A. Philip Randolph & the March On Washington Mov't
The role of Black workers in the fight for freedom
By Frank Lovell · (Second of three parts)
For all the talk about "Negro equality" during
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal administrations, the
conditions of life for Black workers did not change.
Massive unemployment unleashed by the Great
Depression stalked working people in general
across the country, and preyed in particular upon
In 1940 Roosevelt stepped up the process of
turning the New Deal into the War Deal. As war
production picked up, many of the unemployed were
put back to work.
Blacks, however, were among the last to be hired
in the war industries. Those who got jobs were still
subjected to race discrimination in job assignments.
Thus, all the signs indicated that the only big
change in store for Blacks was the chance to die for
"democracy" in the Jim Crow army.
This bleak prospect did not sit well with the
growing number of Blacks who had migrated to the
country's cities in hope of getting work. Nor were
Blacks simply willing to suffer until the war's end.
This sentiment was reflected in some fashion in
all the major Black organizations. In similar cir-
cumstances preceding World War I, most Black
leaders advocated loyal Black ·participation in the
war effort as a way of earning the respect of white
America. Even the radical intellectual W.E.B.
DuBois held this position, although he later repu-
No sacrifice for war
During the depression and World War II, groups
such as the National Urban League and the
NAACP adopted a different policy. They cam-
paigned against discrimination in New Deal agen-
cies. It was also during this period that the NAACP
embarked on its campaign of legal battles against
various forms of segregation.
As war preparations began, this campaign was
extended to the armed forces-with particular atten-
tion on segregation in officer training schools.
Moreover, both organizations had begun to coop-
erate with the Congress of Industrial Organizations
in its drive to organize unorganized workers.
These campaigns won these groups a certain
amount of prestige and ,credibility among the Black
working class. But the overall outlook and perspec-
tive of the organizations' leaderships remained
At the same time that the NAACP, for example,
was protesting discrimination in government agen-
cies and the armed forces, NAACP officials-along
with other Black lawyers, professors, and
professionals-found well-paying places for them-
selves in these agencies. This could not help but add
a little ambivalence to their campaign.
By 1941, when the war in Europe had raged for
more than a year, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
Porters was about the only Black organization that
had registered tangible gains for Blacks in indus-
March On Washington Movement
A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood,
was by then an established and respected leader of
the Black community. He had become recognized as
the representative of Black workers. He had cham-
pioned their cause and had tried for most of his life
to organize the latent power of their massive
This placed Randolph in a good position to lead
Blacks in their wartime campaign against racial
discrimination in the war industry and in the
But Randolph had long since abandoned the
socialist principles that had led him to oppose the
first imperialist world war. From the beginning,
he-like all but a handful of Black leaders-was an
ardent supporter of the imperialist "democracies" in
World War II.
Nevertheless, Randolph expressed more clearly
than any other Black spokesperson the deeply felt
sentiment among Blacks that they should not have
to sacrifice for the war. Instead the "war to save
democracy" abroad should be accompanied by at
least a skirmish for economic well-being and demo-
cratic rights for Blacks here at home.
This idea was popularized in the Black press
during the war under the slogan "Double V"-
"double victory for democracy, at home and
It was Randolph and the Brotherhood that did
the most to implement this slogan.
In January 1941 Randolph began a series of
articles in Black papers across the country an-
nouncing the need for a mass march on Washing-
ton, later to become known as' the March On
Washington Movement. He set the date for July 1,
1941, and expected 10,000 demonstrators.
'Let the Negro masses speak!'
The call went out May 1, 1941: "On to Washing-
ton, ten thousand Black Americans! Let them
swarm from every hamlet, village and town. . . .
Let them come in automobiles, buses, trains, trucks
and on foot. Let them come though the winds and
rains beat against them .... If the Negroes fail
this chance for work, for freedom . . . it may never
come again. Let the Negro masses speak!"
Organizers of the march immediately went to
work in most major cities, collected money, and
made preparations. All Black organizations en-
dorsed the movement ... except those controlled by
The Daily Worker, predecessor of the Communist
Party's Daily World, denounced Randolph at this
time as an agent of imperialism and opposed the
This was during the period of the Stalin-Hitler
Pact-from August 1939 to June 1941-when the
Stalinists were on a sectarian campaign denounc-
ing every movement that did not have halting the
war as its main aim. Prior to that time, the Commu-
nist Party had been an ardent supporter of Roose-
velt's war preparations. This orientation was
abruptly dropped when Stalin concluded a non-
aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939.
Despite the opposition of the Communist Party-
which was a force to be reckoned with in the Black
movement of that time-enthusiastic organizers
predicted a march of 100,000.
Partly as a way to exclude Stalinist disruption,
Randolph called for an all-Black march. "There are
some things Negroes must do alone," he said. The
Stalinists denounced this as "Black chauvinism,".
the equivalent then of today's code words, "discrim-
ination in reverse."
The Roosevelt administration sought to get Ran-
dolph to call the march off on one pretext or
another. Finally, on June 25, 1941, Roosevelt signed
Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in
the war industries and creating the Fair Employ-
ment Practices Committee (FEPC). It was a small
concession, hardly more than a token. There was no
machinery to enforce the order. But Randolph
hailed it as "a second Emancipation Proclamation"
. . . and promptly called off the march.
Thousands who had sought to vent their rage
were bitterly disappointed, many walked away
discouraged. Some claimed that the march had been
a colossal bluff and that it would have failed in any
This opinion was not shared by the active organ-
izers, especially the youth section of the movement.
Bayard Rustin was then a youth leader, having
recently quit the Young Communist League at City
College of New York and joined the March On
Washington Movement. He accused Randolph of
selling out to Roosevelt and demanded that the
march be rescheduled.
There was no rescheduling of that march, but the
March On Washington Movement (MOWM) contin-
ued. Throughout the war, protest meetings and
demonstrations were organized under its aegis.
The MOWM was not structured to allow for
membership participation, policy discussion, or
democratic decision making of any kind. The
"youth section" was dissolved. The so-called move-
ment remained amorphous, an organization in
name only, sustained mainly by the Sleeping Car
The U.S. Bureau of Employment Security re-
vealed that in the period from September 1941 to
February 1942, more than half the available jobs
were closed to Blacks. That was a measure of the
effectiveness of Roosevelt's FEPC order.
In June 1942 Randolph issued a call for actions to
protest the failure of the FEPC. Huge rallies spon-
sored by MOWM were held in major cities,
18,000 massed in New York and 12,000 in Chicago.
Randolph called for a Washington, D.C., rally on
August 4, but this was called off. Later, on De-
cember 30, he announced plans to employ Gan-
dhian civil-disobedience tactics to break down ra-
In 1943 the MOWM kept pressure on Roosevelt for
more jobs, and in May he issued Executive Order
9346 reconstituting the FEPC, which had lapsed.
But such palliatives were not enough to satisfy
Blacks, nor prevent attacks upon them by city
police and other racist elements.
1943 was the year of the Harlem revolt and the
Detroit police rampage against Blacks.
In 1944 the national MOWM held a "non-Partisan
Political Conference" that declined to support can-
didates of the capitalist parties.
The Socialist Party nominated Randolph to run
for vice-president with Norman Thomas in the
general election. Randolph declined with "keen
regret," he said.
Throughout the war years, Randolph had kept up
his agitation for jobs and civil rights' in face of
heavy opposition from pro-war jingos. After Hitler
attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1943, these
patriotic hawks were joined by the Stalinists.
The Communist Party now turned its entire
energies toward cajoling working people in the
unions and other mass organizations into
collaboration-at any sacrifice-with Roosevelt and
the bosses in the war effort.
Against the stream
The CP's sudden switch came automatically and
without apology to its Black supporters. On May 16,
1941, the Daily Worker was contending, "You can't
defend Negro rights without fighting against this
war." The August 1942 issue of The Communist
stated, "The Negro people cannot be true to their
own best interests without supporting the war."
. Henceforth any action by Blacks against discrim-
ination was branded "sabotage," "the work of
Prior to their about-face, the Stalinists had op- ·· ..
posed the MOWM because it was not antiwar. Now
the MOWM was chastised for insisting on rights
and economic improvement for Blacks.
The middle-class NAACP leaders, while less
flagrant than the Stalinists, were also uneasy and
tried to play down protests by Black workers
against the discriminatory conditions of wartime
employment. They developed arguments against
the MOWM as a "purely Negro organization while
the cardinal principle of the NAACP is its inter-
racial composition," and used other devices to
separate themselves from mass actions. They were
afraid of antagonizing Roosevelt and the war patri-
It was the persistent demands of Black workers
for better treatment, and their demon-
strations in support of MOWM, that kept the Black
movement alive through World War II.
(to be continued)
A. Philip. Randolph & the civil rights movement
The role of Black workers in the fight for freedom.
By Frank Lovell
(Last of three parts)
The mass migration of Blacks to the industrial
cities of the North and South during World War II
brought with it a persistent struggle against
discrimination-especially in the war industries
and the armed forces.
In the forefront of these struggles were Black
workers-equipped with a newfound self-confidence
and organizational experience acquired through the
union movement. And leading these worker-
militants was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
Porters headed by A. Philip Randolph.
The wartime struggle for Black rights that Ran-
dolph led was comparable to the wartime miners'
strikes led by John L. Lewis. Randolph won popu-
larity in the Black community, as Lewis did in the
mine regions and the ranks of the union movement.
Just as the United Mine Workers became a
symbol of struggle for the union movement, so did
the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car :porters become the
champion of Black rights in the eyes of the Black
But there was a difference.
Randolph, unlike Lewis, gained recognition from
capitalist politicians of both parties. They were
beginning to sense the new part that Blacks would
begin to play in electoral politics, one similar to the
The capitalist parties had reliable lieutenants in
the union movement to round up worker votes for
them. But there were no such leaders with sufficient
influence in the Black movement . . . and· it was
time to cultivate some.
Randolph continued his popular crusade against
Jim Crow after the war ended. In 1948 he attacked
segregation in the armed forces. "Negroes are in no
mood to shoulder another gun for democracy
abroad while they are denied democracy here at
home," he told President Truman at a White House
This was an audacious statement at the time-
words the timid leaders of the NAACP would not
have dared utter, although they knew the truth of
Randolph called for civil disobedience. He told the
Senate Committee on Military Affairs that both
Black and white workers ought to refuse induction
unless segregation was ended. He urged parents to
support their sons who would choose jail instead of
the Jim Crow army, "as a telling demonstration to
the world that Negroes [have] .reached the limit of
This brought a quick response from both the
Black community and the white rulers. Blacks at
because of segregation in the army. They were
being pushed out of jobs as the war industries
closed. And in the transition to peacetime produc-
tion, they saw thousands of white refugees from
war-torn Europe placed in unskilled factory jobs
that were closed to Blacks . . . including those only
recently discharged from the Jim Crow U.S. army.
A poll of young Black men in Harlem showed that
71 percent would refuse to be drafted. They cheered
In the U.S. Senate, Randolph was threatened
with prosecution for treason. He responded that "we
would be willing to absorb the violence, absorb the
terrorism," to win democratic rights.
The Truman administration thought better of the
situation. Like Roosevelt before him, Truman issued
an executive order. On June 26, 1948, he announced
his intention to end segregation in the armed forces
"as rapidly as possible."
Randolph's initial reaction was to accuse Truman
of a political maneuver "to obscure the issue of
segregation" -which it was. But later Randolph
concluded that Truman was sincere, that segrega-
tion in the military was "unequivocally banned,"
and therefore that the civil disobedience campaign
That, however, did not resolve the problem ·of
discrimination for Black workers. That struggle
would continue in new forms and under different
Roots of postwar struggle
The foundation of this new struggle in the post-
war period was laid by important changes in the
makeup of the working class. These changes had a
significant impact on the union movement and
With the rise of synthetic fabrics during World
War II and the resultant decline in the demand for
cotton, a massive migration of Blacks to the coun-
try's industrial cities began. This migration contin-
ued during the postwar years, as cotton growers
pressed forward the mechanization of production.
During World War II a higher percentage of
Blacks found jobs in industry than before, and
many were drawn into union activity. Some served
as shop stewards and were elected presidents of
their local unions. In this way a significant though
narrow layer of Black workers gained organiza-
tional experience that was later turned to advan-
tage in struggles for Black demands.
The war also brought changes in the composition,
attitude, and political alliances of the established
Black organizations. This was especially true of the
NAACP. It discovered common political interests
with the trade-union bureaucracy and began to
collaborate with it inside the Democratic Party to
win limited reforms.
This was the essence of the so-called labor-Negro
alliance that Roosevelt encouraged as an electoral
voting bloc. This arrangement was firmly estab-
lished during the war as a working agreement
between these two potentially powerful political
Because this labor-Black alliance remained locked
inside the Democratic Party, however, it never
succeeded in winning any substantial gains. But it
did serve to raise the expectations of Blacks.
In addition, Black organizations-especially the
NAACP-saw their membership rolls expand.
Many of the new recruits were workers from the
unions. And although the entrenched national
leaderships remained thoroughly middle class in
composition and outlook, many Black workers were
beginning to take positions of responsibility at the
local level and were beginning to think and act
independently of the leadership.
Montgomery bus boycott
A foreign observer of U.S. capitalist society in
1950, Daniel Guerin, noted the change. He wrote:
"A living example of this evolution was presented
to me by ·E.D. Nixon of Montgomery, Ala., a
vigorous colored union militant who was the lead-
ing spirit in this city both of the local union of
Sleeping Car Porters and the local branch of the
NAACP. What a difference from other branches of
the Association, which are controlled by dentists,
pastors, and undertakers! Nixon has both feet on
the ground. He is linked to the masses. He speaks
their language. He has organized the work of race
defense with the precision and method of a trade
unionists. Men like E.D. Nixon (to name only him)
incarnate the alliance which has at last been
consummated between race and labor."
The alliance that had been consummated at that
time was between the tops-between the "progres-
sive" union bureaucrats and the Black leaders. This
alliance was of little use to the masses of Blacks
when the civil rights movement exploded in 1955 in
But Guerin hit the mark in one sense-that the
organizational methods and self-confidence ac-
quired by Black workers in the union movement
conferred upon them key roles both in leading and
pushing forward the movement.
Thus, it was not totally accidental that the civil
rights movement began when Rosa Parks, a Black
seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to
give up her seat on the bus, as otherwise prescribed
by law, to a white passenger. Nor was it altogether
an accident that the local NAACP branch that
organized ·her defense was led by E.D. Nixon, the
experienced trade unionist, who conceived the bus-
Backbone of struggle
The important role of Black workers was shown
time and again as the civil rights movement rolled
through the South in the last half of the 1950s.
Even though the movement on a national scale
came under the leadership of Black professionals,
students, and intellectuals-personified by Martin
Luther King-its strength, stability, and tenacity
came from the hundreds of thousands of Black
workers who marched in the mass demonstrations,
and from the local organizations of worker mili-
tants that provided a grassroots base for the move-
As that struggle unfolded, it had to seek new
organizational forms on a national basis. Neither
the union movement nor the established Black
organizations such as the NAACP could serve the
needs of the civil rights demonstrators. Both were
King had to form the Southern Christian Leader-
ship Conference, even though the movement, at the
beginning, was led by the Montgomery NAACP.
Likewise, Black students had to form their own
organization, the Student Non-violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC). Dozens of lesser-known organi-
zations (Black Guards, Deacons for Defense, and
similar defense groups) flourished and guaranteed
the success of local Black actions-all under the
leadership of working-class militants.
The massive demonstrations and bloody confron-
tations with local Jim Crow authorities proved the
great power of the Black masses and proved that
the struggle for racial equality required the mobili-
zation of the masses under Black leadership.
Limits of leadership
However, the civil rights movement also showed
the severe limits placed on the power of the Black
masses by a national leadership with a middle-class
Although mass action was one important aspect
of the perspective of leaders such as King, he and
almost all other national figures in the civil rights
movement shared an outlook of collaboration with
the capitalist class, its government, and its political
parties. Despite some skirmishes, most of them
loyally supported the Democratic Party, which was
directly responsible for the perpetuation of Black
In this, their views were no different from leaders
of the more moderate groups such as the NAACP-
or from the trade-union bureaucracy.
The impact of this class-collaborationist approach
on the Black rights struggle can be seen clearly in
Randolph's own evolution and in the role he played
in one of the biggest demonstrations of the civil
rights movement-the 1963 March on Washington.
It was Randolph who proposed the grand march
"for jobs and freedom." He convinced King that it
was timely and necessary, and he got the support of
other Black leaders. He appointed Bayard Rustin to
organize it. He forced President Kennedy to accept
" ... The Negroes are already in the streets,"
Randolph argued. "Is it not better that they be led
by organizations dedicated to civil rights and
disciplined by struggle rather than to leave them to
other leaders who care neither about civil rights nor
This is the friendly plea of the established leader
who seeks to control an angry mass-not a call for
mass action to redress old grievances. Randolph
had made his peace with the union bureaucracy and
with the middle-class Black leadership.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a
rapidly dwindling organization, displaced by the
expanding airline passenger service.
The Black working class would have to build new
organizations and develop new leaders.
On August 28, 1963, Randolph chaired the demon-
stration of more than 200,000 at the Lincoln Memor-
ial. In a sense it was a vindication of his most
useful contribution-the idea that power lies in the
mobilized might of the Black masses. Despite his
changing outlook, his appeal on that occasion was
again to the Black working class: "The sanctity of
private property takes second place to the sanctity
of human personality. It falls to the Negro to
reassert his priority of values, because our ancestors
were transformed . from human personalities into
private property. It falls to us to demand full
employment and to put automation at the service of
human needs, not at the service of profits .... "
As the civil rights movement rolled into the North
in the early 1960s, the idea of Black nationalism
began to find expression within it, a natural devel-
opment based on the sense of racial identity and the
newfound pride in the achievements of struggle.
Rise of Black nationalism
This new sentiment propelled many Blacks
beyond the limits the civil rights leadership and
Randolph sought to impose upon the movement.
As legal concessions were won by the movement,
it became increasingly apparent to some that the
problem of ending Black oppression had just begun
with the toppling of Jim Crow. To truly accomplish
that task, a fundamental reordering of American
society was needed.
The most able representative of this militant
Black nationalism was Malcolm X. Malcolm X
began to pinpoint capitalism as the chief foe of
Black people and the main obstacle standing be-
tween them and total emancipation. He put it well:
"Show me a capitalist and I'll show you a blood-
Malcolm taught that only through independent
action by Blacks in the streets and at the polls could
Blacks win their liberation.
Others, however, twisted the nationalist vision to
mean an improved and modernized replica of white
society, a national cohabitation under capitalism.
They were encouraged by the white ruling class to
promote Black capitalism, financed with federal
grants earmarked "poverty funds."
In this way, the Black uprisings that erupted in
major northern industrial centers in the mid-1960s
were dissipated and turned to the personal advan-
tage of a new crop of Black Democratic and Repub-
lican party politicians in the service of capitalist
Like their predecessors in the professions, they
found more or less comfortable niches for them-
selves. Whatever their original intentions, they
have, a decade later, abandoned the struggle for
Black equality-including the fight for equal job
opportunity so badly needed today by the millions
of unemployed Black workers.
The dominance of this layer within the Black
movement-the Black elected officials and civil
rights leaders with a class-collaborationist
outlook-has temporarily stifled mass actions
against social and economic injustice.
The policies of the leaders of groups such as the
National Urban League and NAACP have caused
some people to become pessimistic about the pros-
pects for an early renewal of the struggle against
Black oppression in this country. But that view
leaves out of account the potential of working-class
There are more Black workers in industry now
than ever before, more of them with trade-union
experience and positions of influence.
Millions of Black workers share to one extent or
another Malcolm's understanding that capitalists
In some unions today there are Black caucuses
organized especially to fight around Black issues.
The idea that Blacks need their own
organizations-applied so effectively in the civil
rights movement-has not been forgotten by Black
Many of these caucuses are active in fighting
Black oppression both on the job and in society at
large-and in fighting also for democratic, class-
In combination with other militant forces in the
Black communities, they could help lay the founda-
tion for a new fighting organization devoted to total
When the mass of Black people-frustrated by the
unfulfilled promises of this society and infused with
nationalist consciousness-seek again to redress
social and economic wrongs as they did after World
War II, they will find the new leaders for that
movement in the unions, among the Black workers.
These new working-class leaders will have the
vision of a future socialist society. They will be
schooled in Marxist politics and experienced in
union methods of class struggle, combined with the
lessons of the recent civil rights and antiwar move-
And they will pay tribute to the Brotherhood of
Sleeping Car Porters, the forerunner and primitive
model of it all.