AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
AFAM 162 - Lecture 12 - Depression and Double V (continued)
Chapter 1. The National Negro Congress [00:00:00]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: In the last lecture I set the terms for the week’s discussion, those being retrenchment and political advancement. I wanted to make clear on Monday’s lecture that the Scottsboro boys and the Black Cabinet represent two ends of a spectrum of political possibilities of black America in the 1930s. They are together articulating a new voice, a new vehicle to communicate responses to and articulations of possibilities, but coming from very different places in very different ways. The Scottsboro boys reaches back to a past of social control, certainly, but also representing in the Scottsboro boys case, in the way the Communist Party gets involved, that there’s a new mentality at work in black America, and new values in–or being seen–the, the, the accused being seen as commodities on a political battlefield. And the Black Cabinet represented the best possible world of new political insiderism at the national level, in a different way than the Scottsboro boys, serving as important symbols of blacks’ centrality to the political realm.
Now I wanted to continue the discussion along those lines and to–these–I’m sorry–these are the themes for this week. I want to continue the discussion along these lines, but focusing upon the National Negro Congress, the Marian Anderson Easter Sunday Concert, and the March on Washington movement. This–the events for this lecture are essentially the second half of the 1930s. But it’s important to realize, the things I was talking about in Monday’s lecture are overlapping, many of the events I’m talking about today. These are all happening in the course of the decade, but certainly at some point all happening at the same time.
Let me start with the National Negro Congress. The National Negro Congress–for some reason, this is a lecture I wrote down a lot of notes for you guys, and I’m not sure really why. Maybe I was being generous. I don’t know. Anyway, the National Negro Congress has its start in the National Industrial League. It forms in 1933. This is a response to the development of, well, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and agencies like the National Recovery–well, an early incarnation, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and how this organization was not going to care about setting wage, setting minimum wages for agricultural workers or for domestic workers. And two men get together, Robert C. Weaver and John P. Davis, and start–black men, and start testifying before Congress, before the Senate, saying, you know, “This is an abomination. You’re completely wri–writing out or, or disregarding those areas that have the most important or significant black involvement.” The Negro Industrial League is a two man operation, but they fashion themselves as an umbrella group representing black interests across the country. It–It exists pretty much only in passing. Now the important part of it is that Robert C. Weaver is seen as doing such a great job, having recent–recently received his JD from Harvard, he gets incorporated into the federal government, and is one of the very first race advisors. So that’s where the Nation–the Negro Industrial League is important for bringing in one of its own into the federal bureaucracy. The other person, John P. Davis, remains an outsider, and we’ll be spending more time on Davis’s activities in the course of this lecture.
Davis organizes, in the wake of the Negro Industrial League’s collapse, the Joint Committee for National Recovery. It lasts only for two years. It too fashions itself as an umbrella organization representing blacks’ needs from across the country. Now this is a self representation. I mean these were not, you do not–You do not have all sorts of black run organizations, running to John P. Davis and the Joint Committee for National Recovery, which is essentially him and an office and a couple of figurehead people. Davis–well they aren’t running to Davis, because one, this is a new kid on the block basically. They’re still looking at organizations like, you know, churches, business associations, the NAACP, for example, but the Joint Committee for National Recovery does at least one important thing before it collapses, and it organizes a conference at Howard University. And this is a conference that is dedicated to trying to understand the economic plight of African Americans during the Great Depression and the New Deal.
Now it’s just a conference, but it brings–but it’s remarkable that it brings together people from a wide range of political backgrounds. It brings together labor organizers, agricultural workers, domestic workers, you know, people who are doing work on the ground. It brings together intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois, who’s becoming a Marxist and talking economic cooperatives along race lines, something actually in some ways looking similar to Booker T. Washington’s ideologies. It brings together leaders of the Communist Party, the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party. It brings together people from the federal government, like Robert C. Weaver now, all asking the question: what is the status of the Negro in, in the New Deal? And the result of this conference was–well, many things came out of it. One, scathing attack on the New Deal for the way it ignored blacks’ conditions on the ground, in ways I outlined briefly on Monday. It launched an investigation into communist activities at Howard University, Howard University then essentially being funded by the federal government, and essentially now still receiving most of its support from the federal government. An investigation was launched into the communist activities at Howard, and certainly there were communists on the faculty at Howard and certainly socialists as well, and certainly a lot of sympathizers. So there was an attempt to silence and actually shut down the university as a result of this conference. And most importantly, it establishes a group called the National Negro Congress. I forgot that slide. Okay, those are the notes for what I just told you.
The National Negro Congress actually does turn into that kind of umbrella organization that the Negro Industrial League and the Joint Committee for National Recovery all aspired to be. The National Negro Congress forms out of a call, I mean the Howard University Conference, “We need to organize a, a national political action group,” and it becomes the National Negro Congress, formed in 1936. The congress convenes for the first time in Chicago in thirty-six, where it’s met where–with police harassment, due to alleged communistic, communist participation. A. Philip Randolph, who we’ll be talking about more towards the end of the lecture, but for now, just to know the most important–Bless you.
The most important labor leader in black America, is elected its first president. And the National Negro Congress establishes–sorry I’m all off on my slides here today. Excuse me. It establishes a slate that’s concerning civil rights, women’s rights, labor’s rights, aid to farmers and sharecroppers. It calls for an anti-lynching law; it calls for voting rights, educational opportunities, social and unemployment insurance, and opposition to war and fascism. Civil rights, women’s rights, labor’s rights, aid to farmers and sharecroppers, anti-lynching law, voting rights, education opportunities, social un–and unemployment insurance and an oppression to war and fascism. If you think back to a few weeks earlier in the course, a large part of this slate that the National Negro Congress calls for is identical to the slate, to the manifesto, that the Niagara Movement calls for some thirty years earlier, not quite thirty years. The point is, a lot of the issues haven’t changed, despite some real changes in those thirty, thirty-one years, excuse me.
Now the National Negro Congress was not just made up of black folks getting together calling for a slate of a progressive future. It is, as the slide up here indicates, a cross section of black groups and white labor, of all different kinds of groups as far as black business bureaus, black churches, black labor organizations. The congress actively courts white labor in this regard, especially the Congress of Industrial Organization, and it sets out this agenda for change on the ground. It has, more than anything else, a labor orientation, despite even business groups being involved. It’s going to change things on the ground. And the person organizing–sort of–A. Philip Randolph is the president, but the person doing the work on a day-to-day basis is John P. Davis. He was there at the Negro Industrial League, there at the Joint Committee for International Recovery, and he’s really running the National Negro Congress. And he runs it for the length of the NNC’s existence, which is not quite a decade.
Now one of the first things the Congress does successfully, aside from just meeting, is establish a Southern Negro Youth Congress, essentially the youth arm of the Congress. The Southern Negro Youth Con–Congress had its inaugural conference half a year late in February 1937 in Richmond, Virginia, and it makes its headquarters there for a number of years. With the guidance of the Southern Negro Youth Conference leaders, it becomes a permanent organization and almost immediately organizes five thousand tobacco workers into the Tobacco Stemmers and Laborers Industrial union. Very soon after, an SNYC leads a sit down strike in–at a Virginia Tobacco Company and garn–and, and gets wage increases of twenty to thrity-three percent. This is remarkable. The Southern Negro Youth Congress, these are, these are people your age and a little bit older, going down to Richmond, Virginia, the heart of the Confederacy, and organizing black workers into a union and getting wages–wage increases for them. It’s nothing really short of astonishing.
By 1939, when the third annual conference of the SNYC gathers in Birm–gathers, they meet in Birmingham, Alabama. Over six hundred delegates are in attendance. It’s the largest conference to date. The themes of the conference revolved around citizenship, equal opportunity, and black culture. These are themes that by now must be familiar to all of you. I’ve been talking about it during this course, after all. Again, themes from the Niagara Movement, but in this case with the students, a different type of cultural emphasis. I think a hangover, in a sense, from the Harlem Renaissance. But the Southern Negro Youth Congress was not another middle-class black venture. I’m thinking too that’s sort of the cultural producers of the Renaissance. It espoused a democratic socialist vision. It was militantly interracial. It offered its full support to the Congress Industrial Organization, that breakaway set of labor unions that actually welcomed black workers. And, this is the most important part, it’s very quietly Communist. The Southern Negro Youth Congress moves its headquarters from Richmond down to Birmingham and establishes a watchdog presence in the Deep South. It wages suffrage campaigns, you know, trying to get people to vote, anti-poll tax campaigns. It tries to fight against police brutality.
Now the Southern Negro Youth Congress is important because of its Communist involvement, certainly, but also because you can see it as a preface to the civil rights activities that defined Birmingham some twenty years later, and that as we’ll see next week, you start seeing a lot of these kinds of activities in other places throughout the South, through other organizations. Now I’ll ex–expand upon this point later on. It’s very important. The Southern Negro Youth Congress is but one example that forces, if you think about it, forces a re-periodization of the Civil Rights Movement. I’ll leave that alone there for a moment. Well, the SNYC begins to fade as we get into the 1940s. Its male leaders go off to fight; its female leaders do not remain youthful. I mean, neither do the men of course, but the women are still at home. It’s no longer a “youth congress.” They’re not regenerating themselves. And the whispering about its linkage to the Communist Party really prevents it from becoming a major political force after the Soviet-Nazi pact in 1939, when the soviet–when Hitler and Stalin get together, saying, “We won’t fight against each other,” which alienates a lot of people who were supporting the Communist Party in the United States.
Meanwhile, back in the National Negro Congress, I’ll roll back the clock a few years. Randolph, A. Phil–A. Philip Randolph, he’s the president, is hearing more whispering about Communist involvement in the National Negro Congress, and he’s not happy about it. He fights–he denies it at first, goes, “No, we are, you know, we are an independent organization. Even though we’ve modeled ourselves, modeled ourselves after Communist ideologies as far as developing a Popular Front of all people from different kinds of places coming together to fight towards one goal, we are not Communists.” But then it becomes clear that Communists have infiltrated the National Negro Congress, mainly through the Congress of Industrial Organization. So white labor organizers, Randolph concludes, are bringing Communism into this organization, and he wants no part of it. Randolph, after denying it for a while, goes to the national convention in 1940 where he’s going to stand up in front of the Congress, the National Negro Congress and resign, and resign with fire, talking about how the Communists do not have our best interests at heart. He’s basically booed off the stage. I mean, the communists are now taking control of the Negro Congress. And John P. Davis, where is he through all of this? Well, he’s–he’s a communist actually. And so, you know, he’s caught in a rock and a hard place, but sides with the Congress. And that’s where he, that’s where he continues to reside for a handful more years.
Chapter 2. The Marian Anderson Easter Sunday Concert [00:16:06]
Now that’s in 1940, and Randolph’s about to go off and start something quite different in response to his departure from the Nation–National Negro Congress. And we’ll get to that towards the end of the lecture. While all of this is going on–all of this meaning the National Negro Congress becoming organized, having its conferences, turning more towards Communism and then Randolph breaking from it–you have a series of events happening on the cultural front, cultural and political front, that sort of galvanizes black opinion and leads to a new set of political possibilities, and that’s the Marian Anderson Easter Sunday concert in 1939. Marian Anderson, black woman, regarded as one of the world’s greatest living contraltos. She’s–she sings opera. Her case is well known, partly for her international stature, partly for the other high profile whites who are involved in it, and partly for the symbolic significance attached to the controversy. Let me give you the history behind it, and the controversy, and explain its significance.
Howard University School of Music had regularly been scheduling Marian Anders–Marian Anderson to come back from Europe. She was born in the U.S. but couldn’t establish a career in the U.S. She goes off to Europe and becomes a fan–a, a superstar in Europe. But Howard School of Music starts–is schedule–as her star is rising in Europe, is scheduling her to come back to the U.S. to give conf–concerts, and they’ve been on campus. As her popularity rises, they can’t house her on campus any more, and in 1936 and thirty-seven, the Howard concert had been moved to a local black high school auditorium. By 1938, Marian Anderson’s fees are such, and the demand is such, they need a larger venue in order to spon–to hold the concert. They went into the black commercial district, which is right next to Howard, went to a theater that was bigger than the black high school auditorium, had it there. In 1939, the fees are greater, the demand is greater. Where are we going to have a concert?
The School of Music goes to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR. The Daughters of the American Revolution, a social political organization–I think more social in this moment until it becomes politicized–of women who can date back their lineage to people who fought in the Revolutionary War. At that time and really only until the last ten or fifteen years, a very white organization and very conservative organization. And they manage Constitution Hall, which is the largest venue in the city. It’s still there today. Well, they go to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the School of Music does, “We’d like to have Marian Anderson performing in, in Constitution Hall. Would you let her sing there?” Now the DAR maintained a strictly segregated policy. Now in D.C. theaters, it was quite common to have segregated audiences. If blacks were allowed in, they’d only be allowed up in the balcony. You could have blacks on stage always, because they “dance so well,” they “sing so beautifully” as the stereotype goes. But DAR was different: no blacks in the audience period, and no blacks on stage. It was an all white venue all the time.
The Howard University School of Music, rebuffed by this, goes to a local white high school, which has a much larger auditorium than the black high school that had been used before and the Rialto, and it’s rebuffed again. Black leaders in the District then form the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee to fight these decisions. It’s a coalition of local clergy, teachers, civic and fraternal organizations, trying to basically knock down these doors. Behind the scenes, however, a man named Charles Houston, a lawyer at this point for the NAACP–he’s the first general counsel. He had been brought to Howard a decade earlier to reorganize its law school and starts teaching the first civil rights law classes in the country, the law school does. Charles Houston gets involved behind the scenes, as well as the NAACP. They start organizing mass meetings, letters of support start being sent in to these different organizations, and they’re focusing on the white high school. They go to–They’re going to the, the Board of Education. The Board of Education says, “Okay, we’ll, we’ll come to a compromise on this. We will allow Marian Anderson to perform at the white high school, Central High. We’ll let it be integrated. But this will be a one-time event and you may not use this”–you, the citizens organizing the committee, and quietly, Charles Houston–“you may not use this as a precedent from challenging separate but equal educational systems in the District of Columbia.”
Well, the fact is, that’s what Houston was trying to do the whole time, once he got involved, because this is a great way to break down the color line in the school system, using Marian Anderson as a symbolic vehicle. It’s a compromise the protestors refused–refused to accept and the School of Board called their bluff [laughs[–the Board of Education called their bluff. So the NAACP and Charles Houston go to the White House. They go to the White House via Mary McLeod Bethune, talked about on Monday, who gets them to have an audience with Eleanor Roosevelt; Eleanor Roosevelt who’s a member of the DAR, incredibly popular syndicated-syndicated columnist. Approaches the DAR and they tell her, “No, we’re not breaking this policy,” and she resigns in protest and writes a very famous column about this, and her embarrassment for the DAR. Eleanor Roosevelt talks to Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, himself, like Eleanor Roosevelt, considered a “friend of the race,” as what the phrase was at the time. Harold Ickes steps in and arranges a concert on Easter Sunday in 1939 for Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. As the Secretary of the Interior, he, he, he controlled the federal land and controlled what happened on the National Mall.
On the day in question, Ickes steps up to the microphone and introduces Marian Anderson. One prominent journal remarked after the fact that, I’m quoting here, “The brevity and force of his speech was destined to rival Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.” Now whether that’s true or not is a–well I don’t think we remember this speech, so it didn’t really rival the Gettysburg Address. But it is short and it is powerful. This is what he says here, one excerpt of what he says:
Professor Jonathan Holloway: You start hearing a plane flying overhead there. It was something of a circus atmosphere. He says,
It’s a powerful statement coming from a representative of the federal government. Now four hours before Ickes steps to the microphone, four hours before the concert begins, people start arriving at the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. And what they find there is really quite remarkable. D.C. is a very segregated city during this era. What they find is an absence, an absence of “colored only” sections, an absence of, you know, “White section. No colored allowed.” Seventy-five thousand people crowd the Mall, and it may not sound like a dramatic number to you in our day of, you know, millions showing up at the Mall, but this is historic. And it’s also opera, which is not known as the people’s music, right? Seventy-five thousand people crowd the Mall to hear Anderson’s performance, and an untold number of people listen to the performance on radio around the country, aired live. Planes are circling overhead trying to understand the scene that’s going on there.
This is a famous image: Marian Anderson, long fur coat, singing just with piano accompanying her. Steps up to the microphone and in a powerful yet dignified rebuke to the DAR, Anderson simply begins her concert in this way:(singing) “My country, ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;” She sounded a bit like that, maybe a bit better. Eloquent, powerful, subtle, undeniable. She is in this moment claiming the country as much–It belongs as much to her as it belongs to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Everybody there got it. She didn’t have to say, you know, “I’m so glad to be here today. It’s lovely. You know, D.C., how are you?”
You didn’t have to do that kind of stuff; simply declared, “This is my country too.” And in fact, as an aside, it’s–the inauguration of Barack Obama, something, I don’t know if I’ll talk about it or not at the end of the class, but when Aretha Franklin stands up to sing My Country, ‘Tis of Thee–she, I mean, it’s a, culturally a very dense inauguration. I mean, all inaugurations are rich with symbolism, but this one was rather remarkable. She was singing My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, for the, you know, that people would get it in the audience, but there’s a whole other level of understanding for those people who know this story and what Marian Anderson did with this particular exhortation. And I, I’ve heard, if you watched the HBO special the day before the inauguration, they explained some of this. I didn’t see it; but, and many people didn’t. The significance of Aretha Franklin’s performance of that particular song was lost on many folks, but it was a reckoning back to this moment.
The moment’s important, not just because, you know, it’s a classy way of being a civil rights protestor, but it’s important for these different reasons. With Eleanor Roosevelt and Harold Ickes giving their very public support to the, the Citizens Committee for Marian Anderson, and for the right for her to sing at the DAR, it suggests to African Americans that the federal government, at the highest levels, in the White House, “really does care about us.” They’d been working on the Black Cabinet. That’s–They’ve been going out and changing things. We’re now as a group beginning to vote for Democrats anyway, through–because of FDR. And now the First Lady, the Secretary of Interior, are saying, “Genius draws no color line.” Of course, it’s the symbolism wrapped up in performing under the protective gaze of the Great Emancipator. That’s not lost on anybody either. But it’s also felt on the very local level in ways that’s lost to history often.
When I was working on my first book, my dissertation in fact, I was interviewing a longtime D.C. resident. He was then about eighty years old. And we were just talking about this era, you know, in Washington, D.C. and, and what it meant to be black and struggle with the color line. And this concert comes up, and he said something I’ve never forgotten. And he says, this is a quote, it’s burned into my brain: “After that concert”–and he was there, I should say. “After that concert, everything looked different in America as far as blacks were concerned.” “After that concert, everything looked different in America as far as blacks were concerned.” Now he’s not talking literally, because the day after Marian Anderson sang, it wasn’t like if you were black, you could go into a local restaurant that’s not in the black section of town, or at Union Station, the only other place blacks could go for a public restaurant. You couldn’t go in someplace else and get a meal. You all of a sudden couldn’t get a job that was denied to you, you know, the week before. So in terms of literal bread and butter issues, there’s no change. But at the level of symbolic possibilities, at the level of what blacks can articulate and think as maybe achievable, fundamental change happens with this concert.
Now it’s also important because the public outcry surrounding Mary Anderson’s concert is happening in the context of a larger battle of a war or rhetoric against the Nazi doctrines of racial supremacy. So you can’t just understand this concert in the context of an event that happened in Washington, D.C., or an event that happened in the U.S. It’s an event that has global ramifications, especially for the way in which the U.S. federal government is struggling against a war of words with Nazi and–Nazi and fascist regimes. “The U.S. didn’t have a leg to stand on,” the Nazis would say, “because they’re just as racist as we are.” This is very important for the U.S. as it really does enter the Second World War and continues on through the Cold War, something I’ll touch down upon once or twice, I’m sure, in this course. As the U.S. becomes an international power, which is this part of the story, the 1920s and thirties and forties especially, its domestic politics become scrutinized much more closely. World War II, which we’re on the cusp of getting involved in, is a war to stop the spread of fascism, but if the U.S. can’t handle its own fascistic tendencies internal, it’s a war of hypocrisy.
So you start seeing there, in the Scottsboro boys, reaching back to Monday, and the way they use it as cultural markers for the Communists, Marion Anderson being used as a cultural marker of democratic possibilities, blacks being used as cultural markers of political possibilities, of what this country is supposed to be for everybody, and what the country’s supposed to be for African Americans, and what the country’s supposed to be for the world. Now this affords–oh, one other, this is a very famous image, of course, of Marian Anderson. There’s another image that I show up here just for the sake of a, a quick side lesson on how you read images. There’s a way in which, you know, we–we are, in our minds’ eye, we are here sitting just below her right shoulder, and we see dignitaries at the micro–at the, at the stand.
This image I dug up tells a very different story. Except for–I’ll use the mouse here–except for this area here, which is cordoned off for reasons I honestly don’t know, everything else you see, except for that tree line, going off to, beyond the Reflecting Pool, are people, sitting there in an integrated audience, seventy-five thousand people. It just sort of gives you a different sense of the way this might have felt if you were actually there. And because it’s harder to make out Marian Anderson, I’m as–I’m assuming that’s why this is not one of the more famous iconic pictures. You just, here’s just somebody’s back standing in front of an audience. But it really was quite a visual spectacle, and I think offers ways for you to think about how you read images, for instance, perspective being very important.
Chapter 3. A. Philip Randolph and the March on Washington Movement [00:33:38]
Now I was talking before the little caveat, I was talking about political symbolism and the roles and the ways in which African Americans were political footballs. And then I wanted to transition to a story that helps us understand how blacks start using this to their great advantage and that’s the story of A. Philip Randolph. A. Philip Randolph, whose name has come up several times already in the course, and I’m going to devote the rest of the lecture to him quickly, he is one of the most important transitional political figures in African American history. He was born in 1889, dies in 1979. I mean, the ranges of what happens in his lifetime is really astonishing. But here’s a person who’s involved in the political scene in the nineteen-teens and twenties, taking a frontline argument on issues. And he’s there in 1941 at a moment of, of powerful symbolic importance, I’ll be talking about in a moment. And he’s there in 1963 when King steps up to the microphone and delivers his “Dream” speech. Incredibly important political person. Helps us navigate from a period of Booker T. Washington political power, ideology of accommodation, and through his consistent socialist politics–Randolph couldn’t stand Communists but was an ardent socialist–transitions African American political voice to a very different kind–different kind of voice.
Now there’s three phases to Randolph’s career through 1941. In 1914, he moves to New York City, becomes witness, well part of and witness to the Great Migration and sees the way it transforms that particular urban site. He sees the NAACP and the National Urban League as people–organizations fighting out for resources–fighting over resources, certainly affecting workers’ lives by their policies, but not really at the workers’ level. NAACP being very much a top-down organization, with assimilationist and middle-class norms. The National Urban League trying to help people on the ground, but, you know, in the pocket of corporate–corporations and helping basically break up labor unions. And Randolph says, “But what about the workers themselves?” And so he starts looking around for different ways to get involved in workers’ movements, labor movements. In 1917, he declares himself a Socialist, urges blacks to resist the U.S. draft and to confine their fighting to the domestic front. He can’t stand Du Bois’s call to close our–close ranks. And around the same time he, along with another black socialist named Chandler Owen, start publishing a mess–a magazine called The Messenger. Through The Messenger, Randolph calls for a bold, black socialist leadership, calls for radicals who would not be afraid to challenge accepted notions of, of how a U.S. society should operate. If Washington is on this part of a spectrum, and Du Bois is over here on the opposite side, Randolph’s even further beyond Du Bois politically.
He and Owen are characterized as Bolsheviks by members of Congress. They’re investigated by the Department of Justice, and they declare in response, “We would be glad to see a Bolshevik government substituted in the South in place of your Bourbon, reactionary, vote stolen, misrepresentative, democratic regime.” That sounds like, you know, Black Panther talking here, doesn’t it? In 1919, Randolph says that he’s thankful for the Russian Revolution, the greatest achievement of the twentieth century. But when the American version–when the American Community Party is organized in twenty-one, Randolph remains a Socialist and dedicates the rest of his life really to preventing social–Communists from controlling or representing black America. By the mid-twenties, The Messenger as a journal is actually not doing that well. Randolph still casting about for ways in which to connect with black workers, and a labor union is being–is organized, and recognized that Randolph really has the voice that they need to be heard in a larger–a larger scene, and that’s the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids.
In twenty-five, 1925, Randolph’s recruited to head the union of Sleeping Car Porters, and then when organized, trying to get the American Federation–the Pullman Company, people who run the trains, own the trains, to recognize that union, and then the American Federation of Labor to recognize that union. Efforts are made to get better working conditions and higher wages from Pullman. Pullman refuses both and tries blackballing Randolph, tries to, you know, crush him. Randolph becomes very unpopular with black and white groups alike for his radical stances, but the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters does earn the–gather the support of the NAACP, the Urban League, and eventually the American Federation of Labor. It wins partial recognition in 1926, and in 1929, more recognition, but still not full recognition. A decade later after starting this battle, Randolph does win for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids full recognition from the AFL and, a year later, from the Pullman Porters–the Pullman porters–I mean from the AFL, ex–from the Pullman Company. The wages go up, job security goes up, benefits go up. The Pullman porters actually become a great vehicle to attain middle-class status for a segment of black America. In fact, the Pullman porters, the U.S. post, the military, over the course of the twentieth century, are the three great ways for black Americans to transition to middle-class status.
With Randolph’s victories with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids getting fully recognized finally in thirty-six and thirty-seven, he is seen as, without doubt, the most important black labor leader in the country. This is why he’s selected to run the National Negro Congress. There’s nobody else who has his access, who has his power, and his influence. But as you know, Randolph is a staunch anti-Communist, and as the National Negro Congress develops further, he realizes there’s no place for him any more in that organization. So Randolph starts thinking of a different way to achieve justice for blacks, full citizenship rights and decent jobs for blacks in the United States. The National Negro Congress is not going to be the vehicle. What Randolph sees is that as the U.S. war industry starts to develop, as it’s arming Europe–Western Europe, or the Allies, I should say–as the U.S. war machine, industrial war machine develops, these are the best paying jobs in the country, as far as, you know, factory work is concerned, and blacks can’t get those jobs. They can work–they can push a broom in the factory, but they can’t roll steel, or whatever you do in a munitions factory.
Factories run overtime. There’s money to be made hand over fist. Blacks couldn’t get those jobs. There’s movements being made to increase the size of the army, a powerfully segregated army. Randolph says, “Where do we fit in, in all of this? We’re second class in the factory and in the military.” Randolph and a group of other leaders go to Franklin Roosevelt, September of 1940, with a seven point plan, that, I mean, I’m not going to go into now in the interests of time, but essentially calling for the desegregation or the integration of the U.S. military, calling for access to all jobs in the defense industries, essentially anti-discrimination policies. The plea is ignored. FDR, always being afraid of losing his coalition of southern Democrats who would be upset by any sort of racial progressive politics. Blacks are going into the army certainly, but they’re going into all black units, trained in separate places, trained most often by white officers. A lot of the same story that you heard in World War I. Domestic hiring situation is a joke. Blacks are not being hired in factory floor jobs. As white men go off to fight in the war, white women are brought into the factory, a radical change for women’s possibilities, certainly, but black men and black women are not getting these jobs.
So in January of 1941, Randolph proposes–I mean he’s no longer with the National Negro Congress. He’s broken from them. He proposes a March on Washington, and he demands that something be done regarding black access to jobs, and of course for the integration of the military. And he calls at first for ten thousand blacks to march on Washington. And as that met with enthusiasm, he calls for fifty thousand. Then he calls for one hundred thousand blacks to march on Washington that summer, on July 1st, if there is no change. It doesn’t seem like bluster. Things have changed, on the ground and in the air. As we head into the summer, into June, people in D.C. are getting concerned. “My god, what if one hundred thousand negroes come into this city and are angry? What are we going to do?” And Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, dispatches two of his most trusted sort of network political operatives to talk with A. Philip Randolph to calm him down. He sends Fiorello La Guardia, then the mayor of New York City, liberal on race issues. “Please talk to Randolph and tell him to call off this march.” No dice. He sends his wife, the most powerful proponent on these issues in his pocket, he sends his wife. Randolph goes, “No dice. I’m not, I’m not canceling this march.” Finally FDR says, “Okay, Mr. Randolph, come to see me.”
It’s a week before the march is set to go off. Randolph goes into the White House, meets with Roosevelt. And Roosevelt says, Roosevelt says, “If you call off the march, I’ll issue an executive order with ‘teeth’ in it,” as the word was. And Randolph says, “Okay.” Roosevelt signs Executive Order 8802 on June 25th, 1941. It says there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color or national origin, and it’s the duty of the employers and of labor organizations to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries without discrimination based on race, creed, color, national origin. It sets up a Fair Employment Practices Committee that would be a watchdog organization. It couldn’t do anything but give bad publicity to a factory that’s not hiring black workers. But people didn’t want to be, to be seen somehow as un-American, so FE–FEPC could make some changes along the margins, along the edges of things.
You’ll notice that the executive order did not end segregation in the military. It’s simply calling for industry changes. Randolph doesn’t win that battle and won’t win it for a while. Now blacks hail the Executive Order 8802 as the most significant order since the Emancipation Proclamation. This is a new era, and it’s not a new era just because of what the President’s calling for. It’s on the ground, what happens is a little, a little messier. It doesn’t immediately integrate all industries. But what’s really important is the linkage now, the symbolic possibilities and real political change, and that is a prominent leader of the African American community called the President’s bluff; was called into the White House and they negotiated, face to face, to find a resolution. That’s one of the things, once the genie’s out of that bottle, it can’t go back in. So black access to the White House is now direct, to the President. Presidents from this point on cannot afford to ignore black leaders in the way they have been doing since the founding of the Republic. So you have in A. Philip Randolph and the March on Washington moment the merging of the symbolic politics of possibility and the real politics of possibility. And it is a merger that would go on to define the civil rights movement that we know about so well over the next thrity or forty years. Thank you very much.
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