While Unsung in '63, Women Weren't Just 'Background Singers' : Code Switch That sweltering August day in 1963, when almost a quarter-million people thronged the National Mall, women were relegated to the background, even as they played major roles in the movement.
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While Unsung in '63, Women Weren't Just 'Background Singers'

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

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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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