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Albert Parker

The Negro March on Washington

(June 1941)


From Fourth International, Vol.2 No.5, June 1941, pp.154-156.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


A committee of prominent Negroes, headed by A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters, is now engaged in furthering a march on Washington, which is scheduled to take place on July 1st.

Randolph has correctly described the national industrial and military situation:

“The whole National Defense Set-up reeks and stinks with race prejudice, hatred and discrimination ...

“Responsible committees of Negroes who seek to intercede in behalf of the Negro being accorded the simple right to work in industries and on jobs serving National Defense and to serve in the Army, Navy and Air Corps, are given polite assurance that Negroes will .he given a fair deal. But it all ends there. Nothing is actually done to stop discrimination.

“It seems to be apparent that even when well-meaning, responsible, top government officials agree upon a fair and favorable policy, there are loopholes, and subordinate officers in the Army, Navy and Air Corps, full of race hatred, who seek its contravention, nullification and evasion.”

Randolph has had to recognize the impotence and weaknesses of the current Negro leadership and their methods, even though he has many words of praise for them:

“Evidently, the regular, normal and respectable method of conferences and petitions, while proper and ought to be continued as conditions warrant, certainly don’t work. They don’t do the job.”

And, on the same theme, in another article:

“Negroes cannot stop discrimination in National Defense with conferences of leaders and the intelligentsia alone. While conferences have merit, they won’t get desired results by themselves.”

Randolph states the need for organization and action by the Negro masses:

“Power and pressure do not reside in the few, the intelligentsia, they lie in and flow from the masses. Power does not even rest with the masses as such. Power is the active principle of only the organized masses, the masses united for a definite purpose.”

And then he calls for action in the form of a march of 10,000 Negroes to Washington:

“On to Washington, ten thousand black Americans! Let them swarm from every hamlet, village and town; from the highways and byways, out of the churches, lodges, homes, schools, mills, mines, factories and fields. Let them come in automobiles, buses, trains, trucks and on foot. Let them come though the winds blow and the rains beat against them, when the date is set. We shall not call upon our white friends to march with us. There are some things Negroes must do alone. This is our fight and we must see it through. If it costs money to finance a march on Washington, let Negroes pay for it. If any sacrifices are to be made for Negro rights in national defense, let Negroes make them. If Negroes fail this chance for work, for freedom and training, it may never come again. Let the Negro masses speak!”
 

Why We Support the March

The Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyist movement in this country, was among the first to hail the progressive character of the proposal to march on Washington.

It should be obvious, however, that our support of a march on Washington does not depend on any of Randolph’s ideas at all. We support a militant action, not Randolph’s reasons for it. We do this in the same way that we would support a strike of the union of which Randolph is president, in spite of our sharp differences with Randolph on many basic questions.

That is to say, our support of the march, while full and wholehearted, is not uncritical. We feel it our duty, as part of our fight for full social, economic and political equality for the Negroes, to indicate mistakes and shortcomings where we see them, and to urge Negro militants to correct them.

Randolph says again and again in his articles: “Let the masses speak.” But the masses had nothing to say about the composition of the Committee or its functions. This Committee has taken on itself the sole right of determining the slogans to be used and the work to be done in Washington.

A representative conference should have been called together before the final plans were adopted. At such a conference, representatives of different organizations that want to participate in the march could have worked out policy and strategy and elected a leading committee. This would have enabled participating organizations to help work out the policy, instead of putting them in a position, as Randolph has done, where they have only the choice of carrying out the Randolph Committee’s decisions or just not participating. Such a conference would have increased not only the publicity for the march, but it would also have improved the morale of those participating. The Negro workers would then really have felt that this was their march; something that is not truly accomplished by the mere device of excluding white workers.

Nor can Randolph object that “there wasn’t time for that; we’d have wasted valuable time.” This is not true. There was plenty of time for it between the time Randolph first presented the proposal in January and the time the hand-picked Committee issued the call in May.

Furthermore, at the time this is written, during the first week in June, less than a month before the march is to take place, there is no evidence that the masses, even on the eastern seaboard, have yet been reached and aroused by the organizers of the march. Most workers haven’t even heard about it.

It is to be hoped that, in spite of the slow beginning, the masses and especially the workers in the trade unions, will be mobilized to support the march during the weeks that still remain. The Socialist Workers Party is doing what it can to influence advanced workers to participate in this action. But if the march fails because of lack of support from the workers, it will be directly attributable to the bureaucratic organization of the whole affair.

In spite of many militant words, the Committee’s Call To Negro America suffers from the same half-heartedness that has characterized the other attempts by “respectable” Negro leaders to win concessions.

Certainly one of the key questions to be faced by any movement is the question of the war and the capitalist demand for “National Unity.” The exploiters mean that the workers should stop asking for higher wages and better conditions until the war is over. For the Negroes “National Unity” means suspension of the fight for equal rights until after the war is over.

The Randolph Committee has no forthright answer to this question. Instead, it says:

“But what of national unity? We believe in national unity which recognizes equal opportunity of black and white citizens to jobs in national defense and the armed forces, arid in all other institutions and endeavors in America. We condemn all dictatorships, Fascist, Nazi and Communist. We are loyal, patriotic Americans, all.

“But, if American democracy will not defend its defenders; if American democracy will not protect its protectors; if American democracy will not give jobs to its toilers because of race or color; if American democracy will not insure equality of opportunity, freedom and justice to its citizens, black and white, it is a hollow mockery and belies the principles for which it is supposed to stand.”

Why all those ifs? Don’t the Committee’s members know very well what is going on? Is there any real doubt in their minds as to exactly what is happening to the Negro? Hidden behind the ifs is a potential surrender of the fight for the rights of the Negro people. The bosses will think: “Never fear; this. is only another bunch of people who are urging us to be good, but who are pledging their loyalty in advance.”

Because the Committee is afraid to take an out-and-out position on this question, it weakens the effectiveness of the march. There can be only one correct answer to “National Unity”: unity of the Negroes with the white worker against their common enemy and exploiter.

This is not the only instance of the Call for the march making concessions to the ideas looked on with favor by the ruling class. In another place it says:

“However we sternly counsel against violence and ill-considered and intemperate action and the abuse of power. Mass power, like physical, when misdirected, is more harmful than helpful.

“We summon you to mass action that is orderly and lawful, but aggressive and militant, for justice, equality and freedom.

“Crispus Attucks marched and died as a martyr for American independence. Nat Turner, Demark Vesy, Gabriel, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass fought bled and died for the emancipation of Negro slaves and the preservation of American democracy.”

Our criticism of this section of the Call should not be mistaken to mean that the Socialist Workers Party is in favor of “ill-considered and intemperate action” or anything of the kind. Not at all.

But who is served by this reassurance that everything is going to be nice and respectable and within the “lawful” bounds established by the ruling class and its anti-labor, Jim Crow legislatures and courts?

If we are going to talk about history, let us talk about it correctly. Did King George the Third think that Crispus Attucks’ action was “lawful”? Did the slaveholders of Virginia think that Nat Turner was “orderly”?

The trouble is that the Randolph Committee members are too much concerned about what the powers that be may think about them. And as long as that is true, they lead a halfhearted fight, in spite of all their talk about agressiveness and militancy.
 

What Shall the Marchers Demand?

The central demand of the Committee is that Roosevelt issue an executive order abolishing discrimination in all government departments, the armed forces and on all jobs holding government contracts. This Roosevelt will be asked to do when he is asked to address the marchers. The local demonstrations are supposed to ask their city councils to memorialize the president to issue such an order.

To fully understand this proposal, one should read the article written by Randolph himself, explaining the theory behind this demand. Printed in the April 12th Afro-American, it began this way:

“President Roosevelt can issue an executive order tomorrow to abolish discrimination in the Army, Navy, Air Corps, Marine, and on all defense contracts awarded by the Federal Government, on account of race or color, and discriminations against colored people would promptly end.” (Our emphasis).

If Randolph’s statement means anything at all, it means that discrimination and segregation continue to exist in the government, the armed forces and in industry, only because the President hasn’t issued an order abolishing discrimination and segregation.

Can Randolph really believe that? He must know that Jim Crowism does not depend for its existence on the lack of executive orders abolishing it. Jim Crowism exists because it serves the interests of the capitalist ruling class to keep the working class divided and split along racial lines.

We are ready to support the Randolph Committee’s demand for President Roosevelt to issue an executive order abolishing discrimination. To force him to issue such an order would be a step forward in the struggle for abolition of racial discrimination. But only a step. Roosevelt’s executive order would not be so very much more weighty than the laws and rulings and orders already on the books prohibiting discrimination. In spite of them, Jim Crow rides high.

Randolph should recall one of the statements he made when he first called for the march:

“... even when ... top government officials agree upon a fair and favorable policy, there are loopholes, and subordinate officers in the Army, Navy, and Air Corps, full of race hatred, who seek its contravention, nullification, and evasion.”

How can Randolph square his January statement with his statement in April that a presidential decree would “promptly” end discrimination?

An executive order abolishing discrimination would remain largely on paper, as long as control of industry, military training and the government remain in the hands of the enemies of the Negroes.

A movement that denies these facts or tries to ignore them cannot successfully lead the struggle for full equality. A movement that shuts its eyes or refuses to open them is good only for sleeping.
 

The Workers, Black and White, Must Control

Negroes must fight for more than a presidential executive order. They must fight for a program that will take control out of the hands of the enemies of the Negro people.

Employers controlling the war industries won’t hire Negroes? Then have the government take those industries over, and let them be managed and operated without discrimination by committees elected by the workers!

Negroes need military training in this epoch when all major questions are decided arms in hand. But the army bureaucrats are bitterly anti-Negro and determined to “keep them in their place.” Therefore, Negroes must join the fight for military training, financed by the government but under control of the trade unions, based on full equality for the Negroes!

The government and the capitalist parties aid the bosses in segregating and discriminating against the Negro people, refusing to pass such elementary legislation as punishing lynching and granting the Negroes in the South the right to vote. Therefore aid in the formation of an independent labor party pledged to carry on the Negroes’ struggles. An independent labor party pledged to establish a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government that would create a new society that would forever abolish poverty, war and racial discrimination!

Such a program, aimed at putting control of their destiny into the hands of the workers themselves, black and white – in military training, in industry, in politics – this must become the program of the militant Negro workers. This is the road to jobs and equality.

The Negro misleaders will say that this program is impractical and Utopian. That is what Uncle Tom said about freedom for the slaves.

But the fighting program we propose is infinitely more realistic than expecting Roosevelt – the partner of the Southern Democrats, ally of the British Empire which oppresses Negroes on every continent – to abolish discrimination.

The Socialist Workers Party supports the march on Washington. We call on the negro workers to bring forward in the march a really militant program. If this is done, the march on Washington, whatever its immediate results, would serve to be an important stage in the fight to change the world.


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