75 Years Ago Today: A. Philip Randolph Calls for a March on Washington
























On January 14, 1941 A. Philip Randolph first issued a call for “a March on Washington in 1941 to protest against governmental hiring practices that excluded African-Americans from federal employment and federal contracts. Randolph understood that this type of racial discrimination was the reason for the economic disparities between whites and blacks in this country. Randolph proposed that African-Americans march on Washington to demand jobs and freedom. Because of this, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in the federal government and defense industries in June 1941.” – A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum


March on Washington 1941

Photo courtesy A. Philip Randolph Institute

Proposed March on Washington

In the summer of 1941, as war raged in Europe, defense industries began to boom in the United States. But while hundreds of thousands of whites found jobs in the defense industries, only a few thousand blacks were hired — and most of them were porters and janitors. Over fifty percent of defense employers said they would not hire black workers no matter how skilled they were. Black leaders called a meeting in Chicago and the suggestion was made that blacks should march on the White House until the President opened up jobs for blacks. A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, seized upon the suggestion and called for a massive demonstration of In 1941, as the war loomed, more than 50% of defense employers said they would not hire black workers - no matter how skilled they were. blacks in the nation’s capital on July 1. “It is time to wake up Washington as it has never been shocked before,” he stated. The announcement electrified the black community; grass-roots support for the march sprung up everywhere. Church congregations raised money to rent buses. School children saved their allowances. Almost every black organization agreed to participate. Whites began to panic. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt feared a race riot would break out if the march took place. He asked his wife and several white civil rights leaders to intervene. But Randolph held fast; unless the President acted, the March would take place on schedule. Mrs. Roosevelt told Randolph that she felt the march would harm the cause for which Randolph was fighting. He replied that it had already done some good: “In fact, it already has for if you were not concerned, you wouldn’t be here.”

As the deadline approached, the press predicted over 100,000 people would march on Washington. When Randolph was asked by reporters where the marchers would find accommodations, aware that Washington was a highly segregated city, he answered that they would eat and sleep in white hotels and restaurants. The thought terrified whites. Roosevelt finally agreed to meet with Randolph and NAACP head Walter White. They told him that they wanted him to integrate the army and forbid discrimination in defense industries. Roosevelt compromised. He would not integrate the army but he would ban racial discrimination in industry. He issued Executive Order Number 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which had the authority to investigate and end discrimination in defense industries, federal agencies, and unions. Randolph called off the march. The Order had limited effect in the defense industry but it set an important civil rights precedent. For the first time, blacks had demanded their rights from the federal government rather than ask for them. And they had gained a partial victory.

— Richard Wormser, PBS Jim Crow Stories, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

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