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Monday, August 28, 2023

August 28, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: 1941 Origins

[August 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the single most important events in 20th century American history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for and from that event—not including Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, about which I’ve written a good bit already!]

On two important contexts illustrated by a planned 1941 march.

The concept of a march on Washington to push the government toward certain actions is a longstanding one in American history, going back at least to examples like “Coxey’s Army” in 1894 and the Bonus Army in 1932. The latter in particular seems to have been one inspiration for labor leader A. Philip Randolph and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s developing early 1941 plans for a march on Washington to protest the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s segregation and discrimination in wartime hiring practices. Randolph and NAACP leader Walter White had met with Roosevelt in September 1940 to argue for integrating all levels of the armed forces and war efforts but had gotten nowhere, with the White House issuing a statement that “The policy of the War Department is not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel.” So in January Randolph proposed the concept (with the formal name of the March on Washington Movement) of a collective march on Washington to put pressure on the administration, and he began working with Rustin to plan the logistics for an early July march which they hoped would bring at least 100,000 protesters to DC.

Just a week before the march’s scheduled date President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, establishing a federal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) that both desegregated wartime industries specifically and prohibited discrimination in federal vocational and training programs more broadly. Perhaps Roosevelt was genuinely convinced that this was the right step, or perhaps he was fearful of the bad press that a sizeable protest would generate just as the US was ramping up its war efforts; Randolph seems to have feared the latter, as he maintained the March on Washington Movement throughout the war to keep the pressure on. And in any case, these March on Washington contexts remind us of the consistent racial segregation that plagued the Roosevelt Administration’s signature (and in many ways progressive) programs like the New Deal. Whoever was in the White House, civil rights leaders knew that they had to push and pressure to achieve any and all steps toward equality and justice, and Randolph and Rustin revealed that a march on Washington could be one important tool in that arsenal.

The central roles and relationship between those two men in these 1941 events likewise illustrates another important context for the 1963 march and Civil Rights Movement histories overall: the interconnections between labor and civil rights. As I highlighted in this post, far too often the American labor movement has featured white supremacist forces in defining roles; that trend unquestionably played a role in Randolph’s and others’ formation of a 1920s labor union specifically for Black workers. As I hope this whole weeklong series will indicate, there are many layers to the 1963 March that we need to better remember, but very high on the list has to be its full name: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I’ve often seen Martin Luther King Jr.’s turn in the late 1960s toward economic and labor issues described as a shift in priorities, but in truth the entire Civil Rights Movement was founded on a recognition that those issues were interconnected with—not the sole emphasis by any means, but an integral component of—ideals like freedom, equality, and justice. Just one more reason to remember the aborted but essential 1941 March on Washington.

Next March context tomorrow,


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