Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Greatest March

I've been thinking about this since the Martin Luther King holiday. What was the greatest Civil Rights march of all time?

My pick is the hundred-thousand-strong March on Washington of July 1, 1941. It broke down more doors for black Americans than any single event in modern history, and it reversed two generations of hardening racism in the United States.

Because it never happened.

It all begins with Asa Philip Randolph (1889-1979), a Florida native who moved to New York in hopes of being a Shakespearean actor but ended up a full-time civil rights agitator. He paved the way for Martin Luther King Jr. in every important regard.

In 1925 Randolph was chosen to head the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, a union of Pullman car workers. If you're familiar with the America of those times, you'll realize that this was an all-black union. Randolph never worked on a Pullman car a day in his life. That's why he was chosen to head the union: He was someone the company couldn't punish by firing him.

In 1940, America was gearing up for war. People today tend to forget this; we have been taught to think of Pearl Harbor as a sneak attack against a nation slumbering in peace. But Roosevelt had already begun to build up the military, and he had instituted a draft. What made Pearl Harbor such a surprise is that the war we expected to fight was against Germany.

Yet pacifist and isolationist tendencies ran deep in America, as did antipathy to the British and the Soviets -- the two powers then in the field against Hitler. Roosevelt knew he would have a difficult time selling the coming war to the American people, as Wilson did in 1917. He would have to frame it as a moral crusade, a clash of civilizations, or rather, a contest between democracy and despotism (pay no attention to those Soviet purges).

Enter Asa Randolph. As the federal government began to spend millions on defense, in a nation still crippled by the Depression, Randolph went to work to end racial discrimination in the defense industry and the armed forces. Perhaps it was his theatrical background that led him to the notion of a mass march on Washington, D.C., which was booming in the build-up to war. He proposed such a tactic in December 1940. The NAACP and the New Negro Alliance and the black churches got behind it, and soon there was talk of 100,000 black Americans demonstrating in front of Congress and the White House against discrimination on government-financed jobs.

There never had been such an event in American history. It was the idea of it that sparked fear in Roosevelt and his cabinet. What would happen? One thing was certain; it would be reported around the world, at just the time America was building its case for being a society superior to the totalitarian Nazi order that Jesse Owens had humiliated in 1936.

"What will they think in Berlin?" government officials asked.

Randolph was summoned to White House and asked to call it off. He refused. Roosevelt called him back and asked him what it would take to change his mind. Randolph asked for an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in defense plants. Roosevelt agreed, and the march was called off.

Executive Order 8802 was issued June 25, 1941. It forbid discrimination by race, creed, color, or national origin in any defense plant with federal contracts. "[I]t was the first presidential order protecting blacks since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863" [Gregor Dallas, "1945," p.217]. Roosevelt created a new agency -- the Fair Employment Practices Committee -- to see that it was enforced.

The defense jobs were open to black Americans. This helped spark the mass exodus of blacks out of the South that changed America. It not only directly led to the birth and growth of a black middle class, but it also sparked a severe white backlash in Northern and Western states that had till then kept their black populations small and dispersed. Within a few years, brutal race riots had broken out in Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities. The Civil Rights Movement became a national crisis and a national cause.

Six years later, after the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1947, Randolph demanded that the government integrate the armed forces. He founded the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation and urged young men, both black and white, to "refuse to cooperate with a Jim Crow conscription service." Threatened with widespread civil disobedience and needing the black vote in his 1948 re-election campaign, President Harry Truman on July 26, 1948, ordered an end to military discrimination "as quickly as possible."

Eventually, threats were not enough, and the civil rights leaders began to march and protest in fact. At first, presidents like Kennedy panicked and tried to stop the marches. But eventually they realized they could survive them. The marches led by King were the high point of the movement, but it seems since then that each one has been less effective, less feared. They've become almost as toothless as annual holiday float parades.

The power of the threat turned out to be greater than the muscle of the reality. But the marches continue. Marching and protesting is a fixed fact, but to what end? Too many of the people who claim King's mantle seem to regard marches as goals, not tactics. Randolph never seems to have forgotten to keep his eyes on the prize, not the march.

The threat of a domestic civil rights protest was especially potent when America was on the brink of war, and was wrapped up in its sense of itself as a morally superior nation -- confronted with the Nazis under Roosevelt or the Soviet empire under Kennedy. In fact, the periods of history when America takes its virtues most seriously are those when it is most ripe for social justice movements to effect change. Progressives, rather than pooh-poohing Americans' sense of exceptionalism, ought to be encouraging it -- then encouraging us to live up to the ideal.

They would take a tip from Asa Randolph if they knew what was good for them or cared about results more than marches.

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