More than any participant at the 1963 March On Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for electrifying the audience, becoming one of the greatest moral voices of all times.

Perhaps the course of history might be different, had he not heeded the urgings of his friend and spiritual muse, Mahalia Jackson. Several times, from a nearby seat on the dais, Jackson insisted, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

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Message received. King pushed his prepared remarks aside, extemporaneously sealing his oratory splendor with “I Have A Dream.”

Gospel great Jackson was among the handful of legendary luminaries holding court on the podium. She sang two spirituals, “How I Got Over” and “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned.” 

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More than celebrities, they were stalwarts of the civil rights movement and reliable benefactors of the march and other civil rights campaigns.

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Their ranks included international artist Josephine Baker, the only woman listed as an official speaker, who delivered the longest speech of any woman — slightly more than two minutes.

Actor and civil rights activist Ruby Dee. Photo: Public domain via the Chicago Sun Times

Ruby Dee was joined by her husband Ossie Davis as emcee.

From Mahalia Jackson to Lena Horne, Black women celebrities "were stalwarts of the civil rights movement."
Lena Horne at the 1963 March on Washington. Photo courtesy National Archives

And Lena Horne, defiant and succinct, from a place on the main stage, commandeered the microphone momentarily, yelling to the multitudes a one-word battle cry — “Freedom!” 

Gwen McKinney is the creator of Unerased | Black Women Speak and is the founder of McKinney & Associates, the first African American and woman-owned communications firm in the nation’s capital that expressly promotes social justice and public policy.