This time, the president, John F. Kennedy, a shrewd supporter of civil rights, let the marchers march.
Absent from the podium
Another battle was going on behind the scenes, providing tinder for a different fuse: the struggle for women’s rights.
From one perspective, women and blacks had common goals.
“You can find deep roots back in the ’50s — a growing prosperity, a growing middle class,” said Evans, the history professor. “There were rising aspirations in the black community, rising aspirations of women, with both of those being groups that quickly bumped up against barriers both legal and informal.”
By 1963, those rising expectations had reached a point where the ongoing discrimination no longer was tolerable.
“There’s the collision of the old status quo and an old hierarchy that’s crumbling with newly emerging, self-aware groups that are challenging it,” Evans said. “Of course, the backlash is huge.”
Black women had been pivotal to the civil rights movement on the local level, Wright said, deeply involved in planning the March on Washington. But it became clear that few women would be heard from that day.
One of them was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson — but she played an important role.
As Clarence Jones, a lawyer who helped draft King’s speech, relates in a PBS documentary, “The March” (airing 9 p.m. Tuesday, TPT, Ch. 2), King had been delivering his prepared remarks when Jackson, who had sung earlier, shouted to him.
“Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting on the platform, said, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream,’ ” Jones said, surmising that she must have heard King talk about this at other times. “I was standing about 50 feet behind him to the left and to the rear. And I watched him — this is all happening in real time — just take the text of this speech and move it to the left side of the lectern, grab the lectern, and look out. And I said to somebody standing next to me, I said, ‘These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.’ ”
Still, the absence of women’s voices provoked some of the women leaders, notably Dorothy Cotton and Dorothy Height, to meet after the march to discuss the sexism among those fighting racism. The women ultimately formed their own national organization, which became one of the foundations of the emerging feminist movement.
This did not, however, mean that they were in sync with white women who were absorbing a new book, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
Elaine Tyler May, a historian in American Studies at the University of Minnesota, has written extensively on the 1960s. “Black women were actually put off by Betty Friedan’s message,” May said, explaining that some black men were becoming prosperous enough that their wives no longer needed to work for white families to support their households. “They finally could stay home and raise their own children instead of some white person’s children, and here’s Betty Friedan telling them to give up the trap of being a housewife.”
Setting the stage for change
The fuses of 1963 went beyond the United States. African countries were gaining independence from British colonialism, which led to fresh images beamed onto American television screens, Evans said. “For Americans under segregation, to look at TV and see heads of state from African nations going to the U.N. was very powerful.”
Such political transitions also pressed the U.S. government to support civil rights, May said, even as some state governments resisted. “The national government had to support civil rights — had to — because it was a huge embarrassment when dignitaries from Africa would come and couldn’t be served in some restaurants.”
Many of these emerging leaders had been educated in the United States, Wright said, so they had experienced segregation as students. “They had very strong personal, as well as political, ties to the enterprise.”