By now it’s a familiar story: when the legendary labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph met with FDR before World War II to get the president to take action against discrimination, the president boomed back: “I agree with you, now go out and make me do it.”
Lots of people have been retelling the story as a call to action, comparing Obama to the wise, liberal Roosevelt. It urges supporters of everything from Middle East peace to health care and financial reform to keep the pressure on in order to get President Obama to do what he essentially wants to do, but cannot do—on his own because he’s being forced into unpalatable compromises by political pressures.
Obama himself is reported to have told the story on the campaign trail.
Now, I’m from Detroit and Randolph was part of the civil rights story I grew up on, and I never heard that story until the 2008 election.
I knew of Randolph as the organizer of the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. But by the 1960s his fame and stature were being eclipsed by more contemporary civil rights figures, Martin Luther King and Malcom X.
I was curious what Randolph had done to make Roosevelt do it.
So I started reading biographies of Randolph, and I found a rich character in American history.
But I found no reference to Roosevelt ever telling Randolph or anybody else to “Make me do it.”
Born in Florida, Randolph moved to Harlem, where before he was an organizer, he was an actor and a singer, organizing the Harlem Shakespeare Society, performing Othello, Macbeth and Romeo. He became a socialist before that was a dirty word, back when Eugene Debs got nearly a million votes in the 1912 presidential election.
I found it fascinating that three Randolph biographies make detailed reference to his meetings with FDR, but make no mention of “Make me do it.”
Whether the exchange happened doesn’t matter. But it frames the role of the president as some poor guy who just needs a nudge to do the right thing.
But the historical record as reflected in the three Randolph biographies suggests that FDR was much less supportive of the civil rights leaders’ agenda than merely looking for cover from someone who would “make him do it.”
The biographies also suggest that the civil rights leaders accomplished their goals not through benign persuasion but by an unyielding threat to bring 100,000 black people to a march on Washington in 1941.
Randolph and other civil rights leaders were meeting resistance in their efforts to get an executive order barring discrimination in the armed services and in defense jobs.
According to Pula F. Pfeffer’s “A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Right Movement,” more than 250,000 defense jobs were closed to African-Americans regardless of qualifications; they were denied placement even in unskilled jobs. Only 240 of 107,000 workers in the aircraft industry were black. In response to a U.S. employment service survey, more than half of the defense companies said they would not hire blacks.
Randolph’s biographers report that he and other civil rights leaders came away from a September, 1940 meeting with FDR not buoyed by suggestion that cause was just and winnable, but increasingly frustrated.
It was then that Randolph and the others decided that a new strategy was needed – a march on Washington that would bring 10,000 African-Americans to the nation’s capital, demanding an end to discrimination in the Armed Services and defense industry.
Writes Pfeffer: “[Randolph] conceived of the march as a show of black mass power so enormous that the government could not ignore it. The idea was not different in kind – there had been marches before - but it differed significantly in scope. Because blacks were `supposed to be unrecognizable,’ Randolph wrote, such a march `would wake up and shock official Washington as it had never been shocked before.’ ”
As momentum and publicity for the march built, Randolph increased his estimate of the crowd it would draw, from 10,000 to 100,000, and asked FDR to address the gathering.
FDR and his wife, Eleanor, who served as his liaison to the African-American community, were aghast. “The Roosevelts feared the march would result in a race war in the nation’s capital that would prove an embarrassment to a country that held itself up as a model of democracy,” Pfeffer wrote.
FDR met with Randolph and the civil rights leaders again in June 1941. FDR attempted to charm them and urged them to cancel the march. In exchange, the president offered to call defense industry chieftains to get them to voluntarily hire blacks. Randolph and the other civil rights leaders refused to budge. Roosevelt finally relented, issuing Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in the defense industries. Randolph and his colleagues then canceled the march.
Far from encouraging the civil rights leaders to make him end discrimination, Roosevelt did everything he could to resist their pressure, according to Randolph’s biographers. Only when he was convinced that they wouldn’t buckle to presidential persuasion did FDR have the executive order issued.
The story offers a tougher lesson for reformers than the “Make me do it” legend does. They may not have a co-conspirator in the White House, despite his rhetoric of change, hope and community organizing. But it also offers an example of how seemingly impossible goals can be achieved by clearly articulating objectives, relentless organizing and not being afraid to show the muscle that such hard work can build. President Obama showed his audacity in winning election. If history is a guide, it’s time for reformers to show theirs.