In 1940, two decades before the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech, the seeds of the civil rights movement were planted by Asa Philip Randolph when he induced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941which “encouraged the full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin, in the firm belief that the democratic way of life within the Nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups within its borders.”
This seminal but almost forgotten leader is considered by some as the true father of the civil rights movement in the United States. Today his deeds are not known by many, his name outside the labor movement, does not elicit recognition. And yet, millions of colored people, minorities and even women owe a great debt to this man.
But the road to Executive Order 8802 was long in the making. In January 1917, William White, President of the Headwaiters and Side Waiters Society of Greater New York asked A. Philip Randolph to edit the monthly magazine “Hotel Messenger”. Later, the “Hotel” was dropped and in November 1917, the first issue of The Messenger was published. The following quotation from the August 1919 issue gives an inkling of the future civil rights movement.
“First, as workers, black and white, we all have one common interest, the getting of more wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions.
Black and white workers should combine for no other reason than that for which individual workers should combine, to increase their bargaining power, which will enable them to get their demands.”
In June 1925, the Pullman porters, an all-black service staff of the Pullman Sleeping Cars asked Randolph to lead their new organization, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). For ten years, Randolph organized the Pullman porters and the BSCP became the exclusive bargaining agent of the Pullman porters. In 1935, the BSCP was granted its charter by the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
The war in Europe starting in 1939 created a boom in the defense industry but Government-instituted training programs still excluded blacks. More than 250,000 new defense jobs were closed to blacks. In the aircraft industry, only 240 of 107,000 workers were blacks. The same situation was experienced in other industries like construction. In the armed forces, even after the passage of the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940 which was the first peace time draft of men between 21 and 35, the blacks and other minorities like the Filipinos still could not secure their right to fight.
On September 1940 during a Porters’ meeting in New York City where Randolph spoke about these two problems, there was a distinguished guest who opened doors for him at the highest level - First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Upon meeting with Randolph and other black leaders, she realized that the President’s secretaries had not responded to numerous requests from Randolph for a meeting with the President. Eleanor Roosevelt then addressed the convention and pledged her strong support to “make America a place where everyone, Negro and white, could live in equality and opportunity.”
On September 27, 1940, Randolph with Walter White, head of the NAACP and T. Arnold Hill, an administrator for the Urban League met with President Roosevelt. They spoke of the many injustices in the hiring practices particularly in the defense industry and the discriminatory practices in the army. The President tried to assuage their complaints by telling them that progress was being made by putting blacks into combat services proportionately. But Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who was present at the meeting, stated that this was almost impossible particularly in the Navy where men live aboard ships. But the President promised them that he will consult with the cabinet and military leadership about these problems. Randolph and the other leaders were greatly encouraged by the meeting.
Unfortunately, the cabinet and the military leadership including Army Chief of Staff George Marshall were against these changes. Marshall stated that “there is no time for critical experiments which could have a highly destructive effect on morale.”
Randolph and the rest did not hear from the President regarding his meeting with the cabinet. They learned of the War Department’s position through a press briefing stating that it would not intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regiments. It further stated that all parties agreed to the report. Randolph and White asked for another meeting with the President but the meeting was not made nor did the Press Secretary Stephen Early clarify the statement in the press briefing. En route to a Pullman conference in several major cities, Randolph and Milton Webster, a Pullman porter planned a strategy to get 10,000 Negroes to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. This was the birth of the March on Washington movement, a non-violent civil disobedience campaign that was proposed in speeches to the Pullman porters. By late 1940, Randolph set up the National March on Washington Committee with branches in eighteen cities. The proposed march set on July 1, 1941 was publicized in Black newspapers, through the NAACP, the Urban League and by the porters. It called for jobs in national defense and equal integration in the fighting forces of the United States.
By January 1941, President Roosevelt was alerted of the Washington March plan and refused to have another meeting with Randolph in the spring. Randolph sent letters to the president and to government officials to ask them to make speeches at the Lincoln Memorial where the marchers intended to gather.
With the growing momentum for the march, Randolph revised his estimate of the marchers to 100,000, leaving President Roosevelt in a quandary. Aside from the possible repercussions of the march, the president was clearly worried about the Southerners in Congress who already opposed him in many issues. Randolph became the target of many including Congressman Arthur Miller of Nebraska who called him “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
Roosevelt asked Eleanor to write to Randolph urging him not to follow through with the march, citing that people may get hurt in the process. But this did not deter Randolph from proceeding with the march. Eleanor asked Randolph on the logistics of the marchers, to which he replied that they would stay in Washington hotels and eat in the city’s restaurants, a situation that would have created riots. Privately, he asked the March in Washington Committee to request the support of black churches and schools in the capital. Eleanor later met with Randolph in New York and subsequently advised the president to meet with Randolph at the White House to prevent the march. The meeting with the President, Randolph and White took place on June 18, 1941. Roosevelt remained firm about the status of the armed forces being segregated. But he promised to set up a committee to investigate cases of discrimination. Randolph was adamant about his demand for an executive order desegregating the defense industry and the president insisted that nothing can be done until the march is called off. Randolph did not budge. The President asked Randolph how many people he planned to bring and his reply was one hundred thousand. When asked the same question, White replied the same answer without a blink. The President folded his cards when he finally agreed that a committee would draft an executive order. But Randolph did not stop at that. He helped draft the document with officials of the Cabinet and edited subsequent versions to his satisfaction.
On June 25, 1941, Executive Order 8802 was signed. Under the order, the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FPEC) was set up to investigate discrimination in the work place. Although FPEC proved inadequate to the task, the Executive order paved the way for thousands of blacks and other minorities including women to become employed in the defense industry. 1.2 million Southern blacks moved to Western and Northern cities for industrial defense jobs. More than 46,000 blacks moved to the Bay area between 1941 and 1945. Kaiser Shipyards which owned four in Richmond employed 90,000 people, a third of whom were women.
However, prejudice did not end with the executive order. The movement of black workers to industrial cities resulted in race riots with the worst in 1943 in Detroit where more than thirty people, twenty-five of whom were black, died in two days.
Although Executive Order 8802 did not lead to the integration of the armed forces, it led the way to the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first black flying squadron (part of the Tuskegee Airmen) in September 1941. In April 1942, the 382nd Platoon of the U.S. Marines or the Navajo code talkers and the First Filipino Battalion were activated (later became the First Filipino Regiment in July 1942). More troops of color followed.
In 1947, Randolph reignited his demand for integration of the armed forces by founding the League for Non-violent Civil Disobedience against Military Segregation. With the impending Cold war and in recognition of the contributions of the African American men and women during WWII, President Truman ordered the end of military discrimination by signing Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, ending 170 years of military segregation.
Randolph became the Chair of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King heeded his advice of non-violence and the rest is history. Randolph was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson in 1964.
Seventy years after the signing of Executive Order 8802 we have a black president in the White House. I am sure that Asa Philip Randolph is smiling wherever he is. His dream is finally a reality.
Cecilia I. Gaerlan
Executive Director Bataan Legacy Historical Society
1. Executive Orders – Primary Documents: The President and African Americans A Lesson Plan from the Education Department of the National WWII Museum.
2. FDR, A. Philip Randolph and the Desegregation of the Defense Industries. The White House Historical Association.
3. Immigration Indigestion – A. Philip Randolph, Radical & Restrictionist by Daryl Scott, June 1999.
4. Our Reason for Being by A. Philip Randolph. The Messenger, Aug. 1919, pp11-12.
5. Asa Philip Randolph Biography from AFLCIO..ORG
6. More than Race Relations: A. Philip Randolph & the African American Research for Empowerment by Paula Pfeffer. Reviews in American History June 1991.
7. Randolph, Asa Philip – American National Biography Online