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

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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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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