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The Road to the March

Charlene Crowell | 8/20/2013, 12:52 p.m.
Although August 28, 1963 is remembered as the largest peaceful demonstration at that time in the nation’s history, it was ...

Although August 28, 1963 is remembered as the largest peaceful demonstration at that time in the nation’s history, it was not the first time that a national protest for civil rights in Washington was envisioned. The actual genesis of the idea was in 1941.

Under the leadership of Asa Philip Randolph and the support of his organization, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, offices for a March on Washington Movement (MOWM) were opened in early June 1941 in Harlem, Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington, DC. Most importantly, Randolph insisted that the leadership for the event be Negro-led.

Through the union’s infrastructure of rail depots, support for the effort grew with the active involvement of chapters of the NAACP and Urban League, churches and fraternal orders.

Recognizing that he could no longer ignore the mounting interest, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Randolph and the NAACP’s Walter White to a meeting on June 18, 1941.

A week later, FDR established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC); to implement Executive Order #8802 – signed June 24, 1941. The executive order banned hiring discrimination at military facilities and government agencies during WWII. The newly-created FEPC was authorized to investigate and find solutions to complaints of racial discrimination in the defense program.

Although FDR’s executive actions halted plans for the 1941 March on Washington, segregation prevailed and a year later, FEPC’s complaints were largely ignored in the midst of war-time labor shortages. Black participation in defense employment opportunities did not occur in a meaningful way until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld racial grievances in a 1944 decision in the case known as Bester William Steele v. The Louisville and Nashville Company, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers.

Even in the decision’s aftermath, black employment was often limited to clerical positions and low level supervision. A new campaign for racial justice was known as “Double V” – victory at home and abroad.

The President who had been heralded as the mastermind of the New Deal gave Negro leaders a raw one that never became all that it promised.

By 1963’s escalating racial tensions that worsened with growing numbers of protests and arrests, another President, John F. Kennedy, realized that only federal actions could quell racial disturbances. In a national television address on June 12, Kennedy spoke clearly about America’s dilemma.

“Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every state of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. . .We are confronted primarily with a moral issue: It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American constitution”, said President Kennedy.

In the following week, President Kennedy submitted wide-ranging remedies in a bill to Congress that would allow or guarantee: voting rights, access to public accommodations, desegregation of public facilities, a non-discriminatory clause in federal programs, the creation of a Civil Rights Commission, and equal employment opportunity.

Following the bill’s introduction in the House of Representatives and related hearings, fierce opposition was heard.

Testifying on behalf of the State of Louisiana, Lt. Governor C.C. Aycock advised, “The central government just does not have the constitutional authority to dictate to the individual citizen the persons with whom he must associate, or the manner in which he must use his property, or what individuals he can or cannot serve in his place of business.”

It was in this clear battle for racial equality that the idea of a March on Washington was revived with three specific goals:

Public demand for the passage of the Civil Rights Act; Integration of schools; and Enactment of a fair employment practices bill to ban job discrimination.

Charlene Crowell is a freelance journalist and two-time honoree of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.