Live

Watch CBSN Live

The microphone at the March on Washington was dominated by men. But it might never have happened without Dorothy Height.

The women behind the 1963 March on Washington
The women behind the 1963 March on Washington... 09:19

The March on Washington on August 28, 1963, is one of the most transformative moments in civil rights history. 

History often remembers the speeches of the men involved — Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream," and a young John Lewis addressing the crowd come easily to mind.   

But on that momentous day, the women who were the unsung heroes of making the march happen — the leaders, visionaries, organizers, and ordinary foot soldiers — were denied any of the spotlight.

One of those women was Dorothy Height, known as "the godmother of the civil rights movement," who played a played a key role in organizing the march. 

height-national-park-service-9.jpg
(L to R) Roy Wilkins, Floyd McKissick, Dorothy Height, A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. National Park Service/National Archives for Black Women's History

"I think there were so many things that women did that not only supported — but were active elements in — the success of the civil rights movement," Height told CBS News in 2003. 

Height began her activism as a young college graduate, and was just 25 years old when she joined the National Council of Negro Women. She went on to be president of the organization for 40 years. But despite her crucial role in spearheading much of modern political organization over the course of 60 years, many Americans don't know her name.

"Oftentimes for African Americans, the men had titles but the women did a lot of the real work," said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP.

Height helped organize thousands of women volunteers who, without the aid of social media, mobilized a quarter-million people to rally on the Washington mall.

Dorothy Height
Dorothy Height in her office at the National Council of Negro Women headquarters, on December 3, 1997 in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post

"By today's standards, what we had to do to organize the march surely seems primitive," Eleanor Holmes Norton, a march volunteer who went on to represent Washington, D.C. in Congress, told CBS News. 

"Part of my task was to help them get buses and trains, but particularly buses. And to hook them up with other groups that were coming in buses to Washington from what I must tell you was all over the United States," Holmes Norton recalled.

On the day of the March on Washington, 12 men addressed the crowd.   

"We thought that a woman saying something on behalf of women would've been an additional part of the march," Height said on the 40th anniversary of the march. 

The men eventually agreed that one woman, Daisy Bates, who led the drive to desegregate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, could make a public pledge of loyalty.   

Dorothy Height was never called to the microphone. 

King Color And Character
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dorothy Height looks on from the right. That is the closest she got to the microphone on that day. AP

"I think that showed us that, even in the civil rights movement, with all of its talk of equality, sexism was still deeply rooted," Holmes Norton said. "The mistake that was made in not allowing Dorothy Height to speak... it left such an indelible mark on the movement, that it would never again be repeated."

After the march, 10 of the leaders met with President Kennedy at the White House. All of them were men. 

"Honestly, if I look at the period of the 1960s, we could roll out the list of missed opportunities for women to have their voices heard," Sherrilynn Ifill, who leads the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told CBS News.

In the decades since, women present at the march gradually had their moments in the spotlight. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has represented Washington, D.C. for almost two decades.

Dorothy Height went on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, America's two highest civilian awards. 

In 2013, on the march's 50th anniversary, Ifill made sure to recognize its women leaders. 

"I said all of their names in the three minutes that I had allotted to me," she said. "Because I wanted to make sure that I honored the women who had not been able to speak at the original March on Washington... and lift up their work and their extraordinary contributions." 

And their contributions have certainly lived on. In today's movement, many of the leaders on the front lines are young women. 

"The founders of the Black Lives Matter movement are all women," Ifill said. "The voice, particularly of Black women, is not only being heard, it is really commanding the stage. And it's our time."

These young activists are carrying on the legacy of women like Height, who died in 2010 at the age of 98. 

America's first Black president, Barack Obama, eulogized her: "She, too, deserves a place in our history books. She, too, deserves a place of honor in America's memory."

"The Power of August" streams on CBSN Friday, August 28, at 8p ET and 11p ET.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue