The Forging of the Civil Rights Coalition:

Part 2, the March on Washington Movement as a Patriotic Protest


In this essay, together with the previously published article entitled "The Forging of the Civil Rights Coalition: Part 1, the Great Depression and the Rise of A. Philip Randolph," I examine the influence of the Great Depression and World War II upon the African American leadership. Part I showed that a pivotal change of black thought had taken place during the depression years and that this change formed the backbone of Randolphfs emergence. In Part II, I analyze black protest activities during the war, especially Randolph's March on Washington Movement (MOWM), and the response of the white public to the black demands.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had drawn enormous inspiration from the MOWM. The name "March on Washington" was invoked again in the famous March of 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. had attained international fame. And it was also through the MOWM that the strategy of nonviolent direct action, with the large-scale mass demonstration as its principal tactic, was introduced to the African Americans for the first time in the history of their protests. Therefore, I hope this essay, through the examination of the movement's formation, will present a new perspective for future studies of the movement.

Until the late 1980s, civil rights movement studies have laid an emphasis not upon success but upon the rather limited achievements of the movement. Activists as well as scholars had argued that the movement had succeeded in abolishing de jure racial segregation but failed to tackle the economic hardship of working-class blacks. Thus they claimed that the movement had brought about meaningful social change only for middle or upper-class blacks. However convincing these arguments might be, the black leaders who had built the civil rights coalition during the 1930s and early 1940s gave priority to economic, especially employment, problems.

During the war emergency, African American leaders forced President Roosevelt to establish the Fair Employment Practice Committee, and, in the course of their protest activities, they discovered the power of black masses. After the Detroit riot of 1943, liberal whites had begun to pay unprecedented attention to the grievance of blacks. At the same time, black leaders, by taking the high road of common national principles, namely "freedom," succeeded in garnering support from these whites.

The rhetorical persuasion which blacks began to employ during the war also created another intellectual framework in the postwar liberal America. It was also during the war that Gunnar Myrdal claimed that "they [blacks] have eagerly imbibed the American Creed" and that "at bottom our problem is the moral dilemma of the American." This notion a race problem as a moral problem, African American as essentially American would hold sway over the discourse concerning race relations until the mid-1960s.

However, as was shown in the case of Randolphfs movements, blacks thought the interests of black workers was different from those of white workers. In fact, one of salient feature of Randolphfs advocacy had always been black self-help.

Thus, the limitation of the civil rights movement was not that it did not aim at tackling the problems facing working-class blacks. Yet, economic problems became less pronounced in the black leaders' protest expressions at the same time it was perceived as moral problem of liberal America. Ironically, it coincided with a time when blacks had succeeded in building the civil rights coalition. These developments at the critical juncture of the coalition building account for the precipitous disintegration of the civil rights coalition after the emergence of Black Power advocates and the escalation of the war in Vietnam.