In: A Woman’s View
Recognizing the Unsung Heroes. Honoring the Black women who shaped the 1963 March on Washington for Job and Freedom with images of Anna Arnold Headsman, Dorothy Height, Dr. Pauli Murray

Black women – the unsung heroes of the 1963 March on Washington

During Black History Month, we honor the Black women civil rights leaders who were crucial to the success of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and have been neglected by history.

Almost sixty-one years ago, on August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom marked a turning point in Black Americans’ fight for civil rights. Organized in only two months by the brilliant, but unrecognized, Bayard Rustin, over 250,000 individuals from across the country, Black and white, marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC to demand equality, justice, and equal opportunity for Black Americans. It galvanized the nation, laid the groundwork for legislative victories such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights  Act of 1965, and paved the way for the 24th Amendment to the Constitution to end poll taxes.

Towering figures like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Whitney M. Young Jr., have been celebrated as the architects of the march.  Known as the “Big Six,” they expanded sponsorship of the 1963 March to Ten Chairmen, including white male union and church leaders, but no women leaders.

Black women leaders such as  Dorothy Height, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and Dr. Pauli Murray who worked tirelessly advancing civil rights through such organizations as the National Council of Negro Women, the largest black organization at the time, and the National Council of Churches, were pivotal in organizing the march. Nevertheless, the male leaders of the 1963 march only allowed one woman, Anna Hedgeman, to participate in the administrative committee. They refused to list as co-sponsors the women’s organizations that mobilized the 250,000 marchers nationwide and barred female speakers from giving a keynote address. Undaunted, these indomitable women insisted on inclusion in the program. Begrudgingly, the male leadership granted one female speaker and a “tribute” to black women civil rights activists.

Dorothy Height’s journey to the forefront of the civil rights movement was marked by resilience and determination. Denied admission to Barnard College due to racial discrimination, she pursued her education at New York University and Columbia University, where she honed her skills as a social activist and community organizer. As the formidable president of the NCNW from 1957 to 1997, Height championed various causes, including the eradication of lynching, voter registration in the South, and the reform of the criminal justice system, and, was one of the first civil rights leaders to recognize that inequality for women and African Americans should be considered as a whole.

Despite being the only woman to work regularly alongside the Big Six on national civil rights projects, Dorothy Height, the unheralded “Seventh,” was not allowed to speak during the rally, nor could the NCNW officially sponsor the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  While she was the lone woman leader allowed to sit on the speakers’ platform, Height was overshadowed by all the men surrounding her.

Another trail-blazing Black woman, Anna Arnold Hedgeman of the National Council of Churches and the first female member of a New York City mayoral cabinet, brought her extensive experience in community organizing and social justice advocacy to the planning of the march, personally mobilizing 30,000 white Protestants to attend. As the sole woman on the event’s administrative committee, she challenged the exclusion of women from the march’s speaking roles.

At the August 16th planning meeting, it was proposed that key Black women’s contribution to civil rights be recognized by having the women stand and take a bow as Randolph discussed their historic role. Offended, Hedgeman sent a protest statement to her male cohorts. Receiving no response, during the final organizing meeting on August 23rd, she read it, stating, “In light of the role of Negro women in the struggle for freedom … it is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March…” She suggested Myrlie Evers, a formidable civil rights activist in her own right, and widow of Medgar Evans, speak and present the other women. As a result, Evers was added to the program — albeit listed as “Mrs. Medgar Evers.”

During the rally, all Ten Chairmen of the 1963 March, except James Farmer who was imprisoned in Louisiana for organizing protests, spoke, and, Black women’s participation was minimized. Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates, Chapter President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), spoke briefly, unscripted, and Lena Horne shouted “Freedom!” As Evers was unfortunately delayed by traffic, Bates stepped in to address the crowd, in fewer than 150 words.

Notwithstanding the agreement that Evers, now Bates, was to read the “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” Randolph took over. As he read their names – Bates, Parks, Evers; an absent Diane Nash, founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Prince Estella Melson Lee, widow of assassinated NAACP activist Herbert Lee; and Gloria Richardson, co-founder of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee – the women stood and waved. And that was the extent of their tribute!

Despite women being marginalized as speakers, female singers like Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Mahalia Jackson shaped the atmosphere and message of the event, infusing it with a sense of unity and resilience. After she sang, Mahalia Jackson remained on the stage while Martin Luther King delivered a prepared speech. Sensing the crowd’s restlessness and feelings of anti-climax, Mahalia called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” In response, King improvised the most famous lines of the day, known as his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Immediately following the march, the Ten Chairmen met with President Kennedy to celebrate and share in the excitement that the large, multi-racial, peaceful march would persuade legislators to pass Kenendy’s Civil Rights Bill.  Deliberately excluded, as they had been before and would be subsequently from all White House meetings, were the people responsible for the success of the march – Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man, and the Black women civil rights leaders.

The morning after the march, Height assembled the Black female organizers.  Calling the meeting “After the March — What?” the women discussed lessons learned from the event and plans for the future.  In attendance was noted scholar, activist, and lawyer, Dr. Pauli Murray, the first to coin the term Jane Crow, who had also written the 1963 March’s leaders to protest the absence of women speakers. Passionately, she spotlighted the need for Black women to confront the intersecting oppressions of race and gender and to organize on their own to fight for equality.

Frustrated with ongoing sexism in the civil rights movement and committed to the fight for Black women’s equality, in 1966 Murray and Hedgeman joined Betty Friedan and 46 others to found the National Organization for Women.

While we celebrate the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for the ground-breaking civil rights legislation it helped secure, it also stands as a poignant reminder that the Black women who were pivotal to the success of the civil rights movement were only given token recognition during the March. For countless black women, the experience of Height, Hedgeman, and Murray and that of the other female organizers was a wake-up call as to the degree of sexism within many civil rights organizations. It galvanized them to organize independently to fight for Black women’s equality and powerfully push to be included in the movement’s leadership.

For their resilience and determination in the fight for comprehensive equality for all people, we remember and honor Dorothy Height, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and Dr. Pauli Murray, the unsung heroes of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.


“Freedom!”: Black Women Speak at the March on Washington, Stanford Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute

Sexism almost sidelined Black women at 1963 March, USAToday

Of Course a Woman Planned the March on Washington, Shondaland

Farmer, James (1998). Lay Bare the Heart. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press. p. 215. ISBN 9780875651880

The Morning After: Black Women and the March on Washington, Kyle Brooks, Black Perspectives

The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, by William P. Jones, Kevin Free, et al., 2013