For jobs and freedom

September 9, 2013

Joe Allen reviews a new book that looks at the political background to the 1963 March on Washington, particularly the complicated role of A. Philip Randolph.

THE 1963 March on Washington is remembered in photographs of the immense throngs of people who filled the Capitol mall between Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Over time, however, these beautiful images have become identified with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and that speech alone.

University of Wisconsin history professor William P. Jones' new book The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights aims to "lift the veil" on the historical significance of the March on Washington. He argues that deep political differences among the march organizers later "overshadow[ed] the significance of what was actually accomplished by bringing a quarter-million people to the nation's capital on August 28, 1963."

This seems like a worthy goal considering that the march has been subject to unfair, if not withering, criticism through the years. Malcolm X fiercely denounced it as the "farce on Washington" and criticized it in his "Message to the Grassroots" speech because of what he perceived as the Kennedy White House's tight grip over the political agenda of the march.

A. Philip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph (John Bottega)

The censorship of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis' speech criticizing the Kennedy presidency's "too little, too late" civil rights program gave much credibility to Malcolm's charges.

But iIt was equally true that for many of the quarter of a million people, largely African American, who attended the march, it was the most important day of their lives. It represented the culmination of years--even decades--of political activism that had seen some of the civil rights movement's most dedicated activists jailed, brutalized and lynched, most recently in the battles of Birmingham.

For A. Philip Randolph, it was seen as a personal triumph. The longstanding president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had first called for a March on Washington in 1941. But unfortunately, the hundreds of people who helped organize the 1963 march have by and large been left out of the story.

WHEN I heard about Jones' Forgotten History, I wondered what it would reveal? And I have to say that I was disappointed.

Jones does a good job at one of his stated purposes: "By tracing the roots of the March on Washington to A. Philip Randolph's demand for fair employment during the Second World War, this book demonstrates that the civil rights movement was closely linked to the social democratic policies of the New Deal."

After all, the 1963 March on Washington was billed as a march for "Jobs and Freedom." Bayard Rustin's speech listing demands for decent housing, jobs, education and health care should be remembered as importantly as King's speech, but isn't.

However, only one chapter of Jones' book is devoted to the March on Washington. I expected the heart and guts of Jones' Forgotten History to have many personal stories and political analysis of the scores who came to it and why, and what they took back home with them. It doesn't do that.

Readers who are looking into the political life of Randolph or the history of the March on Washington for the first time will get something out of it. Jones has an accessible writing style for a popular audience. The most fascinating part of the book was finding out about the emergence of Black feminism in the wake of the great march.

Despite these positive aspects of Jones' book, I have a major political problem with his uncritical take on Randolph's militant anti-communism, which undermined the fight for civil rights at key moments.

This isn't a political criticism I've invented. The late Manning Marable, the dean of African American historians, discussed this crucial feature of Randolph political life two decades ago in his book Race, Reform and Rebellion.

Jones spends the first four chapters of his book recounting the life of Randolph, from his modest origins in Florida to his move to New York City in 1911 at the age of 22. Within a few years, he joined Eugene V. Debs' Socialist Party and developed a national reputation as the editor of the Harlem-based radical newspaper The Messenger, which in 1917 boldly declared itself it to be "The Only Radical Negro Magazine in America."

One U.S government official denounced Randolph as "the most dangerous negro in America."

With the decline of post-First World War radicalism, Randolph shifted his focus to trade union organizing while remaining a member of the Socialist Party of America. Jones describes the long and difficult struggle to organize the more than 10,000 Pullman car porters across the country. Randolph triumphed and became the most important Black trade unionist in the country in the late 1930s.

Randolph was able to parlay his position as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters into a greater prominence in national politics. He became president of the National Negro Congress (NNC), the most important Black political organization to emerge since the 1920s. The driving force behind the NNC was the Communist Party (CP), which by the late 1930s had 100,000 members. Nearly 10 percent of its members were African American, roughly mirroring the percentage of Blacks in the population. This was quite an achievement during Jim Crow.

Randolph announced that he would not stand for re-election as president of the NNC in April 1940. The cause of his break with the CP was the Hitler-Stalin signed the previous summer, in which the CP not only supported Stalin's disgusting deals with Hitler, but swung into a left-wing opposition to Franklin Roosevelt's foreign and domestic policies.

Writing in the AFL's magazine, The American Federationist, Randolph said, "I consider the communists a definite menace and a danger to the Negro people and labor because of their rule-or-ruin tactics in the interests of the totalitarian Soviet Union."

When Randolph argued that "communists" were a "menace and danger" to the labor movement and Black people, he sounded like a right-winger. The CP and its closest allies planted most--though not all by any means--of the "radical roots" of the civil rights movement.

RANDOLPH'S ANTI-COMMUNISM only grew more intense after the Second World War as it dovetailed with the anti-communist foreign and domestic policies of the U.S. government.

For historian Manning Marable, all of the political, social and cultural elements existed for the birth of a mass movement for a Black freedom after the Second World War. "The democratic upsurge of Black people which characterized the late 1950s could have happened 10 years earlier," he wrote in Race, Reform and Rebellion.

What prevented this from happening was the Red Scare that resulted in a terrifying era of political repression. Marable summarizes Randolph's place in this new political setting:

The most prominent Black leaders were affected in different ways by the outbreak of the domestic Cold War...In the postwar years, Randolph deliberately eschewed any political or organizational links with revolutionary Marxists. In his speeches and writings, he denounced the domestic communist "conspiracy" at every opportunity.

By clearly separating the interests of Black labor from the radical left, he believed that he could gain the political support of many anti-communist liberals and the Truman administration. As Randolph declared before a congressional committee in 1948, racial segregation "is the greatest single propaganda and political weapon in the hands of Russia and international communism today."

Marable drew a scathing conclusion: "By serving as the 'left wing of McCarthyism,' Randolph, [Walter] White [of the NAACP] and Negro leaders retarded the Black movement for a decade."

In Jones' Forgotten History, the post-Second World War Red Scare is barely mentioned. When I finished the two chapters covering the years preceding the March on Washington and the worst of this era, I had the feeling I had missed something. I flipped to the index and looked up Joseph McCarthy, one of the vile anti-communist demagogues of the era, and Paul Robeson, one of the greatest victims of the McCarthyite witch hunt, and found that neither is listed.

How is that possible? The answer appears to be because Randolph supported it. Here's what Jones says:

As a result of his [Randolph's] conflict with communists in the National Negro Congress, he was an enthusiastic of CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] leaders who expelled nine unions because their leaders refused to sign pledges that stating that they were not communists. He and other anti-communists agreed that the oaths infringed civil liberties and that they were designed primarily to discredit and divide organized labor, but he saw this as further evidence that communists and their supporters had placed the interests of the Soviet Union above those of the workers they represented.

Not only is this passage disturbing from the vantage point of supporting basic civil liberties, but it fails to grasp that the post-war purge of radicals from the labor movement was "the principal reason for the decline in the AFL-CIO's commitment to the struggle against racial segregation," according to Marable.

Again, Marable writes: "The sterile legacy of anti-communism, felt even today, has so influenced many American historians that they are not even able to comment on the facts before them." Is Jones guilty of this? Or is there something else going on here?

Historian Eric Arneson is working on a major biography of A. Philip Randolph and has continued to use him as a model for promoting a new liberal anti-communism in U.S. labor studies.

"Eric Arneson has revived an old tradition in anti-communist scholarship," according to Northwestern University historian Martha Biondi. "Apparently, his identification with his biographical subject [A. Philip Randolph] is so strong as to erase a generation or two of efforts by historians to balance the effects of McCarthyism on U.S. historical scholarship."

I don't know if William Jones considers himself a supporter of the scholarship of Arneson, but his book does bare some strong similarities with Arneson's. People should read Jones' The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, but read it critically.

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