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Women Musicians Shined at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 

A person and person looking at a book

Mahalia Jackson (middle) with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (right) and an unidentified man, ca. 1960. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Paul & Claire Blumenfeld.  

By Meredith Holmgren, Research Associate at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage 

August 28, 2023 marked the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The monumental march influenced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended the segregation of public institutions and prohibited employment discrimination based on race. This helped pave the way for the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, permanently ending poll taxes in federal elections. It also laid groundwork for the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. The March on Washington undeniably increased popular support for civil rights across the country, inspiring advances in legal, social, and institutional desegregation. 

Paper flier announcing the March on Washington
Flier announcing the March on Washington, 1963. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

​​The Role of Women at the March 

The role of women in the event, however, was not easily negotiated with male leadership. There was only one woman included on the March’s organizing committee, fair employment advocate Anna Arnold Hedgeman. She argued with the committee that women should have meaningful speaking roles in the program. Although her call mostly went unanswered, the committee did eventually agree to include a “Tribute to Negro Women.” Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers’ widow, planned to give the speech. On the day of the event, Evers could not make it to the podium, so Daisy Bates gave the remarks. Other women, like Josephine Baker and Ruby Dee, also had brief speaking roles, even if they were not included in the official program. Actress and musician Lena Horne managed to speak just one word into the podium microphone: “Freedom!”  

 Despite having few speaking roles, women shined in the musical performances. The March on Washington had a powerful soundtrack of women musicians who delivered moving messages and passionate calls to action, interacted with speakers, and provided dynamic cultural grounding for the event. In fact, many of the March’s most memorable performances were by women.  

Black and white poster cover for the documentary "We Shall Overcome! Documentary of the March on Washington, Folkways Records"
Various Artists, We Shall Overcome! Documentary of the March on Washington, Folkways Records, 1963.  

Featured Performers 

Each musician had their own unique history with the civil rights movement. A few of the performers and their stories are highlighted below.   

Marian Anderson  

Marian Anderson endeared fans around the globe and broke through color lines with her rich contralto singing voice. In 1939, twenty-four years before the March on Washington, she delivered a defiant open-air performance on Easter Sunday to 75,000 attendees at the Lincoln Memorial. Because she was Black, Constitution Hall had refused to let Anderson perform at their venue. Cultural Historian Scott Sandage wrote that, to African Americans, “Anderson’s concert came to symbolize the promise of protest”1. With its clear emancipatory symbolism, the Lincoln Memorial thereafter became an important site for asserting Black civil rights. 

Ten-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. was among those listening to Anderson’s performance that day. It had a profound influence on him. He recalled her Lincoln Memorial concert in an award-winning essay five years later. When he invited her to perform at the March on Washington in 1963, he reportedly cited her concert as an inspiration for the gathering.

Anderson was originally scheduled to sing the national anthem at the start of the march. But traffic congestion delayed her arrival, so she was rescheduled for the end of the event. After Dr. King’s address, she sang a beautiful rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”. Later that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson. awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

 Mahalia Jackson  

Mahalia Jackson, “The Queen of Gospel,” credited family and faith with nurturing her musical talent. Blending spiritual expression with civil rights activism, she touched the hearts and souls of countless Americans during the course of her lifetime. She was also a longtime friend of Dr. King, often performing alongside him at civil rights events. Her performance at the March on Washington was scheduled as the last musical event of the day, a prestigious slot in the program just before Dr. King gave his speech. During her performance, she led two hymns: “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” and “How I Got Over.”   

 Afterward, Dr. King took the stage and read his prepared script, titled “Normalcy, Never Again.” During his speech, Mahalia Jackson remained on stage with him, and as he neared the end, she called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” This impromptu remark inspired him to go off-script and improvise the most famous lines of the day, which became known as his “I Have A Dream” speech.  

Eva Jessye  

Eva Jessye was an internationally acclaimed Black choral conductor, as well as an accomplished singer, composer, music educator, actor, and poet. Her all-Black choir formed the backbone of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which toured nationally for years. She broke the color barrier on stages across the country and fought against discriminatory performance salaries. Dr. King called upon Jessye’s choir to be the official chorus of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. During the program, the Eva Jessye Choir served as steady accompaniment throughout the day, often supporting other musicians, such as the Freedom Singers, in addition to performing their own set.  

Joan Baez  

Joan Baez was known as an outspoken supporter of civil rights since her early days as a performer. Raised in New York by a Mexican father and Scottish mother, she endured racial discrimination as a child that strengthened her resolve for social justice as an adult. When touring Southern states, she refused to play at segregated college venues. Instead, she often chose to perform on the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. At the March on Washington, at 22 years old, she gave a stirring performance of “We Shall Overcome.” Thereafter, the song became a staple of her concert repertoire.  


Dubbed “The Queen of American Folk Music” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Odetta was a legendary folk artist whose work included traditional music, blues, and spirituals. Although her work influenced numerous musical giants, like Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan, as a Black woman, she often struggled for equal opportunity and recognition in the industry. She dedicated much of her work to civil rights causes, often appearing at marches and protests throughout the South. She became known as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”. At the March on Washington, she sang “Oh Freedom” and “I’m On My Way,” two songs strongly associated with the emancipation from slavery. In 1999, President Clinton honored her with the NEA’s National Medal of the Arts.    

Part 1 - 'We Shall Overcome: Documentary of the March on Washington' [Official Audio]
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Listen to Part 1 of the official audio from “We Shall Overcome: Documentary of the March on Washington” released by Smithsonian Folkways in 1963. Part 1 features Joan Baez, President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Marian Anderson. 

Meredith Holmgren serves as Research Associate at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is the curator of Music HerStory: Women and Music of Social Change. The exhibition features several women musicians who appeared at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—including but not limited to Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Lena Horne, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Marian Anderson. The exhibition is currently on view in the Smithsonian Libraries Gallery at the National Museum of American History through July 2024.  

1 Sandage, Scott A. "A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights movement, and the Politics of Memory 1939–1963," in The Journal of American History, Vol. 80, No.1, (June 1993), pp. 135–167.

Garcia, Kristina. “Legacy Keepers: Preserving Black History in Philadelphia is an evolving dynamic of the city’s legacy,” in Penn Today, Feb. 2021. Accessed August 2023.  
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