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.


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.


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


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



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


March on Washington: The Legacy

Push. Pull. Get in the Way.  

Those were the instructions from Congressman John Lewis to the young people who attended last Saturday’s gathering of tens of thousands who wanted to pay tribute to the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom.

Speaker after speaker spoke of the progress that has been made in 50 years and in the next breath acknowledged that the struggle for economic and social equality is ongoing. Change, it seems, is a journey that is rarely straight and often long.

Five decades ago it was a small sector of citizens demanding of government and the broader society the self-evident truths of the U.S. Constitution.   Today there are an array of rights issues—ones that go beyond black and white parity—including gun ownership, privacy, immigration policy, marriage equality.  However, voting rights, jobs and a living wage—three of the demands of the 1963 March—are still being debated and disproportionately affect Black Americans.   (Push).

Martin Luther King, Jr. biographer, Taylor Branch noted on this week’s Meet the Press that the 60’s held “a deeper resonance with the promise of democracy.”    Today, citizen mistrust of government, big business, the media, religion and the 1% has, perhaps, made us jaded. America’s first black President made some of us lift our complacent heads to see if it was true that race no longer mattered.  But then realized King’s dream that America’s children would be judged by character rather than skin color was certainly not at work on a recent, rainy night in Sanford, Florida.    (Pull).

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and in a matter of weeks, Texas and North Carolina added new voting requirements that resemble the voter suppression tactics of yesteryear.  Last week, the Pew Research Center issued a report that shows Black unemployment has consistently been twice the rate of white unemployment for the past six decades.   (Get in the Way).

America has made progress in social and economic justice  in fifty years but as we can see from 2013, freedom can never be taken for granted.  Change is a long and winding journey.  We must continue to push, pull and get in the way.



Pew Research Center


March on Washington Countdown

Countdown to the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the historic March on Washingtonblog15photo

“Slowly the tempo rose.  By 10, the inpouring was tremendous.  This went on for two hours.  The great crush of humanity on the monument grounds spilled over…and edged westward like a great lava flow.”


-Joseph A. Loftus, New York Times


Photo Credit

~U.S. National Archives document 541998


~U.S. Department of Transportation. Highway History, The Road to Civil Rights. Getting to the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Countdown to the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington-The Music


Countdown to the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the historic March on Washington




Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Music of the March

Some of the music of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was performed at a stage erected near the Washington Monument at 15th and Constitution Avenue before the actual march began. That’s where Joan Baez sang“We Shall Overcome” joined by the tens of thousands gathered early that morning.

When the crowd, now in the hundreds of thousands began the walk to the Lincoln Memorial there was spontaneous singing of freedom songs by the marchers.

Marian Anderson was scheduled to begin the official program on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by leading the quarter of a million people assembled in the national anthem  but Anderson didn’t arrive on time so noted opera soprano, Camilla Williams filled in on that duty.   Anderson would later sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

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Countdown to the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington

18 Days to go!

The Deputy Director of the March was Bayard Rustin a talented organizer with a diverse background of activism for economic justice, peace efforts and human rights. Born in 1912, he was raised as a Quaker in West Chester, Pennsylvania and had an early exposure to the work of the NAACP. bayardrustin

Rustin attended Wilberforce and Cheyney State Teacher’s College (both Historically Black Colleges) and later City College of New York but never obtained an academic degree.  He was an organizer for the Young Communist League in the late 30’s, a staunch ally of labor, worked with A. Philip Randolph on hiring inequities for Black Americans during World War II and was later jailed when he refused to register for the draft..  Rustin was also openly gay.

Rustin, a student of Gandhi’s tactics of non-violent resistance became Martin Luther King Jr.’s advisor and ally in 1956 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott developing strategies of civil disobedience for the burgeoning civil rights movement. Continue reading

The 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington


In 1963 A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Vice 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.

Without benefit of the internet, cell phones or the 24-hour news cycle, Bayard, the chief strategist behind the march, pulled off the largest mass demonstration in American history on August 28, 1963.

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