By Desiree Hoffman
Director of Advocacy, YWCA USA
“We Demand an End to Bias Now!” was inscribed in big letters on the March on Washington rally sign that Bernice Cosey-Pulley, now 86, carried in 1963. She still has two of the rally signs from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom perfectly laminated in her living room, as she told me when I asked her about her experience there 50 years ago.
Bernice was a former student leader member of the YWCA National Board and a former representative of the World YWCA to the United Nations (UN), and, like many of our foremothers dedicated to racial and women’s equality, she joined hundreds of thousands of marchers to demand justice in a time of uncertainty, fear, and hope.
Others, like Mildred Persinger, were equally motivated to participate in the March because of their commitment to “friendship and justice,” and their faith that civil rights struggles were a struggle for all. Mildred said that originally she had liked the word “love” and justice, but that she “didn’t want to sound corny” when describing why she participated in the March. I assured her that it was far from corny, and that “love” rang true for me, as it carries so many different meanings: love for country, love for your children, love for your neighbor! She chimed in and said, “Love for the people you work with.” And she meant it, as she marched proudly with 300 YWCA members from across the country.
Marchers were not entirely sure what to expect. They didn’t know for certain if this would be a non-violent demonstration or if there would be lootings; if buildings would be burned or if there would be police brutality. But August 28, 1963 was peaceful and is now recorded as one of the largest demonstrations ever seen in the nation’s capital (250,000 strong, by some estimates) and it was one of the first to have extensive television coverage. Persinger shared that the March was akin to a Sunday school picnic, with speeches, praying, and singing. It is where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream speech,” and Mildred was lucky enough to sit on the Lincoln Memorial steps during that historic day.
Although marchers joined in solidarity during this day, it would be inaccurate to say that all the pressing issues of the time were given equal airplay. This was a time where many women, especially women of color, felt that sexism took a back seat to racism or that they had to make a choice between “isms.” Forward-thinking women of the time didn’t make a choice, and made a conscious effort to educate others about the interlocking systems of racial and gender discrimination. Both Mildred and Bernice spoke highly of one such leader, the only woman on the platform with Martin Luther King, Jr. during his speech. Dr. Dorothy I. Height would say later that she was disappointed that no one advocating women’s rights spoke that day at the March on Washington. The only woman’s voice that marchers heard on the platform was that of Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer.
Some of the central demands of the March were the passage of meaningful and comprehensive civil rights legislation; the elimination of racial segregation in public schools; a major federal program to provide train and place unemployed workers into good paying jobs; the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring; a $2 an hour minimum wage and expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of previously excluded employment areas; and enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing Congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens.
As I wrote this blog to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March, I was reminded that our work on these issues is far from complete. One way we can honor the legacy of Dr. Height and women like Bernice and Mildred is by mobilizing. While much progress has been made on many of the March’s stated demands, we still continue to advocate for an increase in the federal minimum wage under the FLSA, which is both a civil rights and a women’s issue. A majority of minimum wage earners in this country are women. If the minimum wage was increased from $7.25 per hour to $10.10, more than 30 million workers would get a raise – more than half of them women. Legislation is currently pending in Congress that would also raise the tipped minimum wage for tipped workers who currently make $2.13 per hour – they haven’t seen an increase since 1991.
It is also timely and ironic that we will be commemorating the March on Washington when the Supreme Court recently struck down one of the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in June. Over the past two years, more than 30 states have introduced legislation or enacted laws that would curb access to voting. Some states, such as Florida and Ohio have dramatically shortened early voting times. In August, the North Carolina state legislature passed and Governor signed a wide-sweeping law that shortened the early-voting period, the elimination of the state’s same-day registration program and a strict photo identification requirement despite a lack of evidence of voter fraud in the state. These measures effectively disenfranchise communities of color, women, students, low-income households, and seniors from casting their ballots. These efforts underscore the importance for Congress to Act now to fix the Voting Rights Act.
The 50th Anniversary March program will include a diverse set of speakers. Women and communities of color have been at the forefront of shaping the agenda of this year’s March, and are ensuring that contemporary issues like immigration reform are priorities. Our foremothers would be proud of the progress that has been made, but they wouldn’t be satisfied. As Bernice and Mildred marched, the YWCA will join the crowd and march again, and we hope you will be there with us.