Reflections from YWCA Leaders on the Historic 1963 March on Washington

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Reflections from YWCA Leaders on the Historic 1963 March on Washington

By Katie Stanton
Social Media Manager, YWCA USA 

Tomorrow marks the official anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. We have been commemorating the YWCA’s historical involvement as one of the sponsors of the original March with reflections from our YWCA leaders about their experiences of that day.  A few of their personal reminiscences are below.

Jeanine Potter Donaldson, Executive Director of the YWCA Elyria/Lorain, shared her memories of the March:

When I was six years old, I recall going door-to-door with my Grandma, Bessie Orr, soliciting NAACP memberships in my hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. At that age, I’m not sure I knew exactly what she was “selling” but I knew that it must be terribly important based on the expressions on the faces of the people on whose doorsteps we were standing. At the time of the March on Washington, I was 11 years old and much more aware, because her son, my uncle (John Orr) was the President of the local NAACP, and my brother-in-law, Errol Alexander, was the organizer for our town’s participation in the March. On that hot August day, I sat on the floor in front of a small black and white TV, glued to the set and hoping that I might catch a glimpse of family members in that sea of people.

I added the names of my loved ones in my recollection to honor them and the other ordinary people who contributed to such an extraordinary  event. We shall overcome…

Two other YWCA foremothers, Bernice Cosey-Pulley and Mildred Persinger, featured in an earlier post, participated in the March along with hundreds of YWCA women. In an article in the Journal of Women’s History (Vol. 24 No. 4, 186–192), Mildred wrote:

In July of 1963, I attended an unscheduled meeting of our board executive committee. It was called to consider a request from a group of five civil rights leaders, headed by Martin Luther King, Jr. After outlining elaborate plans for security, they asked the YWCA National Board to co-sponsor the upcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—now remembered as a famously peaceful demonstration. At the time, the fear and hostility to the March generated by civil rights opponents made this a risky step, but we were proud to take it.

On August 28, 1963, thousands from the YWCA, and what looked like a million others, participated in the ultimate celebration of justice and friendship. Washington was locked down. With some trepidation, the National Capitol Area YWCA chapter opened up to give members who had not come on buses or trains a place to join a meeting of our public policy committee.

When several hundred of us had assembled, it was clear that we had our own parade and would need police permission to walk together from K Street to join in the march. After we agreed to stop at traffic lights we were free to go. On the way we experienced a joyous validation of our mission. YWCA national President Lilace Barnes and I were each carrying a pole displaying a large YWCA banner. As we waited at a red light, dozens of buses from the Deep South came toward us. When their young passengers saw our banner, they leaned out of the open windows, waving, cheering, and whistling, carrying the spirit of friendship and a shared vision of justice into the National Mall for that magical day.

Others were sitting under the trees on the new turf the Park Service had rolled out for us the night before, laughing with new friends, strumming guitars, and singing old favorites. It was like a Sunday school picnic. There was also too much food for the multitude. Marchers had brought fried chicken and ham biscuits for others who might be hungry. Clearly the Biblical miracle of the loaves and fishes was the miracle of sharing.

The picnickers were not giving rapt attention to the noted speakers at the podium atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I actually wanted to hear such luminaries as Marian Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Jessie Jackson, Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, Josephine Baker, and Mahalia Jackson. For a good view, I moved up the steps just below the right side of the podium. I was there when silence fell and Dr. King began the famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

This year, the National Capital Area YWCA was in attendance again at the 50th Anniversary March held on August 24. Check out pictures from the March on their Facebook page and on the YWCA USA’s Facebook page. If you have a memory of or story about the March on Washington, then or now at the 50th anniversary, please share your thoughts in the comment section below!