The Rampant Sexism at March on Washington

Gloria Richardson, one of the few women listed on the program, shares her memories with The Root.

Gloria Richardson, center, leads a 1964 civil rights demonstration in Maryland. (Francis Miller/Getty Images)
Gloria Richardson, center, leads a 1964 civil rights demonstration in Maryland. (Francis Miller/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The March on Washington is considered one of the greatest gatherings for equal rights in human history. Yet while the crowd congregated to push for the equality of black Americans and workers’ rights, female participants in the march, and the civil rights movement as a whole, struggled for equal treatment, acknowledgment and respect.

Though famed entertainer Josephine Baker ultimately flew in from France and was granted a speaking slot at the march, the organizers faced criticism that the initial March on Washington program featured no female speakers. As a result they created a special “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.” Myrlie Evers was supposed to be the featured speaker for the tribute, but she was unable to attend at the last minute. (Her name, however, was already listed on the program and would remain there.)

The other women listed to be honored in the tribute included Diane Nash, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Prince Lee, the widow of murdered civil rights activist Herbert Lee; Rosa Parks; Daisy Bates, who had served as head of the Arkansas NAACP during the Little Rock Nine crisis; and Gloria Richardson, co-founder of Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee.

Richardson, who is now 91, took some time to share her memories from that day as well as her perspectives on Russell Simmons, President Obama and the modern-day civil rights movement.

When asked for her most profound memory from the March on Washington, Richardson lit up. “The thousands of people that came and the buses! And then the whole energy from those people there, but then I had a bad experience,” she explained. “Because when I got to the platform they took my chair away.”

Asked to elaborate, Richardson recalled that there was a separate tent for the female speakers. When the other women exited, she thought they were headed to the ladies’ room before the official program began. She sat there alone in the tent until march organizer Bayard Rustin came frantically looking for her and explained that she was about to miss the program. “Today I read on the Internet that there was a separate place for the women to march.”

Richardson was referring to recent reports in outlets like USA Today that noted that while the male civil rights leaders walked to the march down Pennsylvania Avenue with the press, the women were relegated to walking down Independence Avenue. This is likely where they were when Richardson thought they had disappeared to the powder room. 

By the time Richardson arrived to the stage with Rustin, her chair with her name on it had been removed. “Lena Horne and Josephine Baker said, ‘They took your chair away. You need to raise hell.’ ” The indignities didn’t end there. Though Richardson had specifically been invited to give two-minute remarks, she recalls that when her name was called and she approached the microphone, “As soon as I said ‘hello’ the marshal took the mic away.” She added, “I thought it was such a great occasion that all of those people from all over the country had gotten there, that I didn’t raise hell, I just went on about my business.”

But the most disappointing moment came later. Richardson missed what was widely considered the march’s highlight. “Before it ended, two marshals came to Lena Horne and me — she had been taking Rosa around to take her around to European satellite stations and saying, ‘This is the woman who started the Montgomery Bus Boycott.’ So before it was over, these marshals came over, saying they thought we’d be overwhelmed [by fans] and escorted us out, so when Martin [Luther King, Jr.] spoke, we were in a cab on the way back to the hotel.