March on Washington in 1941

In 1941Philip Randolph and Baynard Rustin began to organize a march to Washington to protest against discrimination in the defense industries. In May Randolph issued a "Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense on July, 1, 1941". By June estimates of the number of people expecting to participate reached 100,000. Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to persuade Randolph and Rustin call off the demonstration. When this failed, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in defence industries and federal bureaus (the Fair Employment Act). As a result of this action Randolph called off his proposed march.

Primary Sources

(1) Philip Randolph, statement made on the proposed March on Washington (15th January, 1941)

Negro America must bring its power and pressure to bear upon the agencies and representatives of the Federal Government to exact their rights in National Defense employment and the armed forces of the country. I suggest that ten thousand Negroes march on Washington, D. C. with the slogan: "We loyal Negro American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country." No propaganda could be whipped up and spread to the effect that Negroes seek to hamper defense. No charge could be made that Negroes are attempting to mar national unity. They want to do none of these things. On the contrary, we seek the right to play our part in advancing the cause of national defense and national unity. But certainly there can be no national unity where one tenth of the population are denied their basic rights as American citizens.

(2) On 18th June, 1941, a meeting took place at the White House about the proposed March on Washington. This included Philip Randolph, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walter White and Fiorello La Guardia.

Philip Randolph: Mr. President, time is running on. You are quite busy, I know. But what we want to talk with you about is the problem of jobs for Negroes in defense industries. Our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can't live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Well, Phil, what do you want me to do?

Philip Randolph: Mr. President, we want you to do something that will enable Negro workers to get work in these plants.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Why, I surely want them to work, too. I'll call up the heads of the various defense plants and have them see to it that Negroes are given the same opportunity to work in defense plants as any other citizen in the country.

Philip Randolph: We want you to do more than that. We want something concrete, something tangible, definite, positive, and affirmative.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: What do you mean?

Philip Randolph: Mr. President, we want you to issue an executive order making it mandatory that Negroes be permitted to work in these plants.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Well Phil, you know I can't do that. If I issue an executive order for you, then there'll be no end to other groups coming in here and asking me to issue executive orders for them, too. In any event, I couldn't do anything unless you called off this march of yours. Questions like this can't be settled with a sledge hammer.

Philip Randolph: I'm sorry, Mr. President, the march cannot be called off.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: How many people do you plan to bring?

Philip Randolph: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Walter, how many people will really march?

Walter White: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.

Fiorello La Guardia: Gentleman, it is clear that Mr. Randolph is not going to call off the march, and I suggest we all begin to seek a formula.

(3) Philip Randolph, statement on the cancellation of the March on Washington (25th June, 1941)

The march has been called off because its main objective, namely the issuance of an Executive Order banishing discrimination in national defense, was secured. The Executive Order was issued upon the condition that the march be called off.