From the outset, recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington has been a matter of ratios: congratulation to critique, historical reflection to contemporary concerns. The half-century point is a neat bookmark, a vantage point to assess the inevitable questions of how far we have come and how much further we must go to realize a democratic ideal. Even in the moment the mass mobilization of a quarter million people in support of racial equality had an element of history to it. Never before in the sprawling tumult of American history had as many people gathered in the nation’s capital for any cause. There is a linear connection between that moment and the one that currently holds that distinction: the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, in which the two million gathered on the mall were their own testament to the ideal of racial equality. Yet despite the current crush of attention devoted to the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom its possible that the most significant march was one in which no one actually showed up.
In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader whose efforts led to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters becoming the first black union recognized by the AFL, organized a massive demonstration in response to black unemployment and an economic recovery in which African Americans were scarcely included. History may not repeat itself, but the circumstances of his efforts offer at least an extended paraphrase for our current situation.
On the verge of the U.S. entry into World War II Franklin Roosevelt had already broken the six-decade Republican stranglehold on the black vote. The racial shortcomings of the New Deal were well known. The signature Social Security Act excluded agricultural labor and domestic work—the two arenas where blacks were most heavily concentrated. The Wagner Act, a cornerstone in labor rights, came at a point where African Americans were routinely denied membership. But he had made high profile black appointments, elevated Benjamin O. Davis as the nation’s first black brigadier general and benefited from Eleanor Roosevelt’s close ties to African Americans.
As war raged in Europe, Roosevelt directed billions into defense industries as part of his effort to support allies. The result was that unemployment dropped to its lowest levels in more than a decade—a development from which African Americans were largely excluded. As Will Jones writes in The March on Washington his excellent new history of the mobilization:
Although 100,000 Americans were employed in aircraft plants in 1940, only 300 of them were African American. A survey of employment patterns in twenty defense industries showed that black workers got only 5.4 percent of the jobs created that year and that this figure fell to only 2/5 percent a year later. Employment decisions in the defense industries were determined by private firms but, as A. Philip Randolph pointed out, those jobs were funded by federal taxes that came, in part, out of black workers’ wages.
In the six months after the idea for a march was hatched the expectations moved from a noteworthy ten thousand demonstrators to a possible hundred thousand African Americans all gathered in the name of economic justice. Randolph’s network of labor connections mobilized efforts in black communities across the country; the NAACP, Urban League and black fraternities and sororities quickly signed on as supporters. The growing momentum sent Roosevelt’s administration into a panic. The President worried that the march would disrupt national morale on the verge of the coming war. Quietly more moderate black leaders pushed Randolph to cancel the march, fearing that a massive embarrassment to a president who’d appointed 43 African Americans to government positions would hurt future prospects. A week ahead of the march, Roosevelt negotiated with Randolph to call it off. Elements of the movement wished to continue with the mobilization but Randolph extracted from Roosevelt Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in defense industries in exchange for the cancellation.
Seventy-two years later the abortive march is metaphorical in ways that highlight the achievements of the civil rights movement and the contradictory implications of Obama’s presidency. Randolph’s efforts succeeded in part because in his calculations coziness was outweighed by progress. And because that risk yielded rewards he and Martin Luther King, Jr. dusted off the idea of a march on Washington to coerce civil rights support from the Kennedy administration twenty-two years later. Precisely because Barack Obama is seen as the fullest flowering of those ambitions from 1941 and 1963 the gathering this week is doomed to be more of a historical reenactment than a showcase of demands.
Obama has been loathe to address race explicitly, though his silence on the subject has scarcely immunized him from conspiratorial opposition and the belief that he favors African Americans in his policies. His credibility within black America is a product of his deft capacity to navigate racial crisis moments like the recent exoneration of George Zimmerman, and do so in a way that conveys his understanding of the capacity of race to deform American society. Yet if there was any moment at which the currency of that understanding should be devalued it’s August 28, 2013. The March on Washington—both marches on Washington—succeeded because black Americans saw a distinction between their interests and those elected to address them. These are complex undertakings in an era as racially complicated and contradictory as this one. But they also raise the possibility that 100,000 people will travel to Washington, DC this week and depart with less than they received in 1941 when no one came at all.
In both 1941 and 1963 the movement confronted Democratic presidencies whose civil rights policies fell short of the minimal demands of black leadership. The difference in 2013 is that for the first time in the history of the country that leadership is making requests of a president who is more popular and influential in black America than they are.