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Ria Stone

Negroes, March on Washington!

(June 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 26, 29 June 1942, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Negro people are justly proud of their demonstration at Madison Square Garden on June 16. Out of New York’s 330,000 Negroes, 20,000 attended.

The Negro who formed, the backbone of that rally was the “New Negro,” as many speakers noted. Sticking out his jaw instead of turning the other cheek, the “New Negro” is ready to fight for his democratic rights now. He wants social, political and economic equality everywhere.

From the militancy of the gathering, several things are unmistakably clear.

The Negro masses recognize that their main enemy rules in the Jim Crow Congress, in the administrative departments, and among the Southern bourbons. They are ready for action against this enemy. And they are seeking leadership to carry them into action through a concrete and immediate program to gain their democratic rights. Today, even more than in 1941, the Negroes are ready to march upon Washington.

Any speaker at the rally could have established himself as a real leader of the Negro masses by saying: “We’ve had enough! We’re ready to march NOW!” By saying that, he would have provided the kind of leadership demanded by the Negro masses. This is clear from the play staged at the rally which told the stark truth of the Negro masses’ feelings about the last war and this war.

Negro “Leaders” Trail Masses

However, most of the so-called “Negro leaders” are not leading the Negro masses but trailing behind them. They are making a minimum response to mass pressure instead of developing this mass pressure to its maximum strength.

One Negro “leader” after another sought by his lengthy eloquence to outdo the preceding speaker in repeating the multitude of grievances and bitter miseries which the Negro masses already know so well. Not one of these “leaders” proposed a concrete series of actions for the Negro masses to follow to realize the demands of the eight-point program advanced by the March on Washington Committee.

But orators the Negro people have always had. What they are looking for today is the “New Negro” among their leaders to match the “New Negro” who makes up the masses.

Of the galaxy of Negro speakers at the rally, only two – A.C. Powell, Jr., New York City Councilman and editor of the People’s Voice, and A. Philip Randolph, national director of the March on Washington Committee and president of the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters – appear to the Negroes as candidates to lead them in their struggle.

Powell’s appeal rests on his noisy and frank self-advertising and on the seemingly militant slogans which make up his speeches. However, an analysis of Powell’s speeches and of his editorials in the People’s Voice shows very clearly that Powell, like the Stalinists with whom he is closely associated, pleads for the breaking down of Jim Crow primarily on the basis that this is a factor which would help the United Nations to win the war.

Negroes Apathetic to the War

The Madison Square Garden rally clearly demonstrated that direct exhortations to support the imperialist “war for democracy” receive only a lukewarm response from the Negro masses who have never known “democracy” at home. For the most part, the Negro views the imperialist war as creating a domestic emergency which requires his Jim Crow oppressor to grant some concessions in the Negroes’ struggle for democratic rights at home. The capitalists need the support of the Negro masses in order that their imperialist objectives may be achieved. In the case of the Negroes, who have had nothing, they have had to grant a few concessions in order to gain even a minimum of support for the imperialist war.

Randolph recognizes this element of urgency and embarrassment in the Jim Crow administration of a country; which is presumably fighting for the “four freedoms” abroad. The Negro masses have found talk of the “four freedoms” in America a mockery and a fraud. Randolph, therefore, brands American democracy a “miserable failure.” Asking America to justify herself before the bar of world opinion, Randolph hopes to capitalize on the embarrassment of the American capitalist class to achieve substantial concessions for the Negro masses.

The Role Of A. Philip Randolph

Unlike Powell, who is mainly interested in “Winning the War for Democracy,” Randolph’s main interest appears to be in “Winning Democracy for the Negro.” It is this emphasis on Negro rights which constitutes Randolph’s main source of strength among the Negro masses. That is why many Negroes trust in Randolph’s political sagacity to gain them concessions through negotiations. But they stand ready to exert the necessary mass pressure to back up negotiations whenever they are given the opportunity.

Randolph, however, regards President Roosevelt as the “world’s greatest champion of democracy.” As he has said: “We believe we are upholding your [Roosevelt’s] hand when we fight for the ‘four freedoms’ for Negroes in our land.” It is Randolph’s confidence in Roosevelt which leads him to stress the value of negotiations in achieving the Negroes’ objectives, and also to support Roosevelt’s war for the “four freedoms” abroad.

What Randolph does not point out to the Negro masses is the fact that Roosevelt, whatever may be his personal humanitarian “sympathies” for the Negro people, depends for his political strength on the Jim Crow congressmen and the Jim Crow employers whom these congressmen serve.

The Negro masses cannot rely upon the hope of charity from their liberal and humanitarian “friends.” Whatever they achieve in the Way of substantial concessions will not be a gift of Roosevelt’s “democratic” spirit, but conquests wrested through their demonstrations of strength. Organized mass pressure through meetings like the Madison Square Garden rally and through a March on Washington must buttress any negotiations.

Randolph does not point out that Roosevelt and his government are part of a capitalist society which exploits all labor and especially colored labor.

A greater consciousness of this fact on the part of the Negro masses would start them on the road to making demands and proposing measures of a militant, class nature. A fear of such militant class action which can turn in a revolutionary direction largely explains Randolph’s continual putting off of the March on Washington, which he might not be able to control. Randolph prefers to use only the threat of such a march to wrest concessions.

The Brevity of Randolph’s Garden Speech

This fear of a mass action which he may not be able to curb may also partially explain the brevity of Randolph’s remarks at the Madison Square Garden rally. At the March on Washington Committee meeting a week before, Randolph said to a few hundred Negroes: “If they don’t break down the Jim Crow policy, we are going to march!” In a press release after the Tuesday night rally, Randolph again said:

“If the President does not issue a war proclamation to abolish Jim Crow in Washington, the District of Columbia and all government departments and the armed forces, Negroes are going to MARCH, and we don’t give a damn what happens!

If Randolph had said these words to the 20,000 Negroes assembled in Madison Square Garden, the masses would have shown with a tremendous outburst of applause and enthusiasm their full agreement with this proposal. They would have left the Garden with full confidence and belief that Randolph and the March on Washington Committee intended to go ahead with all necessary militant means to achieve the eight-point program. By his failure to speak out clearly at the meeting, Randolph tended to dissipate the spirit of the Negro masses.

Randolph explained the brevity of his remarks at the rally by stating that the hour was late. However, at such a significant gathering, the leader of the Negro masses should have made sure that he would be able to make a full address. Randolph also explains his failure to address the meeting by stating that the “main objective” had been achieved with the “assembling of the Negro people. The whole objective was to corral the Negroes so that they might exemplify by their unity their desire to secure the eight points.”

In other words, Randolph believes that the measures taken thus far are all that are necessary at this stage of the Negroes’ struggle for their democratic rights.

A March on Washington Is Needed Now

Examination of the March on Washington movement, however, leads to the conclusion that the Madison Square Garden rally, a significant mass action, must be supplemented by the announcement of a date in the near future for a mass march on Washington. Mere threats of such a march, while not unimportant, can only obtain, as in 1941, executive orders, which do not abolish Jim Crow in the defense industries, in the civil service, or in the armed forces, as the Negroes well know. To gain any substantial portion of their legitimate objectives, the Negro masses must MARCH ON WASHINGTON NOW.

* * *

The March on Washington movement thus far has been an all-Negro movement. Randolph explains this fact thus:

“The March on Washington movement believes that the Negro must assume the major responsibility for the solution of his problems and must supply the money to pay the price, make the sacrifice and lead the fight. This doesn’t mean that it is anti-white, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, anti-Holy Roller or anti-interracial.”

The White “Friends” of the Negroes

Class conscious militants recognize that many of the leaders in a movement for Negro rights must for the most part be Negroes. What seems to be strange, then, is the reported invitation by the committee to such “liberal white friends” as Pearl Buck and Wendell Willkie to address the rally. The refusal of such people to lend sanction to this meeting is clearly an indication that they are only fair-weather friends of the Negro people. They are interested in winning the imperialist war and only profess interest in the Negro struggle for that purpose. Negroes who continue to depend upon such fair-weather friends and “liberals” will continue to be disappointed.

Workers Are the Real Allies of the Negroes

What many Negroes have yet to learn and what Randolph as a trade union leader should teach them is that, in the long run, the staunchest allies of the American Negroes (who are mainly workers) are all the workers, of whatever color, race or creed. Blindness and ignorance on the part of white workers and a few labor unions has in the past and in many cases still lead the white workers to play into the hands of the bosses, who wish to divide the working class.

But, as Frank Crosswaith pointed out at the Garden rally, the fate of the Negro working men and women rests With the fate of the working class. It is both unfortunate and erroneous, therefore, that the March on Washington Committee has not and does not call upon the organized working class movement (the unions, in particular) to participate in and support the objectives of the March on Washington movement. Some sections of the organized workers’ movement, certain CIO unions in particular, are beginning to realize that discrimination against any part of the working class weakens the entire working class. Organized support by the trade union movement of the March on Washington movement will be living proof of, and will develop, the solidarity of the entire working class against the industrialists who seek to divide them.

Organized mass action of the Negro masses against their oppressors is necessary. But mass action and militancy alone within the capitalist system cannot achieve for the Negroes the full economic, social and political equality for which they have waited so long. In the final analysis, it is only when the Negro masses take the socialist roads alongside of their fellow workers at home and abroad, that social emancipation can be achieved for themselves and at the same time for all the working masses.

To take this road, the Negro masses must develop from within their ranks the leaders who understand the class nature of the Jim Crow problem and the class solution which must be achieved.

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