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William P. Jones’ ‘The March on Washington’ examines radical roots of march

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 8/21/2013, 10:26 a.m.
William P. Jones: The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, offers a historical look ...
“March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Aug. 28, 1963. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Joachim Prinz pictured.

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Protesters at the march carrying signs demanding new civil rights legislation.

As the nation gears up to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a new book examines the lesser-known history of the landmark event.

William P. Jones: The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, offers a historical look into the making of the march from its radical roots in the 1940s to the organizational role of labor unions and women’s groups, and its ambitious economic agenda.

A history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Jones says that by shedding light on the past, the book will help readers see that the march was not just an icon of a bygone era, but also a “contemporary event” that is still relevant today.

“The march wasn’t a victory we can celebrate in the past,” Jones says, “but is part of an ongoing struggle that we can learn lessons from.”

The March on Washington focuses largely on the efforts of A. Phillip Randolph, the black trade unionist and leader of Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, who first conceived of the march in 1941 as a call to end employment discrimination.

Randolph leveraged the march to persuade Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order prohibiting job discrimination by the armed forces and defense contractors — two of the nation’s biggest employers during World War II.

The possibility of tens of thousands of African Americans mobilizing in the nation’s capital frightened Roosevelt. As a result, less than a week before the march was scheduled to take place, the president issued the Fair Employment Act, an executive order similar to what Randolph had proposed. Roosevelt also created the Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce these new policies.

While Roosevelt didn’t meet all of Randolph’s demands, it was enough to call off the march.

“We often see the goals of the Civil Rights Movement as starting with racial equality and expanding to include economic justice, but in fact, the reverse is the case,” Jones says. “They were initially concerned with economic justice and the issues about desegregation and voting rights in the South came later.”

After his first plan for a march never materialized, Randolph tried again — but failed — several times over the next two decades. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Randolph — who had become head of the Negro American Labor Council — was battling segregation within labor unions and the exclusion of blacks from skilled jobs that the idea of a massive demonstration in Washington seemed possible again.

Using their tremendous organizing skills, Randolph and other march leaders secured pledges from the dozens of civil rights, labor and women’s groups across the country to mobilize their members.

“People think that Martin Luther King and others said, ‘Let’s have a march,’ sent out some press releases and people just showed up,” Jones says. “But institutions were central to getting people to the march.” 

The date was set for Aug. 28, 1963, to coincide with the eighth anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder.