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Black Women Make their Voices Heard at the March on Washington

In Our Own Voice President and CEO, Regina Davis Moss
In Our Own Voice President and CEO, Regina Davis Moss

August 28, 2023, marked 60 years since the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda staff and partners marched in solidarity with thousands from across the country and President & CEO Regina Davis Moss was honored to be one of the unprecedented number of Black women speakers on the stage. Of course, we reminded them that we will no longer take a back seat and we will never have the true freedom envisioned by the March on Washington unless all of us, including Black women, girls and gender-expansive individuals, have the full ability to control our bodies and our futures. Watch all the speeches here.

In honor of the Black women that were present at the first March on Washington, we’re highlighting their historic and pivotal roles, speeches and addresses:

Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women was the only female member of the “Big Six” march organizers, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman of the National Council of Churches served as the only woman on the event’s administrative committee. Hedgeman read a statement memo to the leaders at the final organizing meeting on August 23, 1963 outlining concerns; and that it was “incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March on Washington Meeting at the Lincoln Memorial.” She suggested Myrlie Evers be allowed to speak during the march program and present other women who had played historic roles in the civil rights movement to be honored during a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.”

Actress and activist Ruby Dee emceed the program with her husband Ossie Davis. 

Odetta sang “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free,” along with Come and Go with Me to That Land and I’m On My Way.  Operatic soprano Camilla Williams performed the national anthem. Renowned singer Mahalia Jackson sang her rendition of “I have been buked and I have been scorned” and “We Shall Overcome” But her most important line that day was, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

Rosa Parks, of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Daisy Bates, NAACP chapter president and advisor to the Little Rock Nine, were introduced as “two great, great heroes of the struggle” by march organizer Bayard Rustin
In her only opportunity to speak to the crowd, Parks said:

“Hello friends of freedom. It’s a wonderful day and let us be thankful we have reached this point, and we go farther from now to greater things. Thank you.”

Next, Bates delivered a short address:

“Thank you very much. This is indeed a happy day for me. You know, sometimes in your life when you are fighting for freedom and human dignity your faith fails you, and you wonder whether democracy is worth fighting for, or whether you can ever be an American citizen in this country. But something happened that renews faith in democracy and in America and its people. It happened to me in 1957 when the students of Little Rock walked alone through the mob. You cried with us, but we had to walk it alone. But your presence here today testifies that no child will have to walk alone through a mob in any city or hamlet of this country because you will be there walking with them. Thank you.”

Actress and activist Lena Horne was introduced next and shouted a single word into the microphone:

Josephine Baker spoke for just over two minutes, in the longest address that day by a woman:

“I want you to know that this is the happiest day of my entire life. And as you all must know, I have had a very long life and I’m sixty years old. The results today of seeing you all together is a sight for sore eyes. You’re together as salt and pepper just as you should be. Just as I’ve always wanted you to be and peoples of the world have always wanted you to be. You are a united people at last because without unity there cannot be any victory. You see, I’m glad. I’m glad that in my homeland, in my homeland where I was born in love and respect, I’m glad to see this day come to pass. This day, because you are on the eve of complete victory, and tomorrow, time will do the rest.

I want you to know also how proud I am to be here today, and after so many long years of struggle fighting here and elsewhere for your rights, our rights, the rights of humanity, the rights of man, I’m glad that you have accepted me to come. I didn’t ask you. I didn’t have to. I just came because it was my duty and I’m going to say again you are on the eve of complete victory. Continue on. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.”

Due to traffic delays, Myrlie Evers missed her speaking slot and never made it to the stage. Bates stepped in to address the crowd:

“Mr. Randolph, friends, the women of this country [inaudible], our pledge to you, to Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins and all of you fighting for civil liberties—that we will join hands with you as women of this country. Rosa Gragg [president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs], Vice President; Dorothy Height, the National Council of Negro Women; and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; the Methodist Church Women, all the women pledge that we will join hands with you. We will kneel-in; we will sit-in until we can eat in any corner in the United States. 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. And we will sit-in and we will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.”

The honored women included Rosa Parks; Daisy Bates; Myrlie Evers; Diane Nash; Elvira Turner, widow of assassinated NAACP activist Herbert Lee; and Gloria Richardson, cofounder of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee.

Richardson was invited to give a two-minute speech, but the microphone was taken after she spoke one word:

The morning after the march, Height assembled women leaders at a meeting called “After the March—What?” During the meeting, the group reached a consensus that future activism needed to focus on both gender and racial equality.

Source: “Freedom!”: Black Women Speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

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