The Other Half Had a Dream, Too

Coretta Scott King MuralThis weekend kicks off the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, he said he dreamed of equality for “..all of God’s children, black men and white men…” Though no one (no doubt including Dr. King) would have said at the time that he meant those words literally, they actually did reflect the reality of the movement. Rosa Parks notwithstanding, the civil rights movement was mostly about full personhood for men. Indeed, “I Am a Man” was a prominent slogan on picket lines, and remains one of the most enduring images of the era.

History books tell us that in 1963, a “Big Six” group of civil rights leaders — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney M. Young Jr. — were instrumental in planning the march. But there was a seventh. Dr. Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women, worked right alongside the men. But only they got the glory. Height was routinely cropped out of pictures of the group, until she learned to stand in the middle to make her erasure impossible.

I interviewed Dr. Height about the march in 2004 for my book Cult of Power. She said “The [civil rights ] movement was vital to awakening the women’s movement . . . [men] were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household.” Height campaigned hard for a female speaker at the rally, but was overruled by the men. Her consolation prize? She was the sole female allowed to sit on the dais.

Dr. King’s wife and partner, Coretta Scott King, was similarly marginalized. She told reporter Barbara Reynoldsthat when President Kennedy invited the march leaders to the White House, women were not invited. They were told to go back to their hotels.

After her husband was assassinated, male leaders tried push Mrs. King — who had marched alongside her husband and endured death threats just as he had — out of the picture. Even though her activism predated the marriage and she was a full partner, they told her she should step aside, and let them run things in building the King Center in Atlanta.

Forty five years later nothing has changed. Though they were very much married and MLK often wore a wedding ring, it is not present on the finger of his imposing 30 foot statue, built on the national mall in 2011. Nor is there any mention whatsoever at the King Memorial of the woman who was his equal in campaigning for massive social change.

These are but two examples of brave women who were instrumental in changing the country, but made all but invisible in the fight for civil rights. There were many others. Let’s hope that the 50th anniversary celebration of one of the world’s most important peaceful revolutions includes its daughters equally with its sons.

In addition to hosting her radio show, guest contributor Martha Burk is the author of Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics and the Change We Need! and Cult of Power: The Inside Story of the Fight to Open Augusta National Golf Club, and How It Exposed the Ingrained Corporate Sexism That Kept Women Down.

Image Source: Jim Bowen via Flickr.

Cross-posted with permission from Huffington Post.

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    Thanks for helping me rethink about this.

  • Despite the fact that women were on the front lines of the 1960s civil rights movement, the media continued to portray women as vapid housewives preoccupied with chasing dirt and debating the well worn topic of “ring around the collar”. For an illustrated look at this, visit http://wp.me/p2qifI-1Dn

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