While Unsung in '63, Women Weren't Just 'Background Singers'

Aug 24, 2013
Originally published on August 25, 2013 9:17 am

On that sweltering August day in 1963, almost a quarter-million people thronged the National Mall, from the Washington Monument to the columned marble box that is the Lincoln Memorial. The crowning moment, of course, was Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

Looking out upon the packed Mall, King told the integrated crowd that the nation's black citizens would not be satisfied until they were equal in every way, as thunderous applause broke out around him: "We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!"

In addition to King, vintage photos from the day prominently show Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Asa Philip Randolph — the architect of the march — and a very young John Lewis,who is one of the few original speakers still living.

Women were relegated to the background, even one as eminent as Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Or they were cultural adornments, like the iconic mezzo-soprano Marian Anderson, who serenaded the crowd with an elegant rendition of the old Negro spiritual, "He's Got The Whole World In His Hand."

Not Just The Movement's Background Singers

Former journalist Lynne Olson, who wrote Freedom's Daughters, a history of women in the civil rights movement, says that the pre-feminist time was conducive to putting a spotlight on the movement's male figures — not that the men were complaining about that.

"They regarded themselves as the leaders," she says. "They were regarded by the press as the leaders, it was just part of the times. Men were out there; women were in the background really doing most of the work." Women ran the mimeograph machines, made sandwiches, placed phone calls and passed out flyers with information on gatherings.

Olson believes this was the secret to the movement's forward progress: "Without women, the civil rights movement would never have gotten off the ground. They were the ones who were the organizers — they were really the ground troops."

But, says filmmaker Judy Richardson, the movement's women were not content to only be the ground troops.

"Women weren't just the foot soldiers to the movement," she says firmly. "We weren't just the background singers — we were at the mic!"

Richardson was one of the producers on the award-winning Eyes on the Prize documentary series, and also an editor of Hands on the Freedom Plow, a series of 52 personal histories from women who worked in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

Compared to the middle-aged members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the NAACP, SNCC's membership was very young — kids in their teens and college students who came together to fight for racial equality. Richardson says SNCC women, who'd been active on their own campuses, didn't intend to take a back seat because of their gender.

"In SNCC, the women worked alongside the men," Richardson says. "It's not that there was no sexism in SNCC — but there was a lot less than in many of the other organizations."

The SNCC students were guided by Ella Baker, who had helped King start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She had also been a field secretary for the NAACP. Baker stressed to her fired-up charges that they were activists, yes, but their job was to grow leaders at the grass-roots level — local leadership that would outlast the college kids' presence.

Baker was often referred to as the "Godmother of SNCC" for her protection and counsel. Richardson says Baker taught the young people to keep in mind the delicate balance they were trying to achieve.

"The bottom line was, we're trying to figure out how to get black people registered to vote without getting them killed," she says.

'Is This America?'

The right to vote was something Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer had been working on in Mississippi for years. She'd been thrown off the Delta plantation where she'd worked, been beaten almost to death and jailed for insisting on her right to register to vote. Despite that, she crisscrossed the Delta, organizing and boosting morale with her signature freedom songs and spirituals.

Mrs. Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Her impassioned testimony to the DNC's Credentials Committee reverberated all the way to the White House, where a furious Lyndon Johnson listened.

"If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated — now — I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Mrs. Hamer asked her mesmerized listeners. It was a shame, she told them, that she and others had to sleep with their telephones off the hook because they received so many death threats from irate segregationists.

Johnson was afraid the Southern states would bolt if he unseated Mississippi's segregated delegation to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party. When, as a compromise, the integrated delegation was offered two token seats, Hamer refused, with the legendary retort: "We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired."

The skills that women — black and white — developed in the civil rights movement in the '60s would go on to help other movements as they strategized for their own rights. Women, LGBT activists and now those dedicated to immigrants' rights all benefited from the movement — a direct result of the work of women, both well-known and unknown, who were an essential part of the movement's success.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

As we look back 50 years at the photos from the National Mall on that day in 1963, it's hard to ignore the scarce presence of women on the podium. Female voices were conspicuously absent from the presentations. But as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, many believe the march and the civil rights movement itself could not have existed without the work and guidance of the movement's women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) Freedom, freedom, freedom.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: That sweltering August day in 1963, almost a quarter-million people thronged the National Mall, from the Washington Monument to the columned marble box that is the Lincoln Memorial. The crowning moment, of course, was Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

BATES: In addition to King, vintage photos prominently show Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Asa Philip Randolph and a very young John Lewis. Women were relegated to the background, even one as eminent as Dr. Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Or they were cultural adornments, like the iconic mezzo-soprano Marian Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS")

MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing) He's got the whole world in his hands. He's got the big round world in his hands. He's got the...

BATES: Former journalist Lynne Olson wrote "Freedom's Daughters," a history of women in the civil rights movement. Olson says that pre-feminist time was conducive to putting a spotlight on the movement's male figures - not that the men were complaining about that.

LYNNE OLSON: They regarded themselves as the leaders. They were regarded by the press as the leaders. It was just part of the times. Men were out there; women were in the background really doing most of the work.

LYDEN: Olson believes this was the secret to the movement's forward progress.

OLSON: Well, without women, the civil rights movement would never have gotten off the ground. They were the ones who were the organizers. They were really the ground troops.

BATES: But, says filmmaker Judy Richardson, the movement's women were not content to only be the ground troops.

JUDY RICHARDSON: Women weren't just the foot soldiers in the movement. We weren't just the backup singers, you know? We were at the mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "EYES ON THE PRIZE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) I know the one thing we did right was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes...

BATES: Richardson worked on the award-winning "Eyes on the Prize" documentary series. She's also an editor of "Hands on the Freedom Plow," a series of 52 personal histories from women who worked in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC.

In comparison to the middle-aged members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the NAACP, SNCC's membership was very young, kids in their teens and college students. They came together to fight for racial equality. And Richardson says SNCC women who'd been active on their own campuses didn't intend to take a backseat because of their gender.

RICHARDSON: So you'd see Diane Nash, who was one of the main leaders of the Nashville student movement, along with Marian Barry and John Lewis. You would see Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, who was a leader in her own right, along with Julian Bond.

BATES: They were guided by Ella Baker, who'd helped Martin Luther King start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She'd also been a field secretary for the NAACP. Baker stressed to her fired-up charges that they were activists, yes, but their job was to grow leaders at the grassroots level - local leadership that would outlast the college kids' presence.

Baker was often referred to as the godmother of SNCC. Judy Richardson says she taught the young people to keep in mind the delicate balance they were trying to achieve.

RICHARDSON: We're trying to figure out, how do you get black people registered to vote without getting them killed?

BATES: That was something Fannie Lou Hamer had been working on in Mississippi for years. She'd been thrown off the Delta plantation where she'd worked, been beaten almost to death and jailed for insisting on her right to register to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FANNIE LOU HAMER: (Singing) Who's that yonder dressed in white? Let my people go.

BATES: Mrs. Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Her impassioned testimony to the DNC's Credentials Committee reverberated all the way to the White House, where a furious Lyndon Johnson heard this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMER: And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.

BATES: When as a compromise, the integrated delegation was offered two token seats, Mrs. Hamer refused with the legendary retort: We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired. The skills that women - black and white - developed in the civil rights movement would go on to help launch other movements. Author Lynne Olson gives this example.

OLSON: You know, without the civil rights movement, the women's movement certainly would not, I don't think, have developed the way it has.

BATES: Which is why most of the recent commemorations have had a vastly different gender balance than the original march did 50 years ago. That's a direct result of the women - both well-known and unknown - who were an essential part of the movement's success. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Singing) Ain't gonna let no jailhouse turn me round. I'm gonna keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin', marching on to freedom land. Can't gonna let segregation...

LYDEN: The official anniversary of the March on Washington is this coming Wednesday, August the 28th. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.