At ‘Realize the Dream’ March, Women Speak at Last
At a rally marking the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, Myrlie Evers-Williams finally completed a mission assigned to her by tragedy a half-century ago. Then, little more than a month after her husband, Medgar Evers, president of the NAACP's Mississippi chapter, was slain in his driveway as his children watched, the young widow was the only woman scheduled to speak at the podium from which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would deliver his best-remembered line: "I have a dream."
But Myrlie Evers, as she was known then, missed her turn at the microphone, stuck in traffic on her way from the airport. (Daisy Bates, who strategized the integration of Little Rock High School, was drafted to Evers' slot, and spoke all of 142 words.)
At Saturday's commemoration, Evers-Williams not only had her turn, but also had some female company. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi addressed the crowd, which numbered in the tens of thousands, as did Sybrina Fulton, who gave a tribute to her slain son, Trayvon Martin; National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill; and Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Rev. Bernice King, president of the King Center and daughter of the late civil rights leader, offered a closing prayer. Other women, too, were given turns at the mic at the event, titled "Realize the Dream," and keynoted by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III.
"Stand your ground," Evers-Williams said, invoking the name of the notorious laws on the books in 16 states that allow the use of a lethal weapon against anyone the weapon-holder feels threatened by. "We can think of standing your ground in the negative," she continued, "but I ask you today to flip that coin and give 'stand your ground' a positive ring for all who stand for justice and equality, and stand firm on the ground that we have already made, and be sure that nothing is going to be taken away from us."
Among the gains won through protests and pressure of civil rights activists was the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the heart of which was struck down in June by the Supreme Court.
Marching Toward Inclusion
When, after the rally, the time came to march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, men and women marched together, unlike the original march 50 years ago, in which men and women marched along separate routes.
Jo Ann Watson, a Detroit city council member, came to the 1963 march with her grandparents when she was 12 years old, she told RH Reality Check. It was important for her to return not only as an African American, she said, but also as a woman. Watson, who served as the director of the Detroit YWCA and went on to serve in the organization's national headquarters as assistant executive director and head of the Y's Office of Racial Justice, claims as her mentor the late Dorothy I. Height, the longtime leader of the National Council of Negro Women, who also held two of the YWCA posts Watson went on to fill.
"[S]he often talked to me with tears gleaming in her eyes," Watson said. "She said no women were allowed to speak [at the 1963 march]."
Watson said Height had helped to plan that original march, but was deprived of a turn at the podium. Aside from the singer Mahalia Jackson, who performed that day, Height was the only woman seated on the platform next to the podium.
I found Watson seated on a bench in the shade along a footpath, taking a breather. Dressed elegantly in a black skirt and top and a fashionable chunky necklace, she held a red sign emblazoned with the slogan "End Racism. Heal America. Tax Wall Street."
Her clothing honored the memory of the Sunday-best she and all her fellow marchers wore in 1963. The sign was a reminder that the 1963 march was as much about jobs as it was about rights.