▶ Watch Video: “The Power of August” highlights key moments in American civil rights history

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.” She was a member of the National Council of Negro Women and played a key role in organizing the march. 

(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. 

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.

On the day of the March on Washington, 12 men addressed the crowd. Not one woman was allowed to be a featured speaker.   

“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. 

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

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.  

“I think that showed us that, even in the civil rights movement, with all of its talk of equality, sexism was still deeply rooted,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, a march volunteer who went on to represent Washington, D.C. in Congress, told CBS News. 

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

When she 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.

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