A. Philip Randolph and the March on Washington

23 Aug

Next week, will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The success of this peaceful march, which attracted an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people on August 28, 1963, was the culmination of twenty years of planning and organizing by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

Many of the speakers that day electrified the crowd, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech was a highlight of the event, but many other people working behind-the-scenes and in supportive roles made the event possible. The march also represented a fascinating cross-section of political affiliations and relationships between African American leaders, religious leaders, unions, and politicians.

The name A. Philip Randolph is not as well-known as Martin Luther King, Jr. today, but Randolph was a tireless organizer and leader who worked for many years to have a mass march in Washington, D.C.  Randolph’s dream of a peaceful, mass march to protest segregation began in the 1940s when he was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The plan for the 1941 march called for 100,000 black workers to march on Washington on July 1 to protest discrimination in the armed forces, demanded an end to segregation, and proposed anti-lynching legislation. As with the later march for “Jobs and Freedom,” the first march was planned with an emphasis economic issues and hiring practices of military contractors during the economic war boom.

As the date for the march came closer, a nervous President Roosevelt who feared a race riot would break out asked Eleanor Roosevelt to intervene and convince Randolph to call off the march. Randolph said he would not call off the march. Finally Randolph, President Roosevelt, and the head of the NAACP, Walter White, met to negotiate. The result of this meeting was Roosevelt signing Executive Order 8802 or the  Fair Employment Act on June 25 which prohibited discriminatory hiring practices of military contractors. After this Randolph called off the march, earning criticism from some quarters. It was truly a compromise since the armed forces would not be desegregated until 1948.

The dream of a mass march continued after 1941 as many of the same issues remained and intensified, but Randolph would have to wait more than twenty years to see his original plans come to fruition.

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