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African Americans threaten march on Washington, 1941
The 1941 March on Washington campaign, precursor of the 1963 March on Washington, was an important moment in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. The proposal for a nationwide mass demonstration for a greater Black share in the defense effort had been put forth in January 1941, but it wasn’t until the spring of 1941 that A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), called for a march on Washington, D. C., to challenge the discrimination that African Americans were faced with in the national defense industry. The specific goal of the campaign was to pressure the Administration to end discrimination in the government, the armed forces, and defense industries. The more general goal was to make the grievances of the black population heard and to bring about social change. In June 1941, in response to this specter, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 and created the Committee on Fair Employment Practices. Randolph cancelled the march but founded the MOWM (March on Washington Movement) to maintain the threat of a mass black march to pressure federal officials to advance civil rights.
In September 1940, three prominent black leaders (Randolph, T. Arnold Hill and Walter White) met with President Roosevelt, wanting to discuss the inclusion of Black Americans in the armed forces after the passage of the Selective Service Act. Although Roosevelt promised to investigate the matter, he issued a statement declaring that a segregation policy would be maintained in the military. Randolph concluded that the conference method of handling black problems was ineffective. He told his colleague Milton Webster: “I think we ought to get 10,000 Negroes and march down Pennsylvania Avenue asking for jobs in defense plants and integration of the armed forces. It would shake up Washington”, conceiving of the march as a show of black mass power.
Randolph had traveled extensively throughout the US in 1940 and continued to do so in 1941, seeking to raise awareness and increase participation in the movement against discrimination. Although encountering reticence from whites and blacks alike, including opposition from influential individuals, Randolph’s persistence resulted in public support for the cause. Black leaders all over the US began forming and preparing black “committees” to march on Washington in protest. Led by Philip Randolph, other BSCP members, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leaders, the initiative was supported by a number of external allies, mainly liberals and trade unionists, as well as partners such as NAACP local branches (New York, Chicago and other cities), the National Negro Congress and its affiliates, and Randolph’s Socialist associates. The War Resistors League (WRL) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) worked with Randolph and influenced the emergent nonviolent strategy of his MOWM. The number of white allies was kept to a minimum, because, in Randolph’s view, “there are some things Negroes must do alone.” It is precisely this view that motivated the prevalence of mass actions among the tactics used in preparation for the March, as well as for the following March on Washington in 1963. Randolph believed that broad, organized mass action was required to put pressure on the political authorities, while speeches, petitions and conferences had become irrelevant. His plans featured not only the March on Washington, but synchronized “monster” mass meetings and marches on city halls across the country.
The tactics used to organize the March on Washington were based on the struggle and community organizing at the local level (through protest networks) that the US had seen as early as the 1920s. Preparation for the March became the major vehicle uniting the African American community around equal citizenship. When first promoting the March idea in black communities, Randolph and the BSCP members spoke as organizers and participants in the new-crowd networks that had emerged from the upheaval of the 1930s. The language spoken by the organizers was familiar to communities steeped in the struggles for democratic rights for black Americans that had unfolded during the 1920s and 1930s. Between January and March 1941, chapters of the BSCP began organizing in railroad centers like New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago. Most members of the black press and clergy promoted the march. Organizers chartered buses and trains to carry African Americans to the capital on July 1, 1941. By March 1941 Randolph was educating readers of the Black Worker, the press organ of the BSCP, to his plan. He built the new movement of protest and pressure by explaining its aim and urging support in speeches and articles in the black press, which, with the exception of the Pittsburg Courier, was generally supportive.
In New York City, Randolph and other Brotherhood members took to the streets for outdoor meetings, poster walks and similar forms of direct contact. Randolph claimed that he and others canvassed Harlem by “talking up the March by word of mouth…in all the beauty parlors and taverns and barber shops, etc.” The BSCP office in Chicago was the major site for organizing, and the majority of the funding came from Brotherhood dues. The Chicago BSCP drew upon the new-crowd protest networks, which they had helped shape, to mobilize black Chicago for the proposed March on Washington. One such network, the Chicago Congress of Negro Organizations, was so well organized it was prepared to march on Washington in late March 1941. In Oakland, California, Union Porters canvassed the black community for support of the March by organizing public meetings and giving public speeches. In Montgomery, Alabama, E. D. Nixon, head of the local BSCP and president of the NAACP local chapter, participated by organizing transportation to get participants to Washington. Randolph requested existing black organizations in cities throughout the country to set up local committees to recruit marchers. In addition, they were to march on the city halls of their respective cities. The sale of buttons at ten cents a piece, supplemented with collections made in participating churches on special ‘March” Sundays, helped finance March activities. Bulletins explaining the main objectives of the campaign appeared in beauty parlors, pool halls, churches, clubs, stores, selected black magazines and newspapers in at least eighteen cities.
During April, Randolph announced that “plans for an all-out march of 10,000 Negroes on Washington are in the making, and a call will be issued in the next few weeks to keep in their minds night and day the idea that all roads lead to Wash, DC”. The big spurt in organizational and propaganda activity came during May with the issuance of the “Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense on July 1st, 1941”. By mid-May, the NAACP contributed money to the March on Washington and advised all its branches to cooperate with local March committees to organize marchers, distribute March buttons and disseminate publicity.
After a discussion about which position to take if the President did not issue an executive order, the Committee agreed, unanimously, to march. Randolph suggested that the participants should march down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital singing “John Brown’s Body Lies a ‘Mouldering in the Grave” and “Before I’ll be a Slave, I’ll Be Buried in My Grave”. Randolph permanently tried to ensure the legitimacy of the campaign by advocating against violence and anarchy. The black community divided over the wisdom and the efficacy of militant non-violent tactics. Randolph’s approach was not only inspired by Gandhian principles (which Randolph considered the most appropriate in this case), but also by the protest tactics of the 1930s and by his past experience as a radical Marxist and trade unionist.
By early June, word had spread that 100,000 African Americans planned to march on Washington on July the 1st and carry out a “monster” demonstration at Lincoln’s memorial. Although alerted in January that Randolph had suggested a black march on the Capital, the White House had been ignoring the March all spring and denying repeated requests from Walter White to discuss the exclusion of black workers from employment. However, it could no longer deny the threat of a mass march, especially since Randolph had sent letters to President Roosevelt and other high government officials requesting them to address the marchers at the Lincoln Monument following the March. The idea that masses of blacks would be brought into one of the most segregated cities in the country shocked and frightened the white community. When Eleanor Roosevelt demanded to know how Randolph proposed to feed and house his black marchers, Randolph answered they would register in hotels and order dinner in restaurants. This constituted a revolutionary challenge that could result in a race war in the capital. However, the Washington Committee (the management board of the campaign, composed of eight Black leaders: Walter White, William Lloyd Imes, Laster B. Granger, Frank R. Crosswaith, Layle Lane, Richard Parrish, Henry K. Croft and A. Philip Randolph) was requested to obtain churches and schools to feed the marchers at cost at the same time an image of black invasion of white Washington restaurants and hotels was conveyed to the dominant power structure. “Complete organization” which implied “the power to control the March” was of “paramount importance”, Randolph emphasized. The Committee had veto power over all slogans, banners and statements of purpose. It also reserved to itself the selection of battalion chiefs and deputy inspectors both at the point of assembly and throughout the line of March.
Not knowing how to react to the new situation of pressure tactics employed by Randolph and worried by the prospect of thousands of black participants descending upon Washington, President Roosevelt enlisted Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City and a friend of Randolph’s, to intercede and try to convince Randolph to cancel the March (the meeting was held on June 13). When they failed, Randolph and Walter White were summoned to Washington on June 18. The president asked them to stop the March in return for his personal promise for better treatment of blacks, but Randolph refused to do so without a tangible concession: an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in employment. Eventually, Randolph was offered a series of drafts for an executive order, drafts which he would have to consider and eventually approve. Randolph eventually approved a draft and Executive Order 8802, which banned employment discrimination in the defense industry and in the government, was signed on June 25. The March was then “postponed” via a radio broadcast.
Addressing the many voices claiming that he had settled for too little, he wrote in the Black Worker that the primary objective of the march was to gain jobs for unemployed black workers in defense industries and that the March was not an end in itself, but a means to a larger end and, as such, it had a simple, clearly defined objective.
The President later created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to help ensure that defense manufacturers would not practice racial discrimination. The Committee, which was established to investigate violations of Executive Order 8802, lacked enforcement power, which was one reason Randolph turned the March on Washington Committee into the March on Washington Movement shortly after the order was issued. The MOWM was to be the “watchdog” over the enactment of Order 8802. The major demand for jobs had been met through the Order, which Randolph regarded as a first step. The next step consisted of perpetuating and sustaining the momentum generated for the March, which was done through the MOWM.
As no one can ever know how many blacks would actually have marched, historian Lerone Bennett Jr. called Randolph’s maneuver “one of the most brilliant power plays ever executed by a Negro leader, if not the most brilliant”. The mere threat of the march was sufficient to prove Randolph’s mass protest strategy had merit. Although the March itself did not take place, its goals were achieved. Not only was the Fair Employment Practices Commission created, but in 1943, a new clause, which enhanced the Commission’s authority and required that all government contracts have a non-discrimination clause, was added. The organizations involved in the movement continued the struggle for civil rights and nondiscrimination, while recruiting new members and extending their authority in the public and political life. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a leading American civil rights organization that was to decisively influence the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, was created by a group of Randolph’s supporters and admirers.