The Badass Women of the March

Without women like Lena Horne or Prince Lee, the epic gathering never would have happened.

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    Josephine Baker (Francis Miller/Getty Images); Marian Anderson (Archive Photos/Getty Images); Mahalia Jackson (Bob Parent/Getty Images) 

    It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of one of the greatest human rights movements in history. The civil rights movement, which did so much to advance equal rights for African Americans, struggled to demonstrate gender equality in its treatment of female civil rights activists. In an interview with The Root, activist Gloria Richardson, one of a handful of women granted a slot on the official March on Washington program, recalled how some women activists were made to feel as second-class citizens that day, and throughout the duration of a movement intended to erase the concept of second-class citizenship here in America. Click here to read our interview with Gloria Richardson. Please also check out some of the other women who made the March on Washington a success.

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    Camilla Williams (John D. Kisch/Getty Images)

    Camilla Williams

    Though Marian Anderson was scheduled to officially kick off the March on Washington with her performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” she had travel delays and Williams stepped in her place. In 1946 Williams had made history by becoming the first black opera singer to receive a contract with a major American opera company, the New York City Opera. Her performance at the March on Washington further solidified her place in history.

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    Mahalia Jackson sings at the 1963 March on Washington. (Bob Parent/Getty Images)

    Mahalia Jackson

    Jackson is remembered not only as one of the greatest gospel singers in history but also for her role as one of the civil rights movement’s most visible celebrity supporters. She put her fame to good use performing at a number of fundraisers on behalf of civil rights causes at the behest of Martin Luther King Jr. Just two years after performing at the inaugural ball of President John F. Kennedy, she performed at the March on Washington. Her stirring renditions of “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” are considered highlights from the program, but it is something she said, not something she sang, which is credited with shaping the day.

    According to the History Channel, Jackson said to King, ” ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ ” And at that moment, as can be seen in films of the speech, King leaves his prepared notes behind to improvise the entire next section of his speech — the historic section that famously begins, ‘And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream … ‘ “

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    Diane Nash at a 2011 event at the Carnegie Institution for Science (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)

    Diane Nash

    If the activist wing of the civil rights movement had an official first lady, her name would be Diane Nash. According to the book Freedom’s Daughters, Nash’s beauty secured her a finalist position in a local pageant in her native Illinois. But anyone who underestimated her as just a pretty face did so at his peril. Nash is considered one of the civil rights movement’s most brilliant tacticians.

    A co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she helped direct the sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., that led to its becoming the first major Southern city to desegregate such facilities. After violent attacks on Freedom Riders almost ended the trips intended to desegregate Southern establishments, Nash stepped in to gather groups of volunteers to keep them going, despite being warned by other civil rights leaders that she was risking her life. “It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence,” Nash recalled in a later interview. Nash was one of the women included in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.”

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    Lena Horne holds up an NAACP banner while speaking with NBC News' Nancy Dickerson at the 1963 March on Washington. (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)  

    Lena Horne

    Though best remembered for her beauty and helping to break Hollywood’s racial barrier, Horne lent her star power to the civil rights movement. She regularly performed at fundraisers and events for the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women. While she did not perform at the March on Washington, her attendance added heft to the event.

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    Dorothy Height (Susan Biddle/Getty Images)

    Dorothy Height

    Her role as president of the National Council of Negro Women made Height one of the most influential black women in America. She regularly advised presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson on civil rights matters, making her attendance at the March on Washington a given. Height, who was never photographed without wearing one of her signature hats, was also a pioneer on the issue of reproductive rights for black women, co-founding African American Women for Reproductive Freedom.

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    Prince E. Lee (Jerel Harris, Enterprise-Journal)

    Prince E. Lee

    Like Myrlie Evers, widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Lee was invited to participate in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” because of the courage she showed in the wake of her own husband’s murder. (Evers ended up being unable to attend the march at the last minute, despite being listed on the program.) Herbert E. Lee was killed by a member of the Mississippi Legislature for refusing to abandon his work with the local NAACP chapter that was attempting to register voters. In 2010, at the age of 93, Lee attended the unveiling of an official marker commemorating the location in Liberty, Miss., in which her husband gave his life for the cause of civil rights.

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

    Gloria Richardson

    After graduating from Howard University, Richardson settled into a comfortable life with a husband and two daughters. But when her teenage daughter Donna became active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Richardson was inspired and helped co-found Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. CNAC focused on efforts to desegregate accommodations in Cambridge, Md. The violence sparked by opponents to integration resulted in the National Guard being dispatched to Cambridge from 1963 and 1964. Richardson’s assertiveness put her at odds with both the Kennedy administration and some of the civil rights movement’s more prominent leaders. She would eventually become an ally of Malcolm X, but as a testament to the effectiveness of her work in Cambridge, she was one of the women included in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.”

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    Joan Baez (David Gahr/Getty Images)

    Joan Baez

    Baez, a renowned folk singer of Scottish and Mexican heritage, performed “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington. Though she did not originate the song, her moving rendition would become one of her trademarks, and she would perform it at future events on behalf of civil rights and social justice causes. Her 1964 song “Birmingham Sunday,” about the church bombing that killed four young girls, was used in Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls.

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    Dorie Ladner (the Washington Post/Getty Images); Joyce Ladner (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

    Joyce and Dorie Ladner

    Natives of Mississippi, Joyce and Dorie Ladner worked with the SNCC on civil rights protests in their home state. They were arrested and faced the reality that they might lose their lives for their efforts. They had worked alongside Medgar Evers, the NAACP worker who was assassinated months before the March on Washington, which the Ladners attended.

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    Rosa Parks (Paul Schutzer/Getty Images)

    Rosa Parks

    Next to Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks is probably the most recognizable and revered figure of the civil rights movement. Referred to as “the mother of the freedom movement,” her refusal to move from the white section of a bus to the designated colored section resulted in her arrest and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. The move cost Parks her job as a seamstress but secured her place in history. She was one of the women included in the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.” As further testament to her towering legacy, upon her death in 2005 she became the second African American and first woman granted a viewing in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor usually reserved for heads of state and similar dignitaries.

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    Marian Anderson sings to the crowd of civil rights demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

    Marian Anderson

    Anderson was originally scheduled to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” that day, but because she was delayed, Camilla Williams ultimately performed it in her place. But Anderson would go on to perform “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” later in the program. The moment was particularly symbolic for Anderson. In 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her permission to perform at Constitution Hall, then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson perform an acclaimed outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where she would later perform for the March on Washington attendees.

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    Daisy Bates (Thomas D. McAvoy/Getty Images)

    Daisy Bates

    Alongside civil rights icons like Rosa Parks, Bates was one of six women honored during the March on Washington’s “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.” Bates’ presence in the program was a nod to her role orchestrating one of the civil rights movement’s defining moments. As president of the Arkansas branch of the NAACP, Bates guided the famed “Little Rock Nine” on their journey to integrate Central High School. In her later life, Bates would go on to work for the Democratic National Committee.

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    Josephine Baker speaks to attendees at the 1963 March on Washington. (Francis Miller/Getty Images)

    Josephine Baker

    Baker is best remembered for glamorizing the image of African-American entertainers globally. She experienced her greatest success abroad and would ultimately receive the French government’s highest honor for her work in aiding the French resistance. But Baker was also a tireless fighter for civil rights, striving to integrate venues where she performed long before the American civil rights movement was in full swing. As such, she was the only woman to deliver a full address at the March on Washington, which can be read in its entirety here.

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    Eva Jessye (public domain)

    Eva Jessye

    After spending her early career as the choir director at Morgan State University, Jessye founded the Eva Jessye Choir, which had a featured placement in the March on Washington program. 

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