For millions of Americans, the March on Washington conjures images of leaders and events that helped to advance the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Between Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the images of hundreds of thousands of Americans packed in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the impact the March had the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that shortly followed, and many other noteworthy moments that occurred on the day, the 1963 March on Washington remains one of the most prominent and well-known turning points of the Civil Rights Movement.
Twenty-two years prior, a different March on Washington was being organized in order to combat different discriminatory policies against African-Americans across the country. As the national was preparing to formally enter World War II, African-Americans were still experiencing widespread racial discrimination in connection to work opportunities. Even as industries such as manufacturing and defense started to hire record numbers of workers–a strategy used to continue the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Depression as well as to prepare for war–African-Americans were still systematically denied employment opportunities in regions across the country.
In response, A. Philip Randolph–who had established himself as a massively influential civil rights leader for African-Americans during the previous few decades–organized a series of plans and partnerships that became known as the March on Washington Movement. After unsuccessfully petitioning President Roosevelt to desegregate the armed forces–an order that wouldn’t be made until the war ended–Randolph began to organize a mass march in downtown Washington to protest continued discrimination against African-Americans. Working closely with leadership from the NAACP, the Women’s Auxiliary and other notable civil rights and media organizations, Randolph organized and threatened to hold a march of over 100,000 participants in Washington to raise awareness of racial discrimination in the American workforce.
Historians today debate whether or not he actually planned to hold a march, which never transpired. Regardless, Randolph’s grassroots efforts did result in significant change. In June 1941, President Roosevelt passed Executive Order 8802 to formally ban racial and ethnic discrimination in the American defense industries. The order also established the Fair Employment Practice Committee, an independent agency that operated throughout the war to “ban discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work.”
Although it took another seven years to formally end racial discrimination in the military, Randolph’s March on Washington Movement created significant civil rights advances and validated the capabilities of grassroots activism. Decades later, King and other civil rights leaders would continue to utilize Randolph’s strategies and visions to further advance the movements to secure and protect equal rights for African-American citizens.
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David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science