March on Washington Movement

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The March on Washington Movement (MOWM), 1941–1946, organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin[1] as a tool to organize a mass march on Washington, D.C., was designed to pressure the U.S. government into desegregating the armed forces and providing fair working opportunities for African Americans. Despite its name, the March on Washington Movement did not lead to an actual march on Washington during this period, as Randolph's requests were met before one could be organized. Martin Luther King, Jr. was heavily influenced by Randolph and his ideals.


State of the nation[edit]

In the lead-up to the United States' entry into World War II, there was an enhanced awareness in the black community of the hypocrisy of defending America against Nazi racism while allowing discrimination in all sectors of life and business to exist in America.[2]

By fall of 1940 the American economy was emerging from the Depression. The defense boom benefited whites, but black workers were denied these opportunities because of racial discrimination in those fields. Some Government-instituted training programs even excluded blacks on the assumption that it was foolish to train them at all, and many skilled black workers with proper training went unhired.[3] The president of the North American Aviation Co., that year, was quoted as saying "While we are in complete sympathy with the Negro, it is against company policy to employ them as aircraft workers or mechanics ... regardless of their training.... There will be some jobs as janitors for Negroes."[4] It was in this climate that the March on Washington Movement was born.

Purpose of the march[edit]

The March on Washington Movement was an attempt to pressure the United States government and President Franklin D. Roosevelt into establishing protections against discrimination. A. Philip Randolph was the driving force behind the movement. Randolph formed and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, beginning in 1925, and his experience in grassroots organizing and union involvement provided a foundation for his leadership in the March on Washington Movement, in which the organization of middle and lower class members was so important.[5] Randolph's method of independence from white sources of power was evidenced when he said of the movement, "If it costs money to finance a march on Washington, let Negroes pay for it. If any sacrifices are made for Negro rights in national defense, let Negroes make them...."[6]


Randolph's leadership and strategy defined the nature of the March on Washington Movement. His reliance on grassroots activism and African-American media and organizations can be traced back to his early childhood. His father was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) preacher, and Randolph heard parishioners as they complained about the state of race relations and discrimination. He and his brother were privately tutored, and raised to believe that they were "as intellectually competent as any white".[7] Randolph's goals were no less ambitious than his character and rhetoric. On September 26, 1942, after the MOWM had influenced policy change in Washington, Randolph reiterated that the fight was ongoing, despite some gains. He said, "Unless this war sound the death knell to the old Anglo-American empire systems, the hapless story of which is one of exploitation for the profit and power of a monopoly-capitalist economy, it will have been fought in vain."[8]

Women in the movement[edit]

The Women's Auxiliary was a group of mostly wives and relatives of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. They were active within the MOWM primarily through fundraising and community efforts, as well as working broadly to promote ideas of "concepts of black manhood, female respectability, and class consciousness."[9]


Early lobbying efforts to desegregate the military previous to 1941 did not persuade President Roosevelt to take action. On September 27, 1940, the first delegation composed of A. Philip Randolph, Walter White (NAACP), and T. Arnold Hill (National Urban League), met with President Roosevelt and members of topmost governmental levels. The delegation presented a memorandum demanding immediate integration of all blacks in the armed services. The response was a White House issued statement saying, "The policy of the War Department is not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regimental organizations."[10]

These types of public statements made clear the relative ineffectiveness of traditional means of pressuring the government. On January 25, 1941, A. Philip Randolph officially proposed a March on Washington to "highlight the issue."[11]

In the following months, chapters of the MOWM began to organize for a mass march scheduled for July first of that year. Predictions during the spring had the number of marchers at about 100,000.

Just a week before the march was to take place, an "alarmed President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, establishing the first Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC)". Mayor La Guardia of New York City met with MOWM leadership and informed them of the president's intentions.

Before the order was signed, the MOWM demanded, in addition to the establishment of the FEPC, that war industries would be desegregated. Roosevelt agreed and issued Executive Order 8802. This was a major victory for the movement, and so Randolph agreed to cancel the march. He continued the March on Washington Movement as a way of holding the FEPC to its mission.[12]

The MOWM continued rallies throughout the summer, but the high water mark had passed. The movement's continued call for nonviolent civil disobedience alienated some black organizations, such as the NAACP, who withdrew some of its support for the MOWM. Despite the movement's creation as a tool to fuel a specific march on Washington, the MOWM existed until 1947, organizing with other groups to continue pressures on the federal government.[11]

Media effect[edit]

While mainstream media had a role in the perception of the movement, it was African-American media outlets that most meaningfully portrayed the MOWM. Early in the spring of 1941, black newspapers displayed a level of skepticism at the movement's lofty goals. The Chicago Defender worried whether even "2,000 Negroes would march". The tone changed, however, as the date of the march approached. By May, black newspapers began to fuel the flames, and The Amsterdam News ran the front page headline: "100,000 in March to Capitol." If it was a simply tactic of bluffing, the same tactic was shared by black press as a whole. The Chicago Defender, after its initial skepticism, "spoke of 50,000 preparing for a March for jobs and justice".[13]

Communist appeal[edit]

The MOWM had a peculiar relationship with communist organizations in the U.S. While the idea of proletariat uprising was attractive to some Communists, "they constantly drew a line between the 'job-march' and its 'war-mongering leadership.'" Randolph used various tactics to avoid Communist membership in the March on Washington Movement. One of the most effective was restricting membership to African Americans. Although this didn't exclude black Communists, only a small percentage of the disciplined Communist party members were black.[14]

See also[edit]




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