Written by: Sara Kugler
August 21, 2013
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington by highlighting the women who were leaders in the Civil Rights movement but were only invited to have minimal roles in the March.
Black women were leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but they were not invited speakers at the 1963 March on Washington. The fact that they were present on the podium, and one woman was asked to deliver brief remarks, can be attributed to Anna Arnold Hedgeman.
The name most often associated with the March on Washington is that of Martin Luther King, Jr., but without Hedgeman it is possible the final event that developed would not have materialized.
Hedgeman had directed a campaign for Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph, and was aware of his intentions to organize a “March on Washington for Jobs” in October of 1963 as part of his work with the Negro American Labor Council.
Around the same time, there was a press announcement that Martin Luther King was planning a March on Washington in July to demand a civil rights bill be passed. Some activists were concerned that Randolph and King’s plans would compete, or draw resources from one another.
Hedgeman proposed the two men meet. The result was a broader coalition and the planning of a unified March in August with a slogan of “For Jobs and Freedom.” This change led to greater external support, notably from the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the Congress on Racial Equality, and the NAACP.
Hedgeman was the sole woman invited to be on the Administrative Committee of the March on Washington that organized the March, alongside the “Big Six:” James Farmer, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. Hedgeman vocally opposed the absence of women on the committee, and advocated for women to be included. She suggested the Committee add leaders from organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Council of Negro Women.
She writes about the result of her proposal in her 1964 autobiography A Trumpet Sounds: A memoir of Negro leadership: “As usual, the men must have discussed the matter in my absence and when the first leaflet was printed, I was embarrassed to find that I was still the only woman listed.”
A week before the March, Hedgeman saw upon reviewing the final program that no women had been selected to speak; rather “it was proposed that Mr. Randolph, as chairman, would ask several Negro women to stand while he reviewed the historic role of Negro women, and that the women would merely take a bow at the end of his presentation.”
Hedgeman met to the discuss the absence of women in the March with Corinne Smith and Geri Stark, two women who had raised $14,000 for the March as part of the Negro American Labor Council. After hearing their shared concerns, she prepared a letter to Randolph that she read aloud at the final meeting of the Committee on August 16, 1963.
Her letter begins:
“In light of the role of the Negro women in the struggle for freedom and especially in light of the extra burden they have carried because of the castration of the Negro man in this culture, it is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March on Washington Meeting at the Lincoln Memorial.”
In the letter, she proposes that Randolph’s proposed remarks on women be delivered by a woman, suggesting Myrlie Evers and Diane Nash as possible speakers.
While no woman ended up giving a speech, her advocacy for women’s inclusion led to Daisy Bates being allowed to provide brief remarks, in which she gave awards to five other black women in the movement and made a pledge “to the women of America” to be active in fighting for civil rights and equality. It also resulted in Rosa Parks being presented onstage, “almost causually,” Hedgeman notes, and the inclusion of women on the dais.
Hedgeman reflects on that moment, writing, “We grinned: some of us, as we recognized anew that Negro women are second-class citizens.”
In her autobiography, Hedgeman explains her sentiments at the time: “The March on Washington created for the moment a sense of unity in the struggle of the Negro for freedom now. For me it was an experience which also highlighted the basic problems resulting from the wall of separation.” She goes on to discuss the visual impact of being at the Lincoln Memorial, celebrating the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the absence of any commemoration of Frederick Douglass for his role in emancipation. She writes:
“As I sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the day of the March I thought of the 180,000 Negro soldiers and 29,000 black seamen who had moved in at the crucial moment to win the war and save ‘the fragile union.’ Most of the 250,000 people present could not know of these men, for the history books available to Americans have failed to record their story.”
Hedgeman’s involvement in the March on Washington was only part of a full life of civic engagement. She served as an aide to New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner from 1954-1958, the first black woman to serve on the state’s mayoral cabinet. She was one of the original 49 founders of the National Organization for Women.
She ran for a House seat in 1960, City Council of New York in 1965, and an assembly seat in the Democratic primary in 1968. All three bids were unsuccessful.
She worked with the YWCA for many years in a variety of roles, including Executive Director of the Philadelphia and Brooklyn branches. She was the Executive Director of the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee, and the Assistant Dean of Women at Howard University. She was appointed to an administrative position in the Federal Security Agency under President Truman. The scope of her work far outstrips this short list of highlights.
In her autobiography, she concludes her reflection on the March of Washington with the following:
“The problems of breaking the wall of separation are fantastic. They are part of every facet of American life and require that ‘we the people’ of these United States search for creative ways to meet them at every level of American society.”