The Long History of Black Women’s Exclusion in Historic Marches in Washington
On Saturday, January 21, 2017, the day after the presidential inauguration, thousands of women will descend on the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington (WMW). Some estimates suggest that up to 200,000 will participate in the event, with sister marches taking place in many U.S. cities and in several other countries around the world. According to their website, the WMW “aims to send a message to all levels of government that [women] stand together in solidarity.” The website also indicates that although white women devised the event, leaders soon established a national board to “reflect a balanced representation.” However, as history has shown us, representation does not always translate into true inclusion.
This event takes its name from the March on Washington held on August 28, 1963. However, the idea for such a massive demonstration originated in 1941 under the direction of civil rights activist A. Phillip Randolph. Randolph initiated the March on Washington Movement during World War II to call attention to the contradictions between America’s calls for democracy abroad and its treatment of black soldiers and workers at home. The 1941 march garnered a groundswell of support and threatened to embarrass President Roosevelt and the American nation-state. Randolph called it off only after FDR agreed to issue Executive Order 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).
During the 1963 March on Washington, thousands gathered to support racial equality and the civil rights movement. Participants heard from civil rights organizers like John Lewis and witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Just as the 1941 march was a turning point in desegregating federal work and army sectors, many credit the 1963 march with accelerating the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Despite their critical roles in the infrastructure, logistics, and planning of both events, male leadership marginalized black women’s voices and subsumed their gendered political priorities under the banner of civil rights. As Dorothy Height, a leading civil rights activist, recalled, “many prominent women were concerned about the visible participation and representation of women leaders in the program.” When she and other women raised this issue, male organizers offered excuses ranging from concerns about the length of the program to the claim that they could not figure out which female representative to choose. Perhaps most insulting was the idea that groups participating in the march had women among their ranks and that this should suffice as adequate representation of women.1
After much deliberation, Height and other women organizers convinced the male leaders to offer notable women activists, including Rosa Parks, “prominent seats on the platform” and program. Daisy Bates, leader of the Little Rock Nine, and Gloria Richardson, a leader in the Cambridge, Maryland civil rights movement, were slated to speak as part of the “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” section of the program. In the short time that they had, these activists could do little more than reaffirm dominant narratives about the march and movement. Bates spoke for roughly one minute, and Richardson had the microphone snatched away from her before she was able to address the crowd. Parks—at this point an icon of the movement—did not speak. As civil rights leader and lawyer Pauli Murray later noted, “Not a single woman was invited to make one of the major speeches or be a part of the delegation of leaders who went to the White House.”2
These same issues resurfaced in the Million Man March held in D.C. in 1995. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan initiated this march to gather black men together to “atone” and encourage them to take their “rightful” place as heads of the family and household. If the focus of the March on Washington was civil rights, then the Million Man March emphasized the restoration of black manhood and the black family. However, this did not mean that women were not integral to the event. In fact, black women were key organizers of the march and male leadership afforded women space on the program. Here again, seats on the platform did not translate to true representation. There was little room for speakers to divert from the message of the march and organizers asked the majority of black women to participate in a “day of absence” during which they would stay home and care for their children.3
There are key differences in the leadership and goals of the Women’s March on Washington and the aforementioned protests, but the central issue of holistic representation remains. The upcoming women’s march is largely a response to the recent election, contentious in no small part due to the fact that white women tipped the scales in favor of Trump. The WMW has the potential to be a unifying event if organizers and participants fully recognize that calls for solidarity often ring hollow for black women and that many black women see the recent election as the latest iteration of white feminists’ betrayal. Balanced representation is an important step in the right direction, but it must be followed up by concrete efforts to hear and address the concerns of all women. After all, true representation requires more than simply a prominent seat on the stage.
Ashley Farmer is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her manuscript, What You’ve Got is a Revolution: Black Women’s Movements for Black Power, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.
1. Dorothy O. Height, “‘We Wanted the Voice of a Woman to be Heard’: Black Women and the 1963 March on Washington,” in V.P. Franklin and Bettye Collier-Thomas, eds., Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (New York: NYU Press, 2010), 85–87.
2. William Powell Jones, The March On Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013). ↩
3. Wendy G. Smooth and Tamelyn Tucker, “Behind But Not Forgotten: Women and the Behind-the-Scenes Organizing of the Million Man March,” in Kimberly Springer, ed., Still Lifting, Still Climbing: African American Women’s Contemporary Activism (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 241–58.