David Lucander is a professor of history at SUNY Rockland Community College. He recently answered some questions about his UIP book Winning the War for Democracy: The March on Washington Movement, 1941-1946.
Q: What was the March on Washington Movement (MOWM)?
David Lucander: The March on Washington Movement was an organization founded by A. Philip Randolph in 1941 for the purpose of staging an assembly in D.C. to pressure President Franklin Roosevelt into taking a stronger against segregation and racism. The Roosevelt Administration saw this as a potential national embarrassment, and White House officials worked to thwart the march. In exchange for Executive Order 8802, which mandated defense contractors in the “arsenal of democracy” to practice non-discrimination in personnel decisions, Randolph called off the demonstration. Although securing the anti-discrimination clause was an important gain, many of MOWM’s demands remained unfulfilled. Seeking to capitalize on its early momentum, the organization remained intact for the duration of the war and became a leading voice in the struggle for civil rights.
Q: What was A. Philip Randolph’s role in MOWM?
Lucander: Randolph was MOWM’s executive director, national spokesman, and public face. He issued the call to march, and the union that he headed – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – provided vital financial support that kept the upstart organization afloat. In short, he was indispensible. Because of this, historians telling MOWM’s story have tended to overlook the individuals who galvanized under its banner. Randolph was an inspirational force, but the real locus of MOWM’s energy was the unheralded activists working within its twenty-six local chapters and behind the scenes in the national office.
Q: You write local affiliates would sometimes diverge from Randolph’s direction to effect change. What is overlooked about the efforts of localized action?
Lucander: Randolph thought on a big scale. MOWM’s 8-Point Program called for desegregating not only the armed forces, but also all public accommodations including schools, housing, and transportation. Likewise, its National Program of Action included a plank for a “Free Africa and a Free Caribbean.” Even marching on Washington was ambitious, especially because the country’s transportation infrastructure made just getting there arduous. In my research, I found that local activists like T.D. McNeal in St. Louis operated a bit more pragmatically. Instead of marching on Washington, they marched on notoriously discriminatory defense contractors and demanded access to jobs. Rather than taking a hard-line position of adhering to Gandhian non-violence, they sponsored a cross-denominational prayer service that had strong anti-racist messages and emphasized the brotherhood of mankind. Here’s an example that illustrates this difference: while Randolph is pushing the military to integrate, MOWM’s local activists were simply trying to break down segregation at lunch counters. This operational dynamic is important because it suggests that grassroots affiliates of national organizations act with considerable independence.
Q: What roles did women take on in the organization and why was their leadership crucial to its success?
Lucander: Women were the backbone of MOWM’s national office and they were key players in many of its local activities. E. Pauline Myers was the organization’s only paid full-time employee. As such, she was responsible for traveling the country to build up membership, handling all correspondence, and authoring pamphlets espousing MOWM’s position on topics like “non-violent goodwill direct action.” Ethel Payne did a lot of organizing in Chicago and helped put together a major national conference, Juanita Blackwell facilitated regular MOWM meetings in St. Louis, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman directed a MOWM rally at Madison Square Garden attended by more than 10,000. Their contributions, as well as those of Pauli Murray, Layle Lane, and others, happened out of the public eye. This book seeks to bring them to the forefront, which in many cases is where they rightfully belong.
Q: How did MOWM utilize an awareness of the ideologies of Nazi Germany to change America’s moral awareness of America’s racialized practices?
Lucander: The Pittsburgh Courier and other African American newspapers advocated a “Double V” campaign for victory against Adolph Hitler’s fascism and Jim Crow’s racism. This message found traction within an intellectual climate that suddenly had white supremacist ideology put on the defensive. Comparisons between Nazism and American race relations were pervasive in the Black press, as well as in the petitions that activists sent to elected officials and in the placards carried at pickets. I suppose that we’d call this a “talking point” nowadays. What makes MOWM unique is that it sought to implement the “Double V” by boldly challenging segregation through rallies, marches, and lobbying. In other words, “Double V” was a rallying cry, MOWM gave the slogan a program of action.
Q: Did the organization’s combination of patriotism and protest prove effective?
Lucander: I suppose that depends on how effectiveness is measured. In some regards, MOWM failed. Its only real concrete gain, the Fair Employment Practices Committee, disbanded after the war. Just about every position it took on civil rights would not come to fruition until decades later. The group never even did what it was named for – marching on Washington. Nevertheless, MOWM activists at the local and national level were profoundly and genuinely patriotic. The United States flag was prominently displayed at its events, and its slogan, “Winning the War for Democracy” spoke to the highest ideals expressed in the country’s founding documents. There are many reasons why Randolph had Roosevelt’s ear, however briefly, but one factor is that the patriotic sentiments he couched his appeals in were seen as more palatable than radical or communist positions. The lesson here is that progressives are patriots, too, and that flamboyantly radical positions undermine the ability of reformers to create change.