Print options

August 26, 2013

Women Recall '63 March on Washington

by Suzanne Presto

In August of 1963, an estimated 250,000 people from across the country gathered for the March on Washington to call for racial equality.        

The turnout on the National Mall was a credit to organizers such as Eleanor Holmes Norton. She is now a congresswoman, and back in 1963 she worked in New York City publicizing the march and arranging transportation to the capital.  

Norton stayed in New York to help with last-minute arrangements the night before the march, and she recalls the view as she flew into Washington the morning of the event.

"You could already see people assembling in such large numbers that it was clear, unmistakably clear to me, that this march was going to be successful," she said.

"We stood there in amazement"

Among those gathered that day was Thelma Daley, now chair of Women in the NAACP, a civil rights organization. She reflected upon the events of August 28, 1963, at a recent event in Washington.     

Daley attended the march with friends after learning about it from Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women.

"We stood there in amazement because we were early and we were up front, and we could see people coming and coming and coming and coming," she said. "You look back and you say, 'Gee, you were really a part of that.'  And you never realize
at the moment that you are a part of history."

She recalled seeing people of different races and ages, carrying a variety of signs.  While the crowd's diversity struck Daley, so did a lack of diversity at the speakers' podium.  

"We were all so excited that Dr. Height was going to be on the stage, and the amazing thing is that we were waiting for Dr. Height to speak," she said. "I have to tell you that.  We were waiting, the group of us who had come.  We didn't know the full story then."

The story was that Height was not among the designated speakers, despite her prominence.  

Aside from a brief tribute to black women, the female voices on stage that day were heard singing, not speaking.  

Honoring girls and women

Yet women helped organize the movement, and both women and girls were key figures in flashpoint moments in history.  

Take Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend a desegregated school in New Orleans in 1960. She inspired a famous Norman Rockwell painting that depicts a small girl with a ribbon in her hair and schoolbooks in hand, protected by federal marshals as she walks past a racial slur that had been scrawled on the school.   
 
Ruby Bridges Hall met with President Barack Obama at the White House in 2011 when the iconic painting was on display there.  

"The girl in that painting at six years old knew absolutely nothing about racism," she said. "I was going to school that day."

Another moment seared into the nation's memory: a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little black girls. The murders, just weeks after the March on Washington, triggered protests and nationwide outrage. This year, posthumously, the four girls were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.

Then there was the incident involving Rosa Parks, a name synonymous with civil rights. In 1955, Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in the segregated South and was arrested. Black residents of Montgomery, Alabama, staged a yearlong bus boycott in protest.  

A statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in the Capitol this year. At the ceremony, President Obama said Parks lived a life of activism, dignity and grace.

"And in a single moment, with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America - and change the world," he said.