By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
On January 25, 1941, just three weeks after President Roosevelt addressed the joint session of Congress, Black labor activist Asa Philip Randolph called on African Americans to march on Washington DC. He asked them to gather at the Capitol on July 1, 1941, to protest racial discrimination in the defense industries and segregation in the military.
March on Washington
In the weeks following the announcement, Asa Randolph promoted the march in the Black Worker, the official organ of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and published articles and editorials in Black newspapers. He also hit the road. He traveled to Black communities across the country, connecting with local activists. Many were Pullman porters, like E. D. Nixon, who was elected president of the Montgomery (Alabama) Branch of the NAACP in 1945. Randolph shared his vision with them and won converts to his cause.
(In the 1920s, Randolph had joined the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The organization sought to gain collective bargaining rights from the Pullman Company, which monopolized railroad car manufacturing and passenger train transportation.)
Gaining Grassroots Support
Pullman porters like E. D. Nixon were instrumental in building grassroots support for the march. Nixon generated interest in the protest by speaking at local gatherings. Porters in Oakland, California, did the same thing by holding public meetings and knocking on doors.
March on Washington Committee chapters soon sprang up in cities across the country. They coordinated fundraising, distributed promotional materials, and arranged for transportation to DC.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Size of Rallies
As winter turned into spring, enthusiasm for the march grew. In April, Randolph officially released a ‘Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense on July 1st, 1941’. He predicted that 10,000 African Americans would answer the call. And when they showed up in the nation’s capital, they would march down Pennsylvania Avenue singing ‘John Brown’s Body’ and ‘Oh Freedom’.
But as spring turned into summer, Randolph revised his estimate of the number of people he expected to attend. He moved it higher—a lot higher. By early June, he speculated that as many as 100,000 African Americans would participate in the protest.
The change reflected what was happening on the ground in cities across the country. As July 1 neared, March on Washington chapters held massive pre-march rallies; 20,000 people showed up for a rally in Chicago, while 23,000 people attended one in New York.
The size of these rallies unnerved President Roosevelt. As much as he wanted to ignore the proposed protest, he couldn’t.
Eleanor Roosevelt Meets Randolph
For months, civil rights leaders had been asking for an audience with the president to discuss discrimination in defense industries. Each request had been denied. But in mid-June, Roosevelt sent his top emissary to Black America, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to parlay with Randolph. He hoped she would be able to persuade him to cancel the march. But Randolph was unpersuadable.
He was also unflappable. When the First Lady pressed him about logistics, suggesting that there was no way he could feed and house that many Black people, Randolph quipped that the marchers would just register in hotels and order dinner in restaurants. This, of course, was a nonstarter in segregated DC.
But Randolph wasn’t concerned about comfort and convenience; neither were the multitudes preparing to make their way to DC. They were coming to change the racist status quo by disrupting the regular order of business. If Jim Crow accommodations fell in the process, all the better.
Randolph Postpones the March
Less than a week later, the president invited Randolph to meet with him. He offered the labor leader personal assurances that African Americans would be treated better in defense industries and in the military. But that wasn’t enough to convince Randolph to call off the march. Randolph wanted something far more concrete than a promise; he wanted an executive order banning employment discrimination and segregation in the military.
Roosevelt took integrating the military off the table. He didn’t think it prudent to desegregate the armed forces while the nation was preparing for war. Randolph disagreed. He believed justice was always wise.
But the president was willing to issue an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in defense industries. Randolph reviewed several drafts of the order. He liked what he read and announced on the radio that he was postponing the march.
Executive Order 8802
Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941. It affirmed “that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin”. The order also said that employers and unions had a duty to “provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries”.
To ensure compliance, the order established the Fair Employment Practices Committee and charged it with investigating complaints of discrimination and redressing grievances.
Executive Order 8802 was a huge win for African Americans. The number of Black workers in defense industries rose from just 3% in 1942 to 8% in 1945.
Common Questions about Asa Philip Randolph and Executive Order 8802
Pullman porters were instrumental in building grassroots support for the march. They generated interest in the protest by speaking at local gatherings. They held public meetings and knocked on doors. March on Washington Committee chapters soon sprang up in cities across the country, and they coordinated fundraising, distributed promotional materials, and arranged for transportation to DC.
The Executive Order 8802 affirmed “that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin”. The order also said that employers and unions had a duty to “provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries”.
To ensure compliance, the Executive Order established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and charged it with investigating complaints of discrimination and redressing grievances.