Women Were 'Second Class Citizens At '63 March'

Aug 29, 2013
Originally published on August 28, 2013 4:18 pm

Gloria Richardson, one of the few women on the program at the 1963 March on Washington, was only allowed to say “hello” before her microphone was taken away.

She, along with Rosa Parks and Lena Horne were escorted away from the podium before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke.

Richardson shared her memories of the March on Washington with The Root’s Keli Goff, telling her that women leaders were asked to march down Independence Avenue, while the male leaders marched on Pennsylvania Avenue with the media.

By the time Richardson arrived on the stage with Bayard Rustin, her chair with her name on it had been removed, and though she had been asked to give a two-minute speech, the event marshal took her microphone away after she said “hello.”


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Well, speaking of which, the 1963 March on Washington was one of the great gatherings for equal rights, but not for rights for women. Gloria Richardson, one of the few women on the program at the '63 march, when she was asked if women were treated then like second-class citizens, she said yes. She is co-founder of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee. She was slotted in a segment titled "Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom." She was invited to give a two-minute speech, but the marshal took her microphone away after she said one word: hello.

Gloria Richardson told all of this to Keli Goff, a special correspondent for The Root. We'll link you to their whole talk at hereandnow.org. Keli, Gloria Richardson, now 91. Tell us more about who she was and what happened to her in '63.

KELI GOFF: Well, she is - let me just say that she is 91 going on 30. And she is still very feisty, very fiery. And as you can see from reading the whole interview, is very much in tune to what's going on today and had some very vivid recollections and strong feelings about what happened to her back in '63 and the other women. And in a nutshell, she made it very clear that they sort of weren't, you know, some of the male leaders weren't a huge fan of her. And I think it was more sort of people like her and women like her who were not easily controlled. She was very much her own person.

And so some of the anecdotes that she shared from the day, her exact words to me were, it wasn't a great experience for me, which is really sad because for so many of us we see such a momentous, wonderful occasion. And she said to me, sadly, it wasn't a great experience for me, Keli. And a couple of the reasons, one, you know, you've told the anecdote of how she got to the stage and she went up to speak because that's what she has been told she would be allowed to do. She was called and asked to come and told she'd be allowed to give two minutes of remarks. And then when she actually approached the microphone, says hello, and a marshal pulls back the microphone, and that was that.

Later on, she said that she and Lena Horne were walking the grounds - Lena Horne is a legendary Hollywood entertainer - were walking the grounds with Rosa Parks. They were taking Ms. Parks around to some of the foreign media who didn't know what she looked like but knew, of course, what she'd helped accomplish with the Montgomery bus boycott. And some marshals came along and said, you know, you're kind of creating a lot of commotion and we're worried fans are going to overwhelm you. So why don't we help escort you off the premises? And so Ms. Richardson, who was so significant, her contributions, that she was included on the program, never got to hear Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" live. She was in a taxicab with Lena Horne. So that sort of broke her heart too.

YOUNG: Well, we know the history that Dorothy Height, one of the legends of the civil rights movement - we have a picture - we'll post - of her at hereandnow.org. She's just few feet from Martin Luther King as he delivers his speech, but she was not asked to speak. And I mentioned the segment in which these - some women were honored. There was a fight to get that segment in because there was a realization that...

GOFF: That's right.

YOUNG: ...there were no women in. And the others, Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Bevel, Herbert - Mrs. Herbert...

GOFF: Herbert Lee?

YOUNG: Yup. Herbert Lee. Rosa Parks, Gloria Richardson and Myrlie Evers, who was on the program in 1963, the widow of Medgar Evers. But unfortunately, she couldn't come, and so she didn't speak. So few women speaking. Just - what is the conversation today?

GOFF: Well, I think - look, I think the fact that there were some people (unintelligible) who seemed to not love the fact that Ms. Richardson's story was being told. I think there are people who felt that it sort of took away from the great things that they accomplished that day. And I don't think that's true. I think that we should be willing to acknowledge and celebrate that wonderful moment, this occasion, words and all. But we can't ignore the words, right? Because that shows there was still work to be done back then. There's still work to do today in terms, of, you know, gender equality and movements. It's not the first time we've heard about this type of issue.

The feminist movement was a wonderful movement that I'm grateful for as an African-American woman. But we know they had racial equality issues in the movement. And just as a Civil Rights Movement was a movement I'm incredibly grateful for as a woman. But I know that they did have some issues with gender equality. So I'm glad that the story of people like Ms. Richardson and so many of other women - I also did a slideshow of women from that day - is getting told and that they're being sort of paid the respect and appreciation they so deserve.

YOUNG: Well, and by the way, there are a lot of women in a lot of movements from the '60s and '70s who would say that they were also ignored, the anti-war movement, for instance. And so it was, in large part, a sign of the times. And we should say, too, that Gay Rights was also an issue then. Bayard Rustin, one of the main icons behind the civil rights movement.

GOFF: There would be no march without Bayard Rustin.

YOUNG: Right. And...

GOFF: He didn't get the credit he deserved because he was - he is gay, and you're right.

YOUNG: Yeah.

GOFF: You're completely right. I like to think that there wouldn't have been a march, really, without women or gay people. And so it's kind of ironic...


GOFF: ...that they were sort of pushed to side, right, because without them, there wouldn't have been no march, and I'm glad that the story is finally being told.

YOUNG: Keli Goff, special correspondent for The Root. And again, we'll link you to her conversation with Gloria Richardson at hereandnow.org as we go out of this segment listening to the Reverend Shirley Caesar, who got everyone on their feet at the Mall today on the 50th anniversary celebration. Back in a minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.