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Ria Stone

“March on Washington” Movement Stirs Again

(June 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol.6 No. 23, 8 June 1942, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the spring of 1941, A. Phillip Randolph aroused the hopes of the Negro masses by proposing a March on Washington. This march was to demonstrate how Jim Crow discrimination against Negroes could no longer be tolerated. It was planned as a movement to put pressure on the Roosevelt Administration, which was then moving toward a war abroad while forms of Hitlerism against the Negro existed at home.

About a week before the scheduled march, when all over the country Negroes were preparing to move, Randolph “postponed” the march. The reason for the, “postponement” was the fact that Roosevelt, after conferences with Randolph, and in the face of a mass Negro march, issued an executive order against discrimination in the war industries. The order also set up a Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate discrimination in the war industries.

Nearly a year has passed since the issuance of that executive order, No. 8802. On all sides it is admitted that Jim Crow is still boss in the war industries. Except for a few “token” jobs, Negro workers find themselves either refused “defense” jobs or given the most menial jobs. Meanwhile grievances pile up.

Throughout the South and even in the North, scandalous pogroms, known as army camp “riots,” are visited upon Negro soldiers. Secretary Knox sets up a Jim Crow naval unit through which Negroes who aspire to be sailors can be employed in shipyards at low military pay instead of the usual civilian rates. Colored women can only obtain domestic work, despite the daily cry of the press for more women workers in the defense plants. In the South, as Mark Ethridge, former president of the FEPC recently stated, the poll tax denies to Negro workers “even the right to protest” against the exploitation of cheap labor.

Mass Pressure Needed

In the face of this mounting injustice, the March on Washington Committee in New York has planned a mass protest rally to be held at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, June 16. This mass demonstration deserves the support of every Negro. The white workers must prove their solidarity with Negro workers by showing up en masse at the Madison» Square Garden rally. MADISON SQUARE GARDEN MUST BE PACKED ON JUNE 16 WITH ALL THOSE WHO HATE DISCRIMINATION AND INJUSTICE.

The March on Washington Committee is demanding more enforcing power for the Fair Employment Practices Committee. It is demanding the opening of the armed forces to Negroes on the basis of equality. And it is demanding the abolition of all economic and political discrimination against the Negroes.

The making of these demands is obviously necessary. But even their partial achievement is possible only if they are backed up by militant mass Negro pressure and mass action, and supported by trade union and workers organizations.

But an examination of the March on Washington leaders reveals their reluctance to arouse real mass pressure. The leaders to whom the Negroes look today are those with a history of labor struggle. For example, the standing of A. Phillip Randolph in the Negro community is based upon his record of militancy in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Negroes are predominantly workers. Those to whom Negroes look for leadership are those who function as leaders of labor organizations.

Leaders Curb Mass Pressure

At present, however, the labor leaders of the Negro masses are those who prefer negotiations with the top people in Washington. They curb the natural inclinations of the masses because they, as leaders, are afraid that mass action might go “beyond bounds.”

These Negro reformist leaders make specific demands, grantable under pressure without seriously disturbing any of the powers-that-be. Such was the demand in the original March on Washington call – for an executive order to stop discrimination in industry.

The Negro people find little satisfaction in these orders. General orders to cease discrimination or specific punishments for those who have discriminated mean very little to the Negro masses. These measures are necessary and acceptable as far as they go. But the Negro masses as a whole do not have the time nor the

money through which they can bring action against discriminating firms. Such orders can help only one individual here and there – isolated cases and not the masses as a whole. They are face-saving devices for the Administration and the masses know this.

The Negro masses felt betrayed when the March on Washington was called off last year. They had been promised militant mass action but were given only wordy concessions. They were refused the opportunity to demonstrate their strength publicly. They did not get jobs en masse. They didn’t want simply an investigation of a few cases when Jim Crow pervades the whole rotten employing system.

Today the Negro masses still want to march. They want Randolph to live up to the militant words which are characteristic of his speeches. They want him to lead them into the mass actions which he has told them over and over again is the only means to achieve results. The Negro masses want a March on Washington.

Randolph Remains Reluctant

But Randolph, since Pearl Harbor, is even more reluctant than before to call for a March on Washington. Like most of the other leaders of the March on Washington movement, he supports the war for “democracy” abroad. In the New York March on Washington Committee, as reported by one of its members, there has even been discussion of “postponing” the Madison Square Garden rally because it may disturb “national unity.” But the pressure of the Negro masses is too great and it is unlikely that the leaders would dare to “postpone” even an indoor rally.

The New York March on Washington Committee raises the slogan “Winning democracy for the Negro is winning the war for democracy.” This slogan, simple and “militant” as it may sound, is nevertheless just another way of sponsoring the “Double V” campaign of the Pittsburgh Courier. Pretending to fight for democracy at home while at the same time sponsoring the imperialist war abroad, these campaigners for “Double Victory” actually straddle the issue and subordinate the struggle against domestic oppression to “national unity.”

The Negro leaders wish to be appointed to positions in the war administration to carry out more efficiently the job of rallying the reluctant Negro masses behind the imperialist war effort.

White Workers Must Support Movement

The Negro leaders are equally hesitant in calling upon white workers’ organizations for support of the March on Washington movement. They have in fact excluded white participation in the movement. From one point of view this exclusion of white participation is understandable. It is understandable that Negroes want to demonstrate their own mass strength. The development of an organized Negro mass movement and of Negro leaders is a crying need of the Negro workers. Moreover, the Negroes do not want an influx of Stalinists who may dominate the movement and then betray it if the needs of Stalin require a quick shift of the party line.

However, while excluding white workers’ participation, the March on Washington committee invites such white “friends of the Negro people” as Pearl Buck and Wendell Willkie to speak before them. The report is that both these “friends” have declined the invitation. Evidently they fear that even a Madison Square Garden Rally may disturb too drastically the “national unity” which they treasure more than the struggle for Negro rights.

Trade union and white workers’ support for the March on Washington movement is essential if the Negro masses are to achieve some of their immediate objectives and demands. Day by day, trade unions are realizing that white workers cannot be free while black workers are branded. The basic interests of the two groups of workers are identical and the colors of their skins mean nothing in their common struggle against exploitation.

The Negro workers want jobs. They want equal jobs – not Jim Crow jobs such as the Higgins and Sun Shipyard Jim Crow projects. Only when they get jobs on an equal basis with other workers will the color line be broken down politically and socially. Solidarity in the shop and in the union between black workers and white workers is the only genuine and effective weapon against Jim Crow. The employers want to segregate Negroes from other workers. They refuse to employ Negro workers on an equal basis because they fear solidarity in the working class. Racial antagonism is fostered and the supply of cheap labor can be maintained because competition between workers can be intensified on the basis of color.

The Jobs Are There

Today millions of jobs exist for all workers in the war industries. To get these jobs, despite the Jim Crow attitude and policy of the employers, the masses of Negro workers must demonstrate publicly and militantly. White workers must give their full support to these demands.

The Negroes must march on Washington to prove to government officials and. to employers all over the country the mass strength which lies behind their demands!

They must march on Jim Crow plants to prove to each employer that Negro workers will not longer stand by passively and suffer want and privation while jobs are available!

They must demand that workers, Negro and white, be the enforcing power for any executive orders ostensibly leveled against Jim Crow.

In the final analysis it is only when workers themselves, Negro and white, through their labor unions and factory committees, regulate the assignment of workers to jobs in production and in fact establish workers’ control over production, that the demands of the Negro workers can really be achieved.

The Workers Party supports the March on Washington proposal. Class conscious workers understand that through the initiative and mass actions of Negro workers in conflict with their political and economic oppressors, Negro workers will develop their class consciousness. They will thus come to realize that only by joining in class solidarity and independent class political action of all workers, Negro and white, will they enter upon the road toward the social, political and economic emancipation of all the oppressed.

The March on Washington movement can really become a mass movement if the Negro masses insist on making it their movement; if they demand of their leaders a MARCH ON WASHINGTON, and if they build a leadership which will carry out their demand.


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