller’s A. Philip Randolph and the African American labor movement, Greensboro, N.C., Morgan Reynolds Pub. (2005) ISBN 1931798508; and Paula Pfeffer’s A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, Baton Rouge, LA., Louisiana State University Press, 1990. OCLC 47008060.

For further information on the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom see Lee Friedlander’s Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, New York, Eakins Press Foundation, 2015; “The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (1957)”, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle, Stanford, The Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_prayer_pilgrimage_for_freedom_1957/.

For more information on women in the 1963 March on Washington see Melinda Chateauvert’s “Organizing Gender: A. Philip Randolph and Women Activists,” Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph, Andrew E. Kersten and Clarence Lange, ed., New York, New York University Press, 2015, p163-194; Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s Gender Talk: The Struggle For Women’s Equality in African American Communities, New York, Random House Books, 2003; Krissah Thompson, “Women — Nearly Left off March on Washington Program — Ppeaking up Now: March on Washington, 50 years later: The impact of women,” Washington Post, August 22, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/women–nearly-left-off-march-on-washington-program–speaking-up-now/2013/08/22/54492444-0a79-11e3-8974-f97ab3b3c677_story.html; and Jeanne Theoharis’s “How Women’s Voices Were Excluded from the March, MSNBC, September 4, 2013, (updated September 25, 2013); http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/how-womens-voices-were-excluded-the.

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