Fifty years ago, Daisy Bates was one of only two women to deliver remarks at the 1963 March on Washington. In a 142-word speech giving tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom, she called on marchers to “join hands…until we are free.” It’s an even lesser known fact that Daisy Bates, joined Josephine Baker, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson and other marchers down Independence Avenue as the men marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, not to separate themselves from the march, but in the hopes of increasing their visibility among others in the movement. Yet when we look at the iconic image of civil rights leaders standing and meeting with President Kennedy after the march, no women are present.
The engrained images that we often see of those historic events and moments in our history are too often only filled with images of the great male leaders of that time, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and others who served as leaders in the civil rights era. Too often that visual narrative does not include great women leaders such as Dr. Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash Bevel, Mildred Bond Roxborough and other thought leaders who were also at the heart and soul of the movement. Although absent from many of the iconic images most identifiable with the civil rights movement, these women and countless others were not only present, but a driving force in the fight to expand freedom and democracy in America.
This is why the single image of NAACP Chairman Rosyln M. Brock and other women leaders in the civil and human rights movement— including, Sherrilyn Ifill, Janet Murguia, Mee Moua, Laura Murphy, Melanie Campbell, Margaret Fung, and Barbara Arnwine— at the table with male leaders and President Barack Obama discussing the massive threat to voting rights in late July, 50 years after the March on Washington, is such a powerful and inspirational visual for our generation. Women today are on the front lines for justice and freedom in our nation because of the tenacity of countless women who fought for equal footing across the progressive movement, but just as the women before us, we must continue to bring ourselves to the table. And when there is no room, we must make room.
Fortunately, history provides a rich foundation in this legacy. In the early 20th Century, African American women joined civil rights leaders like Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth and other leading advocates early on in the suffrage movement and fight for basic rights. And years after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Right Act had been signed, African American women continued to settle the foundation. Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman once said, “At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.” Her statement was a continued call to channel our foremothers and further integrate ourselves into the battles of our time.
Women continue to answer the decree of Shirley Chisholm and the images documenting today’s civil rights battles are more diverse than they ever have been. We are inspired by the increased visibility and recognition of women who are both behind and in the forefront of shaping our nation's political concourse as strategists and constant fixtures in the media such as Donna Brazille, Minyon Moore, Leah Daughtry, Tanya Lombard, Melissa Harris Perry, Arlene Holt Baker and many others.
We are inspired by female elected officials, such as Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marsha Fudge; and state legislatures and administrators who are leading the charge for issues like voting rights across the nation. We are motivated by advocates who are leading fights to expand access to democracy in their states such as New York's Hazel N. Dukes, Virginia's Kemba Smith, and thousands of women who lead state and local advocacy efforts across the nation. And we continue to be encouraged by Tamika Mallory national executive director of the National Action Network, Ciara Taylor political director of the Dream Defenders, Stefanie Brown James president of Vestige Strategies, and other young women preparing to carry the torch forward.
Because of the vision and advocacy of the iconic civil and human rights women leaders and hundreds of nameless and faceless women that came before us, women are at the helms of boardrooms and executive offices, breaking barriers in the fields of technology and research, and helping shape the course of democracy today.
Fifty years later, we are definitively in the range of history’s lens.
Jotaka L. Eaddy is Senior Advisor to the President and CEO & Senior Director, Voting Rights for the NAACP. Follow her on Twitter: @jotakaeaddy