Our guest author today is William P. Jones, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)
If Richard Parrish had his way, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would have occurred in 1941 rather than 1963. As President of the Federation of Colored College Students in New York City, the 25-year old student was a key organizer of the mass demonstration that union leader A. Philip Randolph called to protest discrimination in the armed forces and the defense industries during the Second World War. He was furious, therefore, when Randolph cancelled the march in exchange for an executive order, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prohibiting defense contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of their race, color religion, or national origin. Parrish agreed that this was a major victory, but pointed out that it would expire when the war ended and do nothing to address discrimination in the armed forces. Accusing Randolph of acting without consulting the students and other groups that supported the mobilization, he insisted that the March on Washington be rescheduled immediately.
Randolph refused—accusing Parrish and other young militants of being “more interested in the drama and pyrotechnics of the march than the basic and main issues of putting Negroes to work”—but the disagreement did not prevent the two black radicals from working closely together to build a powerful alliance between the civil rights and labor movements in the postwar decades. After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1947, Parrish worked as a teacher and union leader until his retirement in 1976. He also worked closely with Randolph to open jobs and leadership positions for black workers in organized labor. When Randolph decided to reorganize the March on Washington in 1963, Dick Parrish was one of the first people he turned to for support.
Raised in Hell’s Kitchen, in midtown Manhattan, Parrish became politically active after moving to Harlem during the Great Depression. “I saw both the total poverty and the hopelessness facing many Negroes, as well as the rich heritage of my people,” he recalled; it “was an eye-opener on both counts.” After graduating from high school he worked a variety of jobs before getting hired as a clerk in a Navy Shipyard, where he helped organize one of the first white-collar unions in New York City. In addition to challenging employment discrimination in the Navy, Parrish and his coworkers organized an interracial movement against the process of segregating blood that was donated to the Red Cross. This was part of a broader effort to challenge the racism that African Americans faced in all aspects of American life, not just in the South, and it heated up as the Roosevelt administration emphasized the nation’s duty to protect democracy against the tide of fascism that swept across Europe and Asia in the late 1930s. Parish enrolled in night school at New York City College and in 1941, when A. Philip Randolph called for a March on Washington to “demand the right to work and fight for our country,” he led efforts to build support for the mobilization among black students across the United States.
Despite his disappointment with Randolph’s decision to cancel the demonstration, Parrish continued to fight for racial equality and economic justice during and after the Second World War. Leaving his job to attend school full time, he completed a degree in economics and secured a job teaching junior high school in Manhattan. On his first day at work Parrish joined the New York Teachers Guild, which he helped merge with several smaller unions to form the United Federation of Teachers in the 1950s. Parrish led a successful campaign to expel segregated locals from the American Federation of Teachers, a move that cost the union dearly in members and dues but allowed it, as he stated, “to show by our example that desegregation was not only morally right but that it would work.” When local officials responded to federal desegregation orders by closing public schools and shifting resources to segregated private academies, he recruited union members to run “freedom schools” for black students in Virginia, Mississippi and other states.
Richard Parrish’s activism within the American Federation of Teachers became a model for black activists who sought to link the civil rights and labor movements in the 1960s. In 1960, he was elected Treasurer of the Negro American Labor Council, which he, Randolph and several thousand black trade unionists formed to challenge segregation and discrimination within organized labor. The idea to renew Randolph’s March on Washington first came from NALC leaders who were frustrated by white labor leaders’ refusal to follow the AFT’s example by expelling discriminatory unions from the AFL-CIO. Black trade unionists planned initially to march on the national headquarters of the labor federation, but other black leaders convinced them to shift their focus to Congress and the White House and expand their objectives to support the struggle for integration and voting rights in the Jim Crow South. In addition to ensuring the passage of the most important civil rights laws of the 20th century, the demonstration forged an alliance between the civil rights and labor movements that remains vital to this day.
At a time when teachers and their unions are seen by many as obstacles to the reform of our public school system, we need to remember and celebrate the legacy of Richard Parrish more than ever. This is not just because he understood that trade unions could be powerful forces for progressive change, but also that he did not shy away from challenging them when they failed to live up to that potential. “Teachers have the greatest opportunity of any professional group to show their commitment to democracy by their activities both as citizens and as trade unionists,” he stated in the 1960s; “If we are to do this, we must ourselves be well versed in the history of the world, and we must be committed to the struggle for what is right and just.” That is a standard to which we can all aspire.
- William Jones