March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
More than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 for a political rally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Organized by a group of civil rights and religious organizations, it was designed to illuminate the political and social challenges confronting African Americans. The march, which became a key moment in the growing struggle for civil rights, culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In this speech, he expressed his hope for a better world with equality and justice for all.
The male civil rights leadership declined to give women speaking roles on the program. Anna Arnold Hedgeman of the National Council of Churches was the only woman on the March’s organizing committee. She and Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, argued that a female speaker should be included. The other organizers compromised by adding a short “Tribute to Negro Women” to the program.
Originally, the “Tribute to Negro Women” was to be given by a man, but Hedgeman pushed the organizers to allow a woman to speak. It was finally agreed that Myrlie Evers would deliver the tribute. On the day of the march, there was so much traffic between the airport and the march Evers that could not get to the stage. Daisy Bates was asked to fill in. She promised that African American women “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-on and will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge…" Bates’ words highlight the on the ground efforts African American women were part of. While they were often excluded from leadership roles these women played an active role in the movement.
The march was effective, and on June 11, 1963 President John F. Kennedy unveiled plans to pursue a comprehensive civil rights bill in Congress, stating, “This nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, before legislation could pass.
By Arlisha Norwood, NWHM Fellow