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A. Philip Randolph, The Call to Negro America to March on Washington, 1941

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

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In the minds of many Americans, World War II was a battle between the Allied forces of democracy and liberty against Nazi, Japanese, and Italian fascism, tyranny, and oppression. This conception of an ideological war helped boost the morale of many American citizens who believed they were fighting for the freedom of the world. However, many African Americans in the United States found it difficult to support the liberation of Europe and the Pacific when they were treated as second-class citizens at home. African Americans routinely experienced discrimination in their daily lives, including when they tried to find work at munitions factories. In addition, government agencies, including the military, were strictly segregated.

In early 1941, A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened to lead a peaceful march of 10,000 African Americans on Washington, DC, to demand an end to racial segregation in the government, especially the military, and to demand greater equality in the hiring practices of defense industries. He released the following statement to explain his purpose and goals. President Roosevelt quickly created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), which sought to end discrimination in government hiring, to prevent a large-scale demonstration. Randolph canceled the march, but the FEPC had no power to make changes in the private sector. In addition, the military remained segregated until 1948.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. Why did some African Americans find it difficult to fully support the war effort?
  3. What changes did Roosevelt institute in response to the author’s demands?

Vocabulary Text
We call upon you to fight for jobs in National Defense.
We call upon you to struggle for the integration of Negroes in the armed forces. . . .
Jim-Crowism (n): Jim Crow laws were instituted throughout the South in the decades after the Civil War to enforce segregation We call upon you to demonstrate for the abolition of Jim-Crowism in all Government departments and defense employment.
This is an hour of crisis. It is a crisis of democracy. It is a crisis of minority groups. It is a crisis of Negro Americans. What is this crisis?
To American Negroes, it is the denial of jobs in Government defense projects. It is racial discrimination in Government departments. It is widespread Jim-Crowism in the armed forces of the Nation.
While billions of the taxpayers’ money are being spent for war weapons, Negro workers are finally being turned away from the gates of factories, mines and mills—being flatly told, “NOTHING DOING.” Some employers refuse to give Negroes jobs when they are without “union cards,” and some unions refuse Negro workers union cards when they are “without jobs.”
What shall we do?
What a dilemma!
What a runaround!
What a disgrace!
What a blow below the belt!
Though dark, doubtful and discouraging, all is not lost, all is not hopeless. Though battered and bruised, we are not beaten, broken, or bewildered.
verily (adv): truly Verily, the Negroes’ deepest disappointments and direst defeats, their tragic trials and outrageous oppressions in these dreadful days of destruction and disaster to democracy and freedom, and the rights of minority peoples, and the dignity and independence of the human spirit, is the Negroes’ greatest opportunity to rise to the highest heights of struggle for freedom and justice in Government, in industry, in labor unions, education, social service, religion, and culture.
With faith and confidence of the Negro people in their own power for self-liberation, Negroes can break down that barriers of discrimination against employment in National Defense. Negroes can kill the deadly serpent of race hatred in the Army, Navy, Air and Marine Corps, and smash through and blast the Government, business and labor-union red tape to win the right to equal opportunity in vocational training and re-training in defense employment.
Most important and vital of all, Negroes, by the mobilization and coordination of their mass power, can cause PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT TO ISSUE AN EXECUTIVE ORDER ABOLISHING DISCRIMINATIONS IN ALL GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT, ARMY, NAVY, AIR CORPS AND NATIONAL DEFENSE JOBS.
Of course, the task is not easy. In very truth, it is big, tremendous and difficult.
It will cost money.
It will require sacrifice.
It will tax the Negroes’ courage, determination and will to struggle. But we can, must and will triumph.
The Negroes’ stake in national defense is big. It consists of jobs, thousands of jobs. It may represent millions, yes hundreds of millions of dollars in wages. It consists of new industrial opportunities and hope. This is worth fighting for.
But to win our stakes, it will require an “all-out,” bold and total effort and demonstration of colossal proportions.
mammoth (adv): huge Negroes can build a mammoth machine of mass action with a terrific and tremendous driving and striking power that can shatter and crush the evil fortress of race prejudice and hate, if they will only resolve to do so and never stop, until victory comes.
Dear fellow Negro Americans, be not dismayed by these terrible times. You possess power, great power. Our problem is to harness and hitch it up for action on the broadest, daring and most gigantic scale.
In this period of power politics, nothing counts but pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure, through the tactic and strategy of broad, organized, aggressive mass action behind the vital and important issues of the Negro. To this end, we propose that ten thousand Negroes MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS IN NATIONAL DEFENSE AND EQUAL INTEGRATION IN THE FIGHTING FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES.
An “all-out” thundering march on Washington, ending in a monster and huge demonstration at Lincoln’s Monument will shake up white America.
It will shake up official Washington.
It will give encouragement to our white friends to fight all the harder by our side, with us, for our righteous cause.
It will gain respect for the Negro people.
It will create a new sense of self-respect among Negroes.
But what of national unity?
We believe in national unity which recognizes equal opportunity of black and white citizens to jobs in national defense and the armed forces, and in all other institutions and endeavors in America. We condemn all dictatorships, Fascist, Nazi and Communist. We are loyal, patriotic Americans all.
toiler (n): a worker But if American democracy will not defend its defenders; if American democracy will not protect its protectors; if American democracy will not give jobs to its toilers because of race or color; if American democracy will not insure equality of opportunity, freedom and justice to its citizens, black and white, it is a hollow mockery and belies the principles for which it is supposed to stand. . . .
humanitarian (n): a person who seeks to promote human welfare Today we call on President Roosevelt, a great humanitarian and idealist, to . . . free American Negro citizens of the stigma, humiliation and insult of discrimination and Jim-Crowism in Government departments and national defense.
The Federal Government cannot with clear conscience call upon private industry and labor unions to abolish discrimination based on race and color as long as it practices discrimination itself against Negro Americans.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What is the crisis Randolph believes African Americans are facing?
  2. What does Randolph believe is the most important goal African Americans can accomplish?
  3. What things will be necessary for African Americans to achieve their goals?
  4. What does Randolph believe to be the only thing that matters when seeking to accomplish his goal?
  5. How does Randolph describe national unity?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Consider the challenges of demanding reforms within the government during a time of war. How do you think this affected Randolph’s writing and his actions? Do you think demanding changes during a national crisis was the best time to do so?
  2. Read the Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963 Primary Source. Compare and contrast the goals each of these civil rights leaders had.

The Call to Negro America to March on Washington