It seems that African American men who worked tirelessly to reverse the status of “the invisible man” (a term coined by Ralph Ellison) have found ways to keep women as invisible as possible in the leadership ranks of the church.
Nothing better illustrates this than the list of speakers at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech; the phrase may have been borrowed from Prathia Hall. The march was sponsored by the so-called big six civil rights groups, which included:
- The Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Martin Luther King Jr.
- The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee headed by John Lewis.
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People headed by Roy Wilkins.
- The National Urban League headed by Whitney Young.
- The Congress of Racial Equality headed by James Farmer.
- The National Council of Negro Women headed by Dorothy Height.
All the male leaders were given a speaking role at the March on Washington, but Dorothy Height was not allowed to speak that day. She stood next to King during parts of the program on Aug. 27, 1963. However, while all the men were allowed to speak in the name of their respective sponsoring organizations, Height was the only leader who was denied that opportunity and visibility. She later said “her male counterparts were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household.”
In 2011, Clarence Jones, who was speechwriter and counsel to King, reflected on the role of women at the March on Washington. He observed:
Women were virtually exiled from the podium … Not Daisy Bates, president of the Little Rock chapter of the NAACP, not even Rosa Parks, though both were in attendance … Most of the women in The Movement at that time had to contend with a kind of religious glass ceiling — a glass steeple, you could call it … The Movement was male dominated, and those males were ego-driven. There were certainly no female clergy members in Martin’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference … There would have been interest in what they had to say, and I wish we’d given them that opportunity.
“I wish we’d given them that opportunity.” That phrase sums up the essence of sexism and all the other forms of oppression and marginalization that are the focus of liberation theology. There is a group with the power to include or exclude other persons based upon race, class or gender. In denying persons a chance to make their contribution to the movement and to let their voices be heard from their unique position in society, the world will never know what talent was sidelined and silenced because male leaders were determined to keep the spotlight on themselves.
“Without women, there would have been no Civil Rights Movement.”
Male leaders in the Civil Rights Movement not only had the power but also the best of all reasons to include women in the March on Washington. Without women, there would have been no Civil Rights Movement. “I wish we’d given them that opportunity.” That is how people with privilege speak about those whose lives they view as less valuable than their own.
Jamie Eaddy is a 2020 doctor of ministry graduate from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. She wrote her thesis on the micro-aggressions experienced by women in their pursuit of equality in society in general and in the Black church in particular. In that thesis, Eaddy states that “if your fight for liberation stops once you are free, it wasn’t liberation you wanted, it was privilege.”
In her thesis, Eaddy refers to Johnetta Cole, who was the first female president of Spelman College in Atlanta. Cole captures the irony of people who fight against racism but openly engage in sexism. She says:
In the name of white supremacy, every imaginable act of human atrocity was perpetrated against Blacks. Now, in an all-Black situation, we witness a chillingly similar type of oppression, we see sundry acts of inhumanity leveled against Black females … the centuries of slavery and racism, and the struggle to overcome them, have not informed the humanity of Black men when it comes to Black women … the oppressive experiences of Black men have not deterred them from being oppressors themselves.
Clearly, the exclusion of women from any role in the March on Washington was a case of male privilege. The fight against racism was going on while sexism was in clear view. “I wish we’d given them that opportunity.”
“Clearly, the exclusion of women from any role in the March on Washington was a case of male privilege.”
“Them.” To whom was Clarence Jones referring? Who were the persons whose voices were intentionally and unanimously silenced? “Them” included Rosa Parks, who sat down on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955. Her independent action set in motion the Montgomery bus boycott. It was that boycott that launched King into national leadership.
“Them” included Daisy Bates, who was president of the Little Rock chapter of the NAACP and the leader in the effort to integrate Central High School in that city in 1957.
“Them” included Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper who in 1963, while King and the other civil rights leaders were planning the March on Washington, was brutally beaten in a jail cell by another Black prisoner under orders from white police officers because she was seeking the right to vote. In 1964 she was the leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that sought recognition at the 1964 Democratic convention, challenging the all-white Mississippi delegation.
“Them” included Ella Baker, who not only worked for King at SCLC in the 1950s but also helped to organize the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and helped orchestrate the Freedom Rides in 1960–1961.
“Them” included Diane Nash, who, while a student at Fisk University in Nashville in 1960 was one of the leaders of the sit-ins at the downtown Woolworth’s Department Store that made national news.
“Them” included Septima Clark, who was removed from her position in the South Carolina public school system because she would not renounce her membership in the NAACP. She put her teaching skills and civil rights passion to work in the Citizenship Schools, eventually sponsored by SCLC, which taught Black people the literacy skills they needed to become registered voters.
“Them” also included Dorothy Cotton, who was the educational director of SCLC, and as much a part of the inner circle of SCLC as Andrew Young or Wyatt Tee Walker. She later founded the Atlanta-based Citizen Education Program that trained disenfranchised people to become civically and politically involved.
“Them” included Prathia Hall — who, as mentioned earlier, coined the phrase “I have a dream” that King popularized at that march.
Marvin McMickle is former president of the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University, Princeton Theological Seminary and Case Western Reserve University and is a frequent public speaker and preacher. This column is excerpted from his new book, Let the Oppressed Go Free, copyright © 2021 by Judson Press and is sed by permission of Judson Press.