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Women at the first March on Washington: a secretary, a future bishop and a marshal

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In front of the crowds and the cameras, the speeches of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other men loomed large 60 years ago at the March on Washington.

But the women, including those of faith, who played roles in its organization, its music and its news coverage were mostly left off the official program.

“They did not accept their exclusion quietly,” stated the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in a description posted on its website ahead of the anniversary. “Individuals like Anna Arnold Hedgeman of the National Council of Churches strategized with others and convinced (organizer Roy) Wilkins to include a female speaker. Only one woman spoke: Daisy Bates, NAACP chapter president and an advisor to the Little Rock Nine.”

The Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, who came to Washington as the first female executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus a decade after the march, recalls prominent Black women leaders of that era sharing with her their “anger and angst” of having to sit silently that day.

The co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network said that, although they may not have had much of a voice that day, she is certain of the influence of women, famous and unfamiliar, on the march’s success from behind the scenes.

“If anything got organized, the women were putting in extra time,” she said, “even though they faced the unfairness of not being able to speak.”

As the nation marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, Religion News Service talked to three women — a secretary in King’s office, a schoolgirl who became a bishop and a high school grad who helped escort Malcolm X, about their memories and roles in that historic moment.

The interviews were edited for length and clarity.

Click through to Anabaptist World for the Interviews:

Adelle M. Banks

Production Editor + National Reporter


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