At the March on Washington, Black Women Were Sidelined. Sixty Years Later, the Need to Center Black Women Is as Urgent as Ever
As America marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, much attention will focus on the enduring legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement. Amid these reflections, one controversy we should not overlook is how Black women leaders — who made vital contributions to the movement as organizers, strategists, and frontline foot soldiers — were relegated to a limited, single-speaking segment at the march. And this was only after substantial agitation by Black women behind the scenes.
This sidelining of Black women is emblematic of a deeper struggle. Despite their integral role in advancing racial justice and women’s rights, Black women often have been treated as afterthoughts and less-than-equal partners due to the combined effects of racial and gender bias.
Six decades following the March on Washington, understanding the unique challenges and experiences of Black women takes on renewed importance. A forward-looking, economic and jobs agenda that builds on and fulfills the March’s legacy should start by identifying, centering and addressing the persistent inequities Black women face in our economy.
Black women are vital to the well-being of their families, with more than 80% serving as the primary, sole, or co-breadwinners for their households. Black women also historically have among the highest rates of labor force participation for women.
As a result, Black women have long been a bellwether for the health of our overall economy — and, often, most vulnerable to its fragilities. COVID-19 offered a clear example, as Black women stood on dual front lines of the pandemic. Unemployment rates surged higher among Black women than most other women. Yet, many were also essential workers who worked throughout the crisis, frequently without access to strong benefits or labor protections.