In exchange for a presidential ban on racial discrimination by employers producing war matériel for the US federal government and creating a Fair Employment Practices Committee (fepc), African-American labour leader A. Philip Randolph cancelled a threatened protest rally by Black workers in Washington, DC on the eve of US entry into World War II. While eventually killed by Congress, the fepc was instrumental in raising Black employment to six million by 1944. However, little is known about Randolph’s shortlived March on Washington Movement (mowm) that fought to secure gainful employment for Blacks in defence industries and public services. The latest edition of a labour history classic does not refer to mowm. (Melvin Dubofsky and Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in America [Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, 2010]) Besides an entry in The Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History, the group attracts little attention. (Eric Arnesen, ed. [London: Routledge, 2007])
As David Lucander argues, mowm’s significance does not solely rest on the release of Executive Order (eo) 8802. mowm and the fepc were not the products of legislation drafted by white politicians. mowm emerged from an activist Black working-class culture which was firmly rooted in the New Deal order and which had a lasting social impact. In the spirit of Double V campaigns, mowm opposed both foreign fascism and domestic racism with “critical patriotism.” (56) Unlike W.E.B. Du Bois during World War I, Randolph and his associates were not against confrontation. Members of the all-Black grassroots movement organized protests against various forms of Jim Crow in northern and mid-western cities. mowm organizers would pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
After stating his case in the introduction, Lucander develops it in five sections. Chapter 1 covers mowm’s formation in 1941. African-American college graduates, trade unionists, and female professionals comprised mowm’s executive staff. Like Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (bscp), they saw themselves as “reformers.” (3) In dealings with Franklin Roosevelt, Randolph collaborated with Walter White’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp). Roosevelt and his advisors held that a march would benefit Axis propaganda, hurt fragile relations with southern Democrats, and destabilize the labour market. First suggested by New York City mayor Fiorella La Guardia as a compromise, eo 8802 was born out of “political calculations, not idealistic impulses.” (37) The fepc had few powers but represented the novel idea that the federal government could regulate discriminatory employment practices. Leftist reactions to Randolph’s agreement to cancel the march were negative. The Communist Party-backed National Negro Congress denounced Randolph. (Randolph was a noted anti-communist.) Criticism of Randolph’s clumsy leadership style mounted within mowm.
In Chapter 2, Lucander writes about mowm’s growth and relations with progressive groups. To reinforce the idea that African Americans must take the lead in asserting racial equality, mowm was all Black in membership. While most members did not share Randolph’s socialism, his direct action concepts influenced mowm protests. Although African-American women were key administrators and field organizers, there was a “gendered division of labor” at national headquarters. (63) mowm enjoyed [End Page 259] support from pacifist A.J. Muste. Large rallies in New York City and Chicago featured keynote speakers like Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell, and Norman Thomas. But as the naacp was unwilling to work with what it saw as a potential rival, its ties with mowm weakened.
Chapters 3, 4, and 6 concentrate on St. Louis mowm and the fepc Region IX office, which covered St. Louis. The city’s Blacks were hard hit by the Depression and an entrenched Jim Crow system. Nearly two million black migrants had gone to St. Louis from the South but were excluded from manufacturing. Led by charismatic bscp organizer T.D. McNeal, the mowm St. Louis Unit exemplified how ordinary people put Randolph’s ideas into practice. McNeal understood the connection between racial and economic injustice. He and David Grant, trained...