Today, Aug. 28, marks the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But the seeds for that march were planted two decades before Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.
A. Philip Randolph, best known as the founder and head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, conceived a mass march on Washington in the early 1940s to rally the national black community to fight employment discrimination, particularly in the defense industry.
“The movement grew out of the plight of the urban Negro worker on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, black unemployment having reached 25 percent in 1940,” Benjamin Quarles wrote in his essay “Labor Leader at Large” (Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, 1982). The long-existent discriminatory practices in hiring, in on-the-job training and in upgrading were more aggravating than ever to the Negro workers as they noted their country’s eagerness to contrast the American creed of liberty and equality with the suppressions that characterized the Fascist nations, Hitler’s Germany in particular. And although American industry was increasing its production to meet the needs of the national defense program, blacks were being turned away at the defense plant gates.”
In the fall of 1940, Randolph and representatives of the NAACP and the Urban League met with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House, but the meeting netted little in the way of opening those defense plant doors. So Randolph and other black leaders formed a March on Washington Committee and scheduled a march for July 1, 1941.
In a column published on the front page of the June 14, 1941 issue of The New York Age, Randolph wrote:
“As the day approaches for the all out, total dramatic march on Washington and demonstration at the Monument of Abraham Lincoln for jobs and justice in national defense and the abolition of discrimination in Government departments, interest, sentiment and enthusiasm for this movement continues to mount daily. The task to mobilize Negroes throughout the nation for such and occasion is tremendous and herculean, but this is why it will be effective, powerful and unmistakable evidence of the Negroes’ determination to put a stop to discrimination against him on jobs provided by the money of the taxpayers in our country.
. . . “I appeal to the conscience, spirit and heart of Negro America, including men, women, youth, workers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, social service workers, office workers, railroad toilers, farmers, housewives, Negroes from every village town and hamlet; Negroes who are employed and unemployed; those in school, church, fraternal lodge, fraternity and sorority throughout the length and breadth of America to rally behind the march on Washington. More than any other single demonstration, this march on Washington is certain to make white America know that black America is here and has made up its mind that they shall leave no stone unturned in attempting to make democracy and liberty in our country real and true.”
Just the thought of tens of thousands of black folks demonstrating at the Lincoln Memorial gave Roosevelt pause. According to Quarles, he attempted to use several political weapons in his arsenal to get Randolph to call the march off. He described the plan as “bad and unintelligent” and enlisted the assistance of the First Lady, Eleanor, and New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia — both of whom were popular among blacks — to persuade the leaders to stand down. But Randolph wasn’t going away that easily.
Plans for the march continued until just a week before the scheduled march Roosevelt blinked, signing into law Executive Order 8802, which barred discrimination “based on race, creed, color or national origin” in the defense industry and in government. The president also formed the Committee on Fair Employment Practices.
Only then was the march cancelled. But Randolph still did not let down his guard. He declined an invitation to serve on Roosevelt’s fair employment practices committee and instead kept the March on Washington Movement alive to keep a watchful eye on the government’s progress.
Sixteen years later, in 1957, at the request of Martin Luther King, Randolph was one of the sponsors at a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, to bring attention to lingering civil rights issues. According to Quarles, Randolph gave a stirring address to a crowd of more than 20,000 gathered on the Lincoln Memorial on May 17 of that year. Then in 1963 it was Randolph who proposed and led the March on Washington (which was skillfully organized by Bayard Rustin) at which King delivered his “Dream” speech.
A threatened hurricane forced the postponement of the dedication of a new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, which was to take place today in Washington. I trust the monument will withstand whatever Hurricane Irene has in store. My bigger hope is that the spirit of the movement for jobs and justice continues to gain strength.