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The March on Washington of 1963 is an enduring and widely-known event of the Civil Rights movement. But the March has its roots in an earlier planned March on Washington that didn't happen. In 1941, labor leader A. Philip Randolph began planning a gathering aimed at many of the same goals as the eventual 1963 March. Today we'll learn about Randolph, Bayard Rustin, the march they planned, and the movement it inspired. We'll also talk about how the dream of the 1941 march was ultimately deferred for more than 20 years.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now! https://bookshop.org/a/3859/9780316492935

Sources and References
Cornelius Bynum, A. Phillip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights (University of Illinois Press, 2010).
John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Free Press, 2003)

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Hi, I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History. 

Many Americans are pretty familiar with the August 1963 March on Washington, largely because it's where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. But what a lot of people don't know is that there was another March on Washington that was planned more than 20 years before. And while that march didn't happen, a movement that emerged from it did. 

Today, we'll get into the history of the March on Washington Movement that started in 1941, and talk about the men who started it all. Let's start the show.

The father of the March on Washington Movement, A. Philip Randolph, was born on April 15, 1889 in Crescent City, Florida. He was raised in a home that instilled in him the values that would shape his legacy. His father, a Methodist minister named James Randolph, and his wife, Elizabeth, were ardent advocates for human rights, especially equal rights for Black Americans. 

In 1891, the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Randolph would eventually attend the Cookman Institute. Cookman, now known as Bethune-Cookman, was founded in 1872, and was one of the first colleges for Black American students. 

Early in his life, Randolph worked odd jobs and even tried his hand at acting, taking particular interest in the works of Shakespeare. But Randolph was also becoming increasingly upset by the way he saw Black workers being treated in their various jobs. He thought they weren't getting the pay, the safety, or the respect that they deserved.

Generally, if workers weren't being treated in a way that they thought was fair, they could bring it up to their labor union. These organizations, created to negotiate better working hours, conditions, and wages for skilled and unskilled laborers, grew rapidly after the Civil War.

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But not many of these unions were in the business of integrating Black workers into their ranks. Some unions said they were going to integrate, but it didn't really work out that way. 

For example, the Knights of Labor vowed to admit workers of all races, but they still allowed segregated assemblies. And the American Federation of Labor originally had a policy of non-discrimination, but found it difficult to sustain. 

Randolph, who had been inspired into activism and organizing in part after reading W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk, spoke out and called for Black Americans to have a share in these improved labor conditions. In 1917, he, alongside a man named Chandler Owen, founded The Messenger, a monthly magazine that among other things, urged Black people to demand higher wages and better conditions for their work.

And people started to listen. The publication became so influential that the Department of Justice called The Messenger "the most able and the most dangerous of all the Negro publications."

Randolph also got directly involved in organizing. In 1917, he organized union elevator operators in New York City. And in 1919, he served on the board of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America, which attempted to improve working conditions and fight discrimination in the American Federation of Labor. Both of these efforts eventually dissolved.

But in 1925, Randolph was elected the general organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And this is where things really took off.

See, in 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War, a white man named George Pullman founded the Pullman Car. This company specialized in manufacturing luxury passenger cars for trains. As the Pullman Car monopolized the train car industry, Pullman, the man, began seeking out people who had been formerly enslaved to serve as porters on his train cars. 

 

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Porters were responsible for tending to travelers, carrying their bags, and meeting all passenger-related needs. At one point in time, Pullman was the largest employer of Black Americans in the country.

But as formerly enslaved persons, these Black porters had little rights or representation. The company didn't negotiate on wages and working conditions, and basically told these Black workers they could take it or leave it, but don't even think about trying to change it.

Randolph wasn't a Pullman porter himself and had no prior connection to the Pullman Company. But as president of the organization, Randolph was on a mission to gain full inclusion into the American Federation of Labor. 

In 1926, Congress passed the Railway Labor Act, which helped the organization's effort by mandating that all disputes over wages and working conditions involving railroad employees were to be settled promptly through negotiations between labor and management, and overseen by the government-appointed Board of Mediation, without interference, influence, or coercion.

Still, Randolph faced a lot of opposition. Even a lot of Black people thought that he was unnecessarily stirring the pot. Many leaders in the Black working-class community saw Pullman porters as a saving grace at a time when finding honest, steady work for Black Americans was incredibly difficult.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he passed additional federal legislation that secured more of the rights that Randolph and the Pullman porters had been advocating for. Finally, in 1935, the Brotherhood received an international charter from the American Federation of Labor. And on April 25th, 1937, the Pullman Company relented, and signed the first ever agreement between a union of African American workers and a major American corporation.

 (06:00) to (08:00)


As a result of the agreement, the Pullman porters secured a 240 hour work month, eliminated the practice of determining rates by mileage, and secured a reasonable amount of rest during their trips. And Randolph was just getting started. 

In the lead-up to America's entry into World War II, where 1.2 million Black men would join the armed forces, Randolph believed that they should not be forced to join a segregated army, where, in the process of fighting for their country, they were still treated as second-class citizens. Randolph directly called out the hypocrisy of fighting a war against fascism abroad, while having state-sponsored segregation in your own army. 

So Randolph planned a march for 1941. And it was believed that more than 100,000 people would show up. But the last thing President Roosevelt wanted was tens of thousands of people in the streets of Washington. So in order to placate the activists, he issued Executive Order 8802, banning racial discrimination at government defense industries. The president followed up this order by establishing the first Fair Employment Practices Committee as an act of goodwill. The FEPC's mission was to investigate complaints of discrimination brought against industries receiving government contracts. 

In light of these gains, the march was cancelled. And even though Roosevelt's actions only banned segregation within war industries and not the whole armed forces, many activists still saw it as a win. And although Roosevelt created the FEPC to placate march organizers, Randolph continued the March on Washington as a movement to hold the FEPC accountable. 

In the summer of 1942, the March on Washington movement organized a series of mass public rallies. Randolph's original 1941 plans became the direct inspiration for the 1963 demonstration that would take place more than 20 years later. 

 (08:00) to (10:00)


When Randolph was organizing this march in the 1940s, a certain young man who'd become a driving force in the modern civil rights movement, was organizing right alongside him. His name was Bayard Rustin. 

Rustin was born on March 17, 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Upon moving to New York in the 1930s, he became heavily involved in pacifist groups and early civil rights protests. And in the 1950s, Rustin developed a relationship with a young Martin Luther King Jr. and became one of his key advisors. He was a devout student of Ghandi's teachings, and helped introduce Dr. King to the practice of nonviolent interracial organizing. He also participated in a predecessor of the Freedom Rides, in which young civil rights activists rode interstate busses into the segregated South to challenge the lack of enforcement of the Supreme Court decisions Morgan v. Virginia and Boynton v. Virginia, which ruled that segregated public transportation was unconstitutional. 

But Bayard Rustin didn't always get his due. Let's learn more about him in the Thought Bubble. 

In 1960, Rustin was removed from many leadership positions. When organizing the March on Washington of 1963, then NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins didn't want Rustin to receive public credit for organizing the march because, as Wilkins put it, "This march is of such importance that we must not put a person of his liabilities at the head." The so-called "liability" he's referring to is that Rustin was gay.

The decision was shaped by the idea that, in order to make progress as a people, Black people had to present their "best selves" at all times. This is something known as Respectability Politics. According to Respectability Politics, the ideal activist should always be dressed well, speak in certain ways, conform to certain gender roles, and follow certain faiths, in order to show that they were worthy of being treated with basic human dignity and respect. 

 (10:00) to (12:00)


In the mid-20th century, the idea of having an openly gay man as a public-facing leader of the civil rights movement didn't fit into that ideal. Rustin was made to take a back seat, while people who did fit the image they wanted, like Dr. King, a straight, cis-gendered, Morehouse educated, PhD-holding family man, who was also a pastor, were lifted up to represent the movement. 

But if you only present one version of Blackness at the forefront of a movement, then people might start to believe that only those who present a certain texture of Blackness are the ones who deserve the rights that you're advocating for. And this is not what freedom should look like. Real freedom means everyone gets freedom, no matter how you dress, how you talk, your level of education, or who you love. 

Thanks, Thought Bubble.

So, all that to say, Bayard Rustin didn't always get the respect he deserved during his lifetime. But we can make sure he is known for his important and courageous contributions today. The fact that there were more than 20 years between the original planned March on Washington in 1941 and the one that eventually happened in 1963 shows that the struggle for civil rights is not represented by a single moment in time, but as part of a decades-long struggle that different generations took part in in order to make it happen. 

I mean, think about it. When the original March on Washington was scheduled, Martin Luther King Jr. was only 12 years old. When the March on Washington finally did happen in 1963, Randolph was 74. The struggle for civil rights included people of all ages and all backgrounds. This is what makes social movements, including the ones still happening today, so powerful. 

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They need people of all generations to get behind them in order to be successful. Without men like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, there would be no Martin Luther King Jr. as we know him. And there would be no civil rights movement as we know it. 

And these are just three individuals out of thousands of people who made the movement what it was, and it needed every single one of them. 

Thanks for watching. I'll see you next time. 

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