WASHINGTON — When President Obama takes to the National Mall on Wednesday, he will likely invoke the moment made into history by Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 28, 1963.
King, however, had taken cues from the example set by Bayard Rustin, who himself had taken cues from the leadership set by A. Philip Randolph, among others. Rustin, who reached his 18th birthday two months after King turned 1 year old, had met Randolph a decade later — when Rustin was 29 and Randolph was 52. They represented three generations of leadership in the civil rights movement — with a common thread that finds its home in the powerful symbol of black Americans marching on Washington.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in fact, has its roots in a trip Randolph took to Savannah, Georgia, in December 1940 — when King was 11 and growing up in nearby Atlanta — and Randolph told a crowd in the Deep South city that his union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, would be “gathering 10,000 Negroes to march on Washington to demand jobs in the defense industry.”
The move had caught people by surprise and shocked his Southern audience, but Randolph had decided — following a September 1940 meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that did not lead to any of the action the black leaders had sought from the president — that “calling on the President and holding those conferences are not going to get us anywhere.”
The story of Randolph’s decision that the call for the march would be necessary was detailed at length in Jervis Anderson’s biography of Randolph. The decision also came less than two years after Marian Anderson, who was refused permission to sing to an integrated crowd in the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall, performed an outdoor concert to 75,000 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939.
On Jan. 15, 1941, Randolph issued a statement to newspapers in which he “suggest[ed]” the march, stating, “Power and pressure are at the foundation of the march of social justice and reform. … Power is the active principle only of the organized masses, the masses united for a definite purpose.”
That purpose, Randolph explained, would be to secure equal rights for black Americans “in National Defense employment and the armed forces of the country.”
By March, Randolph had reached out to Walter White of the NAACP and Lester Granger of the National Urban League as well. To White, he wrote, “I hope it may be convenient for you to join with me and a few other persons in the issuance of a call to the Negro people for such a march.”
As preparations continued, the march’s planned attendance grew to 100,000. Randolph extended formal invitations to White House officials, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to address the marchers. Although the first lady had generally been supportive of racial equality efforts — more aggressively than her husband — she nonetheless responded by telling Randolph, “I feel very strongly that your group is making a very grave mistake at the present time to allow this march to take place. I am afraid it will set back the progress which is being made.”
When Randolph did not budge, she made the argument in person — with New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, another strong ally for civil rights, at her side — at New York City Hall on June 13, less than 20 days from the planned march. Walter White, from the NAACP, was in attendance as well.
In Randolph’s account of the New York meeting, he wrote, “I told her I was sorry, but the march would not be called off unless the President issued an executive order banning discrimination in the defense industry.”
As detailed by Roosevelt historian Kenneth S. Davis in his multi-volume history of FDR’s presidency, White and Randolph refused to back down and “La Guardia recommended, and Eleanor concurred in the recommendation, that Roosevelt arrange an Oval Office conference in which the President” and other high-ranking officials would meet with the black leaders.
Five days later, on June 18, Randolph and White went to the White House. La Guardia also was in attendance, as were the secretaries of war and the navy and other senior administration officials.
After some attempt at small talk, Anderson’s biography described Randolph’s decision to directly address the issue that brought them there — and the tense conversation that followed:
The “formula” was worked out over the next week, with the proposed executive order being drafted by a young lawyer for the administration, Joseph L. Rauh. Randolph wanted to ensure that the order had “teeth in it,” and he rejected several drafts as not being strong enough.
During this time, Randolph had returned to New York to continue making the final plans for the march — refusing to call off the march until the order was issued.
Also in June, as Jervis Anderson detailed in his biography of Bayard Rustin, the 29-year-old parted ways with the Young Communist League and made his way into Randolph’s offices, joining the march efforts and being assigned by Randolph to the youth arm of the march organization.
As the final preparations continued and Randolph kept rejecting Rauh’s drafts, Anderson wrote, Rauh eventually exploded.
“Who the hell is this guy Randolph?” he asked. “What the hell has he got over the President of the United States?”
On June 25, 1941, the order — Executive Order 8802 — was signed by Roosevelt and the march was called off a week before it was slated to happen.
Civil rights advocate Roy Wilkins wrote of the moment, “Never in the history of the United States has a President issued an Executive Order which is at once a condemnation of racial discrimination as a policy and a powerful aid, economically, to the well-being of Negro citizens.”
Lerome Bennett Jr., a historian, put all that came after 1941 in the context of that moment, writing, “Negro strategy would be based, implicitly and explicitly, on the necessity for decisive intervention by the federal government. It would be based, too, on the need for unrelenting pressure on the government.”
Some of the younger proponents of the march — including Rustin — were disappointed the march had been canceled, leading Randolph to issue a public statement explaining “Why and How the March Was Postponed.” As Paula Pfeffer detailed in her biography of Randolph, he argued that the executive order was the “main goal” of the march plans and so, as Pfeffer describes it, he argued that “the marchers would have appeared ridiculous marching when the primary objective had been met.”
Local assemblies across the country continued as part of Randolph’s “March on Washington Movement” that he established in the wake of the 1941 executive order to, as he described it, keep pressure on Washington and other officials.
Eventually, under another organization, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was planned:
Rustin — a long way from his youth organizing for Randolph’s 1941 march — was responsible for organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, despite the difficulties he faced because he was gay.
Rauh — the lawyer who drafted Executive Order 8802 — would later become one of the country’s preeminent civil rights advocates, working to advance passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
After the march and a year before the passage of those laws, meanwhile, Randolph and Rustin were featured on the cover of Life magazine, with the caption “The Leaders.”
For both of them, the March on Washington being commemorated Wednesday on its 50th anniversary was itself more than 20 years in the making.