The First March on Washington

A. Philip Randolph called for a March on Washington to force President Roosevelt to abolish Jim Crow in the war effort, and shaped the trajectory of the postwar left.

Appearing before the Senate Government Operations subcommittee in December 1966, A. Philip Randolph (left), warned of “disastrous consequences” if the Vietnam War is to be financed by the “black and white poor,” and Bayard Rustin urged action on a “freedom budget” to guarantee an annual wage for the poor. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

In June 1942, Winfred Lynn received his draft notice. Seven months after Pearl Harbor, as all of US society was turning toward the war effort, this middle-aged black landscape gardener from Long Island decided he wasn’t going. While Lynn declared himself “ready to serve in any unit … which is not segregated by race,” he was steadfast in his refusal to “serve in a unit undemocratically selected as a Negro group.”

Detained for failure to report for induction, Lynn and his brother, the radical lawyer Conrad Lynn, sued the government for discrimination, ultimately reaching the Supreme Court, which dismissed their case in 1945.

The Lynn case reveals one of the most important, and under-recognized, episodes in American civil rights history. During World War II, black Americans launched a mass movement against segregation in the military and the defense industries. Led by the socialist and union organizer A. Philip Randolph, this campaign called for a March on Washington to force President Roosevelt to abolish Jim Crow in the war effort.

While the movement didn’t ultimately win, as the military remained segregated until President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948, it did force the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Committee to fight segregation in defense industries, the beginning of a federal commitment to civil rights. Just as important, it helped institutionalize mass organization among black Americans. As one participant recalled in the 1970s, the March on Washington Movement “scared these people like no other thing. Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, all wrapped together, never had the power, the real power, and threat that that first March had.”

Yet as radical and disruptive as the movement was, the failure to challenge American empire led to an increasing embrace of militarism by the civil rights and liberal labor establishments. In World War II, the United States was part of a global struggle against fascism, but the dovetailing of antifascism and American imperial interests would only be temporary. By the time the Vietnam War began radicalizing a new generation of the Left, a painful and destructive split had opened up between those committed to confronting empire, and those who thought progress required compromise with it.


A Partial Victory

While black Americans have fought in the American military in every armed conflict, for most of the country’s history they have done so under conditions of profound inequality. In the Civil War, simply allowing all-black units to fight in the war was considered a major victory by the abolitionists. During World War I, the bulk of black GIs were relegated to menial labor. As war with Germany loomed, the question of the status of black soldiers in the coming conflict became a major point of contention.

In September 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, A. Philip Randolph, T. Arnold Hill of the National Urban League, and Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) met with President Roosevelt to discuss the treatment of black Americans in light of recently passed draft legislation. Roosevelt, mindful of the segregationist commitments of both Southern Democrats and much of the military bureaucracy, suggested the Navy might increase black status through “a colored band on some of these ships, because they’re darn good at it.”

Civil rights leaders left the meeting furious, and the president was widely denounced in the black press. A few months later, on a union organizing trip through the Deep South, Randolph was on a train talking with a friend about the humiliations of segregation. During a pause in the conversation, Randolph suddenly announced that “calling on the president and holding those conferences are not going to get us anywhere.” Instead, Randolph decided, it was time to march on Washington, DC, where “crackerocracy is in the saddle.” Randolph’s union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), began the work organizing the march.

A powerful, all-black union, the BSCP threw itself into organizing for the march, which was called for the following July. From Oakland to New York, local chapters printed buttons, canvassed neighborhoods, held meetings, and chartered buses and trains to make the trip to DC. In New York City alone, fifteen thousand buttons for the march were sold in a single week. As one black newspaper summed up the sentiment behind the march, “one individual marching up and down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House denouncing race prejudice is arrested as a crank. Ten thousand persons get respectful attention!”

The march had two primary objectives: First, desegregate the armed forces. Second, and equally important, was the demand for equal treatment for federal contractors. As the war economy moved into action, and an increasingly large portion of the economy was entangled with the federal government, this was a crucial demand. Over the course of six months in 1940, as war production ramped up, white unemployment dropped by a quarter, while black unemployment barely moved. In this context, the march’s demands found wide resonance.

As the date of the march approached, the Roosevelt administration was sweating. Rumor had it that one hundred thousand black Americans were preparing to march. Gathering his advisers with the best civil rights connections, Roosevelt gave them one task: “get it stopped.”

But the administration’s efforts carried little weight with a movement as widely supported as the March on Washington was. By mid-June, Roosevelt was running out of options. He invited Randolph and other representatives to the White House. Though the president attempted to charm his way out of any concrete action, Randolph would not be stymied. He demanded tangible results, and at last Roosevelt caved. One of his advisers delegated the task of writing an executive order to the young New Deal lawyer Joseph Rauh, telling him, “You gotta stop Randolph from marching.” Rauh himself recalled that “pragmatic concerns” dominated the administration’s response to the march, as they acted “for social stability, rather than concern for black workers.”

The result of this was Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and banning discrimination by federal agencies or private employers contracting with the federal government. It was the first executive order advancing civil rights since the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

The price for 8802 was calling off the march. While much of the movement and the black press celebrated 8802 as a victory, there were important notes of dissent. The executive order contained, after all, not a word about the segregation of the military. It also exempted existing federal contracts from its provisions. Young march organizers in places like St Louis and New York attacked Randolph for canceling the march from the top down, without any consultation with the rest of the movement. From the left, groups like the National Negro Congress echoed these critiques.

Randolph was fully aware that the movement had won but a partial victory, and he attempted to turn the march into a more institutionalized group, the March on Washington Movement (MOWM). Drawing on the local organizing that had developed in the planning of the march, the MOWM sought to continue the fight for democracy, focusing in particular on military segregation. It held mass rallies in New York and Chicago, and Randolph again threatened to bring one hundred thousand black Americans to Washington if the military would not integrate. Unlike earlier, however, no concrete moves were made to realize a national march, and energy instead went into organizing local marches.

The militancy of the movement was difficult to sustain, however, particularly as a national march was constantly threatened but never actually organized. Moreover, the alliance of more moderate groups like the NAACP with the MOWM began to fray. Moderate civil rights leaders both thought the movement was risking alienating allies in the White House, and were increasingly disturbed by Randolph’s insistence that the organization remain black only. This combination of aimlessness and isolation pushed the organization into decline, and Randolph officially dissolved it in 1945.

The Tightrope

Military desegregation was officially achieved in 1948, when President Truman issued Executive Order 9981. Actual desegregation was slower, with the Marine Corps maintaining segregated combat units through the Korean War. Though Randolph’s movement failed to win its primary goals within its lifetime, it would be a mistake to dismiss it. The creation of the FEPC was a major step forward in institutionalizing civil rights. Particularly given the scope of the wartime economy, it subjected large parts of American business to antidiscrimination regulation for the first time in the country’s history.

Moreover, organizers — from Bayard Rustin to Pauli Murray — who cut their teeth in the MOWM would go on to lead the civil rights struggle over the following decades. The struggles over segregation in the military and war industries prepared a generation of activists to wage war on racism.

At the same time, the movement’s politics prepared the ground for conflicts that would wrack the Left for decades to come. Most centrally, the MOWM turned the necessity of defeating fascism into a fantasy about the US military as a force for democracy. In reality, the American war effort was no such thing, sustained as it was, particularly in the Pacific, by genocidal anti-Japanese racism. Moreover, the segregated American military exported Jim Crow around the world, setting up segregated bases wherever it landed. Many black Americans from the North got their first exposure to de jure segregation on these bases.

Even more crucially, the movement’s embrace of American war aims helped consolidate a wider embrace of American foreign policy by both the civil rights and liberal labor establishments. Where the NAACP had been, for example, fiercely critical of the American occupation of Haiti in the 1920s, after World War II, the leading civil rights groups were no longer willing to countenance criticism of American militarism. Driven by both anti-communism and an alliance with the Democratic Party, they viewed support for US foreign policy as necessary to make any headway against segregation.

Yet the costs of this bargain were high. As a new generation radicalized in the shadow of Vietnam, a costly political split developed between the new radicals and the establishment. When Martin Luther King Jr began speaking out against Vietnam in 1967, few of the old order stood by his side. Having embraced the idea that the American military fought for democracy, the civil rights establishment found themselves in an increasingly untenable position as the reality of the war in Vietnam was exposed.

The March on Washington Movement thus contains valuable lessons. While some today question efforts to force reactionary institutions like the American military to abide by antidiscrimination law, it’s notable that, even among the revolutionary left in the 1940s, no one questioned the centrality of winning the battle against Jim Crow in the military. If one of the central institutions of American life were allowed to openly and proudly discriminate against black Americans, it would buttress white supremacy in every corner of society.

At the same time, the future trajectory of the forces involved in the MOWM makes clear the importance of maintaining a critique of imperialism at the center of the Left’s politics. Though the civil rights establishment rationalized its embrace of US foreign policy as a savvy form of coalition politics, it committed them to justifying the unjustifiable, and it eventually ensured their eclipse by radicals who did not close their eyes to American crimes.

The strategic imperative this history bequeaths to us is not an easy one: we must fight for the fullest possible democratization of institutions we think should ultimately be abolished. But the history of the March on Washington Movement shows that this is a tightrope we have no choice but to walk.