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Albert Parker

Negro March Leaders Yielded to FDR

In Calling Off Protest Against Jim Crowism, Randolph Betrayed People

(5 July 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 27, 5 July 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Negro March on Washington, scheduled for July 1, has been called off.

Thousands of Negroes, preparing to leave for the demonstration, with the promises of the official March leaders still ringing in their ears, at the last minute heard A. Philip Randolph, over the radio Saturday night, declare that “the March is unnecessary at this time” and therefore the committee in charge has called it off.

Thus ended a hectic ten day period during which the Roosevelt administration had used every ace it had up its sleeve and which ended in the March being called off only because the Randolph-White leadership was willing to “compromise” and call it off if they were offered something they could use to save face before the thousands who insisted on the March going through until all their demands were granted. Roosevelt finally granted them this face-saving device in his “executive order” of Jurie 25.

Last week The Militant reported that the leaders of the March were being subjected to all kinds of pressure from their “friends” in the administration, but that they were forced to resist it because nothing concrete had been offered them as a bribe to call off the March. Then Randolph and Walter White were called to Washington.

Roosevelt’s Line

Here, at a conference attended by many government officials, Roosevelt condescended to give his own views on the March.

He declared that the March was bad and unintelligent. He said that the March would give the impression to the American people that Negroes are seeking to exercise force to compel the government to do certain things and that this attitude would do more harm than good.

(What the Negroes are really trying to get the government to do is to live up to the laws of the United States, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which are supposed to guard all races against discrimination!)

Although Randolph pointed out that the demands of the marchers were completely just and reasonable, Roosevelt persisted that it was a grave mistake and would not accomplish the object sought, but on the contrary might create serious trouble. He did not state what this serious trouble was, nor who would create it. “What would happen if Irish and Jewish people were to march on Washington?” was the kind of argument he used.

Roosevelt refused to speak to the marchers, claiming that it is his policy not to talk to any groups who come to Washington. White replied that the president had spoken before the American Youth Congress a little over a year ago. Roosevelt became a little confused and said, “And you see what happened, too,” referring to the fact that he had been booed by part of his audience.

FDR Defends Jim Crow

When it was pointed out to Roosevelt that Negroes in the Navy are permitted to serve only in the most menial and low-paid capacities, his reply was that the stokers on the ships pefformeci even more menial work than the messmen. He deliberately avoided the point that white men, who serve as stokers, can also serve elsewhere, while Negroes are not permitted to serve anywhere but in the mess department.

Roosevelt then rose to go, saying that he wanted to see discrimination against Negroes eliminated in the war industries, and that he wanted the conference to continue without him. He suggested that perhaps much could be accomplished along these lines if a board were set up which would receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in industry.

Sidney Hillman’s Alibi

Sidney Hillman claimed progress was being made by his office in breaking down discrimination. He was then asked if his office would withdraw a contract from a business concern that practiced discrimination. He evaded the question by saying that there are many factors involved and that “national defense has to come first.”

In other words, the preparations for a fake war for democracy abroad are more important to him than the question of democracy at home.

Knudsen’s Line

Knudsen stated that he did not think an executive order necessary, that “more can be done through persuasion and education than through force.”

This is the administration’s attitude when it crimes to dealing with the employers, but not when it comes to dealing with the workers, as was shown in the governmental strikebreaking at Inglewood, California.

Secretary Knox’s Policy

Then Secretary of the Navy Knox said he wanted to ask Randolph a direct question and that he hoped he would receive an honest reply. “Do you take the position that Negro and white sailors should be compelled to live together on ships?” Randolph replied in the affirmative, and Knox stated lamely that “in time of national defense, experiments of this kind cannot be carried on.” Here better than anything else is an indication of where the administration realty stands on Jim Crowism. For if the head of the Navy believes that it is a dangerous experiment for Negro and white to work together on ships, how can anyone expect the Administration to be sincere iri its efforts to see to it that Negro and white work together in the factories?

A committee headed by LaGuardia was finally set up to make recommendations to Roosevelt, but as the conference ended it was still clear that no gains had been made, and Randolph again issued a statement that the March was still to be held.

The March leaders were under pressure not only from Roosevelt, but also from the masses supporting the March and insisting that it be carried out unless their full demands were granted. These full demands were for

the abolition of discrimination by the employers in industry and by the government in all its departments, including civil service jobs and the armed forces. The form of the demand was that Roosevelt should instruct the OPM, through a presidential proclamation or “executive order,” to withhold contracts from those companies practicing discrimination; and by virtue of his power as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces to order an end to discrimination in all governmental departments.

Randolph Caves In

On the evening of June 25, as the important Harlem March committee was making its final preparations for the March and a demonstration at New York City Hall before that, a telegram arrived from Randolph proclaiming “victory” and ordering the March to be held up.

Instead of securing the agreement of the local committees to calling off the March, Randolph went on the radio Saturday evening.

In his address, entitled A Pledge of Unity, he declared that the March was “unnecessary at this time” and then referred to and quoted an “executive order” issued by Roosevelt on June 25. He explained that the Committee had been intent on going through the March until they got something with “teeth in it.” Now they had the “executive order.”

What Randolph Got

In the order Roosevelt says:

“I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color or national origin, and I do hereby declare that it is the duty of employers and of labbr organizations, in furtherance of said policy and of this order, to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin;

“And it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. “All governmental agencies concerned with vocational and training programs for defense production shall take special measures to assure such programs are administered without discrimination;

2. “All contracting agencies of the Government of the United States shall include in all defense contracts hereafter negotiated by them a provision obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin;

3. “There is established in the Office of Production Management a Committee on Fair Employment Practice” consisting of five members to be appointed by the President. “The Committee shall receive and investigate complaint? of discrimination in violation of the provisions of this order and shall take appropriate steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid.”

What Negroes Didn’t Get

It does not require great study of this document to understand that while it certainly is an executive order, it is not the executive Order demanded by the Marchers.

The most obvious shortcomings in the document are that it refers only to “defense” industries; it does not say a word about discrimination and segregation in the governmental departments and in the armed forces. Even Randolph had to recognize this in his speech. But Randolph says nothing about the fact that the order refers only to contracts “hereafter negotiated” and thus leaves untouched the 15 billion dollars worth of contracts already negotiated. But even this is not the main point.

The order provides that future contracts must have a provision obligating the contractor not to discriminate. That is all right. But the question is – and this goes to the heart of this particular problem – suppose the contractor gets the contract containing this provision, and continues to practice discrimination? What will happen then?

The answer is: The contract will not be withdrawn. This was what was asked of Roosevelt. The fact that he didn’t include it in his order is proof that contracts won’t be withdrawn.

We have a direct precedent for our answer to this question. When the different departments of the government negotiate contracts nowadays, they include a clause providing that the contractor must live up to federal laws, including the National Labor Relations Act, Walsh-Healy Act, etc. Yet it is a well-known fact that the army one navy have refused to withhold contracts from bosses who consistently violate these laws. The whole labor movement has fought time and again to get the government to withhold or withdraw contracts from such anti-labor employers. The government has the power to do so, according to the laws – but it has always refused to use them.

No Real Victory

That is why we can say categorically that if the government would not crack down on the employers for violating the labor laws, it certainly won’t crack down on them for violating the president’s executive order “abolishing” discrimination. You see they are concerned first and foremost about “national defense” and “Uninterrupted production.” If this is the case, and all the evidence points that way, then the March was called off without any thing fundamental having been won.

We could understand, although we would not agree to it, calling off or postponing the March for tactical reasons, after winning a partial victory that would meanwhile build up and maintain the morale of the Negro people.

But nothing was won, nothing at all, but a recognition by Roosevelt that a problem exists and an executive order that changes nothing basic and sets up the 88th committee to investigate and recommend.

Damned by Own Words

Everything Randolph and White said a week ago about the memorandum still applies today. “It is not a proclamation or executive order which would give assurance of discontinuance of discrimination.” “What Negroes want now is action, not words.”

Randolph last week said: “Let the masses speak!” But now he says, “I’ll decide the questions, not you.” Randolph said, “Let the masses march!” Now he says, “It is unnecessary at this time.” Randolph stands condemned by his own words. If there is anyone who still doubts this, let him go back into the files and read the statements Randolph made when he declared the March was necessary.

Keep Committees Intact

Partly in order to cover up his own betrayal of the March, Randolph has called “upon the Negro March on Washington Committees in various sections of the country to remain intact in order to watch and check how industries are observing the executive order the President has issued.”

We of the Socialist Workers Party also want to warn the members of the local committees that their job is far from done.

Do not disband your committees, but on the contrary, build them stronger and larger. Get more members, more organizations, more trade unions to join in the fight. The mere threat of a March frightened Washington half out of its wits. Further organization, careful study of the problems involved, greater militancy will bring real concessions.

No More Sellouts!

And in addition to building the committees, the rank-and-file Negroes must take some steps to see to it that they are not again sold out. This movement does not belong to Randolph and Co. It belongs to the Negro masses, to those who contributed their time and their money to building up the movement – without which Randolph would not have been permitted to enter even the back door of the White House.

The movement belongs to the masses, and it is they who must decide its policies. This time Randolph cannot complain that there is no time for such things. Let the masses decide the policies of the movement, and let them select its leaders, let them appoint people whom they can trust to follow out their directions and aspirations.

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