March on Washington Movement

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March on Washington Movement

United States 1941


In a 1941 effort to dramatize the situation of African Americans before President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American public, A. Philip Randolph attempted to organize immense crowds to march on Washington, D.C. Randolph and his fellow March on Washington Movement activists demanded an end to segregation in the military and equal access to jobs in the national defense industry for black men and women who were habitually denied such jobs and subjected to other forms of discrimination. Although the activists abandoned the protest itself on condition of a deal with the president, the very threat of a march achieved its main goal: an executive order banning discrimination in national defense employment. It was in many ways the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. The movement's success set the stage for a hugely successful March on Washington in 1963 that would be imitated by many groups thereafter.


  • 1921: Washington Disarmament Conference limits the tonnage of world navies.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1941: German troops march into the Balkans, conquering Yugoslavia and Greece. (Bulgaria and Romania, along with Hungary, are aligned with the Nazis.)
  • 1941: In a move that takes Stalin by surprise, Hitler sends his troops into the Soviet Union on 22 June. Like his hero Napoleon, Hitler believes that by stunning Russia with a lightning series of brilliant maneuvers, it is possible to gain a quick and relatively painless victory. Early successes seem to prove him right, and he is so confident of victory that he refuses to equip his soldiers with winter clothing.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1941: The United States initiates the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb and signs the Lend-Lease Act, whereby it provides aid to Great Britain and, later, the Soviet Union.
  • 1941: Great films of the year include The Maltese Falcon, Sullivan's Travels, Meet John Doe, How Green Was My Valley, and a work often cited as one of the greatest films of all time: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1951: Color television is introduced.
  • 1956: First aerial testing of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll creates a blast so powerful—the equivalent of 10 million tons of TNT—that it actually results in the infusion of protons to atomic nuclei to create two new elements, einsteinium and fermium, which have atomic numbers of 99 and 100, respectively.

Event and Its Context

Unity in Inequality

The entry of the United States into World War II precipitated significant changes to the national labor market. With so many men fighting abroad, women joined in industry as part of the national war effort. Nonetheless, African Americans of both sexes continued to suffer intense discrimination both in and outside the workplace. More than 20 years after black Americans' full support in World War I had failed to bring full equality, "Jim Crow" laws banned black citizens from sharing facilities with whites in several states and in the nation's capital. In Washington, D.C., no black citizen could attend a theater (except local Jim Crow movie houses), eat in a public restaurant used by whites, sit next to a white passenger on a public bus, ride in a taxi driven by a white, or register in a hotel.

Despite calls for national unity in the fight against the Axis powers, both the domestic job market and the military continued to discriminate against African Americans. Moreover, government hiring practices kept black Americans from federal employment and from working in defense companies that received federal contracts. Throughout the war, the American armed forces were segregated. In a country that was awakening from economic hardships of the Great Depression, black workers were turned away from factory gates because of their race. In the view of labor and civil rights activists like A. Philip Randolph, such race-based discrimination was the cause for wealth disparities between black and white Americans. Randolph, along with other civil rights activists, called for a massive march of African Americans on Washington, D.C.

Black activists of the time asked why African Americans should fight in yet another foreign war when their own rights were not protected either at home or in the ranks of the military. Despite protests, black Americans in the U.S. Navy were generally confined to the messmen's branch. Soon after the war began, African American sailors on the U.S.S. Philadelphia were arrested for writing to the Pittsburgh Courier to expose the abuse and discrimination they faced on the ship. Whatever action the navy was to take and regardless of the consequences, the sailors wrote, "We only know that it could not possibly surpass the mental cruelty inflicted upon us on this ship." Despite a shortage of nurses, defense authorities were hesitant to accept black nurses to treat white troops, as doing so would be a violation of social norms. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Graduate Nurses, headed by Mabel Staupers, were vocal protesters against racial policies in the Army Nurse Corps and in the military in general. A pamphlet by the Socialist Workers Party titled "The Negro and the U.S. Army" (by Eugene Varlin, c. 1940), asked what African Americans would get out of World War II. The pamphlet responded that "if the capitalist class remains the ruler of this country, the Negroes will get out this war what they got out of the last war—and maybe worse."

Taking People to the Power

The idea of taking the problems of the people to the seat of power was not entirely new. In 1894 Jacob Sechler Coxey's "army" of jobless men had marched on Washington to demand relief measures. In 1903 Mother Jones had led a march of underaged millworkers (many the victims of industrial accidents) to the New York home of President Theodore Roosevelt. From women demanding the vote to veterans demanding bonuses, a growing number of movements were claiming the capital for national public protests. The idea of a massive march of African Americans on the nation's capital, however, was the brainchild of Randolph, a man greatly respected in the African American community for his struggle to create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph created the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) to demand "jobs and freedom" for African Americans. In particular, Randolph argued that "Negro America must bring its power and pressure to bear upon the agencies and representatives of the Federal Government to exact their rights" in the American armed forces and in national defense employment. "Winning Democracy for the Negro Is Winning the War for Democracy," stated MOWM literature. The movement had its national headquarters in the Theresa Hotel Building in New York City. Randolph served as national director, the office of executive secretary was held by E. Pauline Myers, and B. F. McLaurin served as national secretary.

One MOWM flyer summed up the movement's objectives in four points. The organization's foremost goal was to "crystallize the mass consciousness of grievances and injustices" suffered by African Americans as a means of rallying them behind a cause for which they would "gladly and willingly suffer and sacrifice." The second objective was to reeducate white America on the question of equality for black Americans. The movement also aimed to "enlist the support of liberal and Christian white America in an all-out struggle for unadulterated democracy at home as well as abroad." Finally, the MOWM was to operate by means of "mass maneuvers and demonstrations."

The MOWM was a wholly African American organization that excluded whites. Given a tendency toward solidarity among radical white activists, this was partly an effort to keep communists from entering the organization. It was also Randolph's attempt to appeal to lower-class African Americans and to promote self-confidence and a sense of black pride. He also placed emphasis on jobs, an issue that affected both urban black people in the industrial North and those in the rural South. At a time when young black activists were calling for "democracy in our time," the organization shunned judicial actions and backroom negotiations in favor of direct action. The idea of direct mass action derived from the principals of Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, and as such, was to be nonviolent.

March on Washington Declared

On 15 January 1941 Randolph stated that "ten thousand Negroes" should march on Washington with the slogan, "We loyal Negro American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country." The slogan was meant to counter any negative propaganda claiming that black Americans wanted to hurt the defense effort or jeopardize national unity. "On the contrary," said Randolph. "But certainly there can be no national unity where one-tenth of the population are denied their basic rights as American citizens." The plan was met with enthusiasm by the African American community, and many young militants invested themselves in the project with great fervor.

With the aid of NAACP executive secretary Walter White and National Youth Administration Negro Affairs directorMary McLeod Bethune, Randolph forced Roosevelt to listen to MOWM demands. Roosevelt sent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia to negotiate with March on Washington leaders. Upon her return to Washington, the first lady told her husband that the movement leaders were steadfast in their plans and that only an order banning discrimination would avert the demonstration. Despite accusations from certain sectors that the president had deployed her to diffuse the march, the first lady urged him to act "for both moral and political reasons."

Eleanor Roosevelt was a vocal advocate of equal rights for people of all ethnic backgrounds. Her support for the NAACP when it was falsely considered a radical left-wing organization made her the subject of FBI investigations. Her article in Negro Digest (forerunner to Ebony), in which she stated that she would feel "bitterness" were she black and suffered similar discrimination, had critics labeling the magazine communist. Despite her support of desegregation and equal rights, Mrs. Roosevelt was not entirely convinced that the March on Washington was a good idea. The idea of tens of thousands of black demonstrators with nowhere to stay converging on a city of white police officers did not seem promising to her. Although she never publicly stated her opposition to the march, she did question its feasibility in private meetings. Despite minor differences, African American fighters for equal rights had an ally in the seat of power.

Nonetheless, "you can give her too much credit if you're not careful, by implying that she was the cause of the Negro movements of that time, the civil rights movements," journalist and commentator Vernon Jarrett recalled years later. "This came from black people themselves. They didn't need an Eleanor Roosevelt to protest."

On 18 June 1941 President Roosevelt and several defense ministers met with Randolph at the White House to discuss the March on Washington. Concerned about violence, the president called the march a "grave mistake" and personally urged the leaders to cancel it. He reportedly told the activists that he would not address demonstrators, in part because he sensed that Americans would resent any protest attempting to "coerce the Government and make it do certain things."

Also present at the half-hour meeting were La Guardia, White, and the first lady. When Randolph complained that black workers seeking employment at defense plants were being turned back simply because of their race, Roosevelt reportedly promised to call up the heads of the various defense plants and "have them see to it that Negroes are given the same opportunity to work in defense plants as any other citizen in the country." Randolph in turn requested "something concrete, something tangible, definite, positive, and affirmative." He wanted an executive mandate giving black workers the right to work in the plants. Roosevelt claimed that issuing an executive order for black workers would mean that other groups would show up at the White House to demand their own executive orders. Further, because "questions like this can't be settled with a sledge hammer," nothing could be done unless Randolph called off the strike. Randolph made it clear that he had no intention of calling off the strike but would march on the city with 100,000 African Americans.

As the group adjourned, it agreed to meet within a fortnight to study the president's proposal to set up a board "to receive and act upon complaints of racial discrimination in the defense program." The following day, La Guardia suggested creating a "Grievance Committee" and presented Roosevelt with the board's proposal for an executive order. The order was to include a nondiscriminatory policy in defense contracting and would require unions and government agencies to end discrimination.

Some of Roosevelt's defense collaborators had stated their belief that national defense was more important than reform. A week prior to the scheduled march, police and intelligence services were on the alert. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover warned both the attorney general and the solicitor general that the Communist Party could try to coopt the march to promote its own ideas. On 22 June, Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Russia. At the same time, the Washington press was reporting on a crime wave (which some attributed to the arrival of outsiders) and questioning how a nation with a chaotic capital could help restore international order. On 24 June the La Guardia committee presented the MOWM representatives with a draft of the executive order for their perusal. When they saw that the draft did not mention discrimination in government jobs, they quickly added a clause to that effect. Although Roosevelt's undersecretaries of war and navy expressed opposition to the order because it would hamper munitions contracts, the president rejected their advice.

A Labor and Civil Rights Victory

The proposed march was cancelled at the last moment because of the partial attainment of its objectives. On 25 June 1941 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC). The decree prohibited racial discrimination on the basis of "race, creed, color, or national origin" in the federal government and in any defense industries under government contract. The order was issued upon the condition that the march be called off. It was the first presidential decree since the Emancipation Proclamation on the rights of African Americans. According to James Farmer, founder of Congress of Racial Equality, Roosevelt could not take the chance that thousands of demonstrators would be in Washington "at a time when he was calling the United States the arsenal of democracy."

Although the president had agreed to have the FEPC ban discrimination in defense plants, he refused to consider Randolph's initial calls for an end to racial segregation in the military. The FEPC had the power to investigate and act against employment discrimination complaints. Roosevelt attempted to strengthen the FEPC with a full-time staff in 1943 after learning of noncompliance. Although the FEPC had no real enforcement capabilities, the FBI had the power to arrest anyone who thwarted the war effort. When Philadelphia transit workers went on strike against an FEPC desegregation order, FBI threats to arrest leaders ended the strike. By war's end, the number of African Americans with government jobs more than tripled to 200,000 and defense industry employment of black workers rose from 3 to 8 percent; most of these were menial jobs.

In keeping with Executive Order 8802, the National War Labor Board broke with standard practice to abolish the classifications "colored laborer" and "white laborer" and replaced them simply with "laborer," with one rate of pay. African American workers subsequently attained wage increases that achieved parity with white laborers.

By December 1941 the MOWM had become an all-black organization that was supported by dues-paying members. Building on the movement's initial victory, in 1942 Randolph organized a series of "colossal and dramatic" gatherings. That summer the movement "to help create faith by Negroes in Negroes" gathered 20,000 participants in New York, 12,000 in Chicago and 9,000 in St. Louis. The MOWM began to whither in 1943 but lasted until the late 1940s. Nonetheless, in 1948 the movement got President Harry Truman to sign Executive Order 9981, banning military segregation. In 1963 Randolph saw his dream come true. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, organized by Randolph and Bayard Rustin, was the largest demonstration for racial and economic equality in U.S. history.

Key Players

Bethune, Mary McLeod (1875-1955): Bethune was vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As director of Negro affairs in the National Youth Administration (1936-1944), she was an important force behind the March for Washington Movement's demand for fair employment practices.

La Guardia, Fiorello Henry (1882-1947): La Guardia was an American political reformer known for defending immigrants and workers. He served in Congress first in 1916, breaking to serve in World War I, and again from 1923 to 1933. His years as mayor of New York City (1933-1945) were credited with improving municipal efficiency and fighting corruption. During World War II he was director of the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense (1941-1942), helping Franklin Roosevelt resolve the threat of a March on Washington.

Randolph, Asa Philip (1889-1979): Randolph's struggle to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, of which he was president, made him one of the most respected figures in black America. His fight for civil and economic justice was channeled largely through the March on Washington Movement, which he founded in 1941.

Roosevelt, Anna Eleanor (1884-1962): Roosevelt was an advocate of civil rights who took an active role in her husband's administration, serving as a "trusted and tireless reporter" for his causes. A vocal defender of equality for African Americans, she helped mediate between the president and the March on Washington activists.

White, Walter Francis (1893-1955): White, despite his blue eyes, fair skin, and blond hair, lived life as an African American and became a champion of civil rights. He was executive secretary of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955 and was a vocal opponent of lynching. During World War II he joined A. Philip Randolph to help ban discrimination in wartime industry.

See also: Fair Employment Practice Committee; Jim Crow Segregation and Labor; March of the Mill Children.



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March on Washington Movement. How to Organize a Unit.Pamphlet, c. 1941 [cited 20 October 2002]. <>.

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Additional Resources


A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. [cited 20 October 2002]. <>.

—Brett Allan King

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March on Washington Movement

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