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While Unsung in '63, Women Weren't Just 'Background Singers'

Posted: August 24, 2013

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That sweltering August day in 1963, when almost a quarter-million people thronged the National Mall, women were relegated to the background, even as they played major roles in the movement.

Daisy Bates of Little Rock, Ark., visited Memphis, Tenn., in August 1959 with Lt. George W. Lee, a prominent Memphis civic leader and author. Bates acted as adviser to the nine black students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. She died in 1999.

Daisy Bates of Little Rock, Ark., visited Memphis, Tenn., in August 1959 with Lt. George W. Lee, a prominent Memphis civic leader and author. Bates acted as adviser to the nine black students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. She died in 1999.

Civil rights activist Diane Nash listens the former Vice President Al Gore after the Freedom Awards Public Forum at Temple of Deliverance in Memphis. Gore and Nash were honored, along with musician B.B. King, for the 2008 Freedom Awards.

Civil rights activist Diane Nash listens the former Vice President Al Gore after the Freedom Awards Public Forum at Temple of Deliverance in Memphis. Gore and Nash were honored, along with musician B.B. King, for the 2008 Freedom Awards. Mike Brown

Three of the six leaders of African-American organizations who met with President Lyndon B. Johnson Nov. 19, 1964, talk with reporters at the White House after the meeting. They are, left to right: James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality; Whitney M. Young, Jr., executive director of the National Urban League; and Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women.

Three of the six leaders of African-American organizations who met with President Lyndon B. Johnson Nov. 19, 1964, talk with reporters at the White House after the meeting. They are, left to right: James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality; Whitney M. Young, Jr., executive director of the National Urban League; and Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women.

Ella Baker helped Martin Luther King Jr. start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a field secretary for the NAACP, where she worked for black voter registration. She was often referred to as the

Ella Baker helped Martin Luther King Jr. start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a field secretary for the NAACP, where she worked for black voter registration. She was often referred to as the "Godmother of SNCC" — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — where she provided counsel to student activists. Jack Harris

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 17, 1965. The House of Representatives had rejected a challenger to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. Mrs. Hamer and two other African-American women were seated on the floor of the House while the challenge was being considered.

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 17, 1965. The House of Representatives had rejected a challenger to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. Mrs. Hamer and two other African-American women were seated on the floor of the House while the challenge was being considered. William J. Smith

President Jimmy Carter talks to members of ACTION during a speech in the White House Rose Garden in 1977. From left are, Vice President Walter Mondale; Sam Brown, director of ACTION; Carter; and Mary King, deputy director of ACTION. About 25 percent of SNCC's members were white, including King, who applied her leadership experience from the SNCC to the feminist movement.

President Jimmy Carter talks to members of ACTION during a speech in the White House Rose Garden in 1977. From left are, Vice President Walter Mondale; Sam Brown, director of ACTION; Carter; and Mary King, deputy director of ACTION. About 25 percent of SNCC's members were white, including King, who applied her leadership experience from the SNCC to the feminist movement. HWG

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Miss., speaks to the state's Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1965.

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Miss., speaks to the state's Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1965. William J. Smith

On that sweltering August day in 1963, almost a quarter-million people thronged the National Mall, from the Washington Monument to the columned marble box that is the Lincoln Memorial. The crowning moment, of course, was Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

Looking out upon the packed Mall, King told the integrated crowd that the nation's black citizens would not be satisfied until they were equal in every way, as thunderous applause broke out around him: "We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!"

In addition to King, vintage photos from the day prominently show Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Asa Philip Randolph — the architect of the march — and a very young John Lewis,who is one of the few original speakers still living.

Women were relegated to the background, even one as eminent as Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Or they were cultural adornments, like the iconic mezzo-soprano Marian Anderson, who serenaded the crowd with an elegant rendition of the old Negro spiritual, "He's Got The Whole World In His Hand."

Not Just The Movement's Background Singers

Former journalist Lynne Olson, who wrote Freedom's Daughters, a history of women in the civil rights movement, says that the pre-feminist time was conducive to putting a spotlight on the movement's male figures — not that the men were complaining about that.

"They regarded themselves as the leaders," she says. "They were regarded by the press as the leaders, it was just part of the times. Men were out there; women were in the background really doing most of the work." Women ran the mimeograph machines, made sandwiches, placed phone calls and passed out flyers with information on gatherings.

Olson believes this was the secret to the movement's forward progress: "Without women, the civil rights movement would never have gotten off the ground. They were the ones who were the organizers — they were really the ground troops."

But, says filmmaker Judy Richardson, the movement's women were not content to only be the ground troops.

"Women weren't just the foot soldiers to the movement," she says firmly. "We weren't just the background singers — we were at the mic!"

Richardson was one of the producers on the award-winning Eyes on the Prize documentary series, and also an editor of Hands on the Freedom Plow, a series of 52 personal histories from women who worked in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

Compared to the middle-aged members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the NAACP, SNCC's membership was very young — kids in their teens and college students who came together to fight for racial equality. Richardson says SNCC women, who'd been active on their own campuses, didn't intend to take a back seat because of their gender.

"In SNCC, the women worked alongside the men," Richardson says. "It's not that there was no sexism in SNCC — but there was a lot less than in many of the other organizations."

The SNCC students were guided by Ella Baker, who had helped King start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She had also been a field secretary for the NAACP. Baker stressed to her fired-up charges that they were activists, yes, but their job was to grow leaders at the grass-roots level — local leadership that would outlast the college kids' presence.

Baker was often referred to as the "Godmother of SNCC" for her protection and counsel. Richardson says Baker taught the young people to keep in mind the delicate balance they were trying to achieve.

"The bottom line was, we're trying to figure out how to get black people registered to vote without getting them killed," she says.

'Is This America?'

The right to vote was something Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer had been working on in Mississippi for years. She'd been thrown off the Delta plantation where she'd worked, been beaten almost to death and jailed for insisting on her right to register to vote. Despite that, she crisscrossed the Delta, organizing and boosting morale with her signature freedom songs and spirituals.

Mrs. Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Her impassioned testimony to the DNC's Credentials Committee reverberated all the way to the White House, where a furious Lyndon Johnson listened.

"If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated — now — I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Mrs. Hamer asked her mesmerized listeners. It was a shame, she told them, that she and others had to sleep with their telephones off the hook because they received so many death threats from irate segregationists.

Johnson was afraid the Southern states would bolt if he unseated Mississippi's segregated delegation to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party. When, as a compromise, the integrated delegation was offered two token seats, Hamer refused, with the legendary retort: "We didn't come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired."

The skills that women — black and white — developed in the civil rights movement in the '60s would go on to help other movements as they strategized for their own rights. Women, LGBT activists and now those dedicated to immigrants' rights all benefited from the movement — a direct result of the work of women, both well-known and unknown, who were an essential part of the movement's success.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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