(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.
"I think they were annoyed with Lena taking Rosa around. So that part of the march was not a good experience for me."
Asked if she believes female civil rights activists were treated as second-class citizens, she said, "Oh, yes! Oh, yes! In terms of the march, yes."
Richardson lamented that she fears that much of the work she and others fought for has been undone in recent years and that too many younger people of color don't seem to know or care. "Most of the schools across the country are resegregating. Health care for black folks, whatever their coverage, is second rate. What from the Civil Rights Bill and voting rights are left?"
She was particularly disappointed in what she considers the lack of mobilization at the grassroots and legislative levels against disenfranchising voting-rights laws.
"Maybe it's because they were too busy trying to protect Obama," she said. Richardson believes the first black president's election has not had a positive impact on civil rights. "It was amazing to me that everyone sat down and shut up and didn't challenge him on anything."
Asked to give him a grade on civil rights efforts, she replied, "An F. I don't think he's a fighter." While she doesn't think the president lacks good intentions, she said, "It's like a professor or preacher getting up with beautiful words … I guess he's laid back."
But she stressed that "Stand your ground" and stop-and-frisk laws prove that the country still has some serious civil rights battles, and most leaders today don't seem up for the fight. "Maybe because the leadership now is of another generation and doesn't understand you really have to fight like hell and you can't be gentlemanly or ladylike in that fight." Though she said that many younger people of color seem to take her work and that of other civil rights activists for granted, she praised Jumaane Williams, a member of the New York City Council who has been a vocal opponent of stop and frisk.
But she is disappointed in the hip-hop community and was particularly critical of the controversial "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape" video that appeared on an online channel supported by Russell Simmons, as well as lyrics by the rapper Lil Wayne denigrating the memory of Emmett Till.
She blamed the corporatization of media for encouraging such behavior. "Something is going on to obliterate the actual history and move towards this postracial thing."
Before her interview with The Root concluded, she recalled that when she was first contacted about participating in the Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom, she was told she couldn't wear her traditional protest uniform. "They call them jeans today, but then they called them dungarees and said you can't wear that; you have to dress up. I wouldn't have worn dungarees anyway, but I found a jean skirt and a blouse, and I wore that." She let out a laugh, before adding, "The traditional leaders didn't like me. The White House kept trying to find someone to rein people like me in."
Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.