Bayard Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1963 A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Rustin-KingVice President of the AFL-CIO, and Bayard Rustin, Organizer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined forces to organize a civil rights march for jobs and freedom in Washington, DC.

bayardrustinWithout benefit of the internet, cell phones or the 24-hour news cycle, Rustin, the chief strategist behind the march, pulled off the largest mass demonstration in American history on August 28, 1963.

250,000 people, men and women from all walks of life, marched peacefully from the Washington Monument, along the reflecting pool to the base of the Lincoln Memorial.

Martin Luther King’s iconic I Have a Dream speech was delivered that day but also a call to action from John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Bob Dylan, Marian Anderson , Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary sang. Actors Ossie Davis, Paul Newman, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier and Charlton Heston (go figure) supported the march.

The “Big Six” organizers: James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Southern Chistian Leadership Conference), John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and Whitney Young, Jr. (National Urban League) met with President John F. Kennedy early in the day to assure the President of their peaceful intentions.

The march is credited with helping to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Eva Jessye: Women of the March on Washington-In Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

She “was the first black woman to receive international distinction as a professional choral conductor” reads the Wikipedia entry for Eva Jessye.  But I hadn’t even heard of her and wondered why she and her chorale had been invited personally by Martin Luther King, Jr. to be part of the official program for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

EvaJessye

Jessye began her musical career as a teenager organizing choral groups in her hometown in Kansas where she attended college at age thirteen.  In 1919, she was the choir director for Morgan State College in Baltimore.  She formed the 16-member Eva Jessye Choir in 1926 performing regularly on WOR radio in New York and touring the country.  In 1929, she was the choral director for the MGM film Hallelujah directed by King Vidor; in 1933, Jessye worked with composer Virgil Thomson and author Gertrude Stein on the opera Four Saints in Three Acts which opened with an all black cast on Broadway a year later.  In 1935, Jessye began a two-decade collaboration with composer George Gershwin as his choral director for Porgy & Bess.  She also appeared in several movies.

Roosevelt-Jessye

Ms. Jessye’s travels throughout the U.S. gave her first-hand experience with Jim Crow laws and she joined many of her contemporaries-including Mary McLeod Bethune, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson-as an active supporter of the civil rights movement.  Perhaps King admired her for her profound talents as a composer, actress, poet and teacher, as well as her intellect.

Ms. Jessye-a creative force in American music for well over a half century-died in 1992 at the age of 97.  A large collection of her personal papers including music, writing, correspondence, photos, newspaper clippings and legal documents are housed at Pittsburg State University in the Leonard H. Axe Library in Pittsburg, Kansas.  A similar repository of Jessye’s works and papers are at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan where, in 1974, she established the Eva Jessye African-American Music Collection.

At the historic March on Washington, the Eva Jessye choir performed one of her own compositions, “Freedom is a Thing We’re Talking About.”

 

Photo Credits:

~Eva Jessye. I Dream a World, 1989 copyright Brian Lanker.

~Eva Jessye with Eleanor Roosevelt circa 1940.  Kansas Historical Society

Resources:

Wintz, Cary D., Finkleman, Paul. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Volume 1 A-J.  Eva Jessye (p. 617-618)

Conlon, Joan C. Editor.  Wisdom, Wit and Will:  Women Choral Conductors and Their Art.  Eva Jessye chapter by Joan Whittemore (p 419-434).

 

Eva Jessye Collection.  Pittsburg State University

http://library.pittstate.edu/spcoll/ndxjessye.html

 

website: Another Ann Arbor http://anotherannarbor.org/home/2013/02/17/if-i-belong-to-anything-i-belong-to-my-music-eva-jessye-1895-1992/

 

website:  WGBH Open Vault  Say Brother (1 minute video) http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/sbro-mla001072-eva-jessye-black-american-folk-music