Tag Archives: Washington DC

Unbowed & unbroken Debs comes to Washington: 1921

10 Jan
Debs outside Attorney General’s office: 1921

Debs outside the Attorney General’s office in Washington, D.C. Dec. 26, 1921.

by JW

Eugene Debs, the inspirational labor and socialist leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries visited Washington, D.C. several times during his life.

However his most famous visit occurred after his Christmas Day 1921 release from the Atlanta Penitentiary while serving a 10-year sentence for sedition after U.S. President Warren Harding commuted his jail term, along with 23 others.

Debs, who received nearly a million votes while running for U.S. president from his jail cell in the 1920 election, was incarcerated for the crime of speaking out against U.S. entry into World War I and the forced draft of young men into the army.

Debs left prison and spent a day and a half in Washington, D.C. where he visited the U.S. Attorney General in Justice Department offices and U.S. President Warren Harding at the White House, a man who had defeated him in the election the previous year.

Labor & socialist leader

King Debs: 1894

Capitalist view of “King Debs,” 1894 Pullman Strike.

Early in his adulthood, Debs worked with several craft unions including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He became disillusioned with this model of unionism and was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union (ARU), one of the nation’s first industrial unions that organized across craft and skill lines.

The ARU achieved early success with an 1894 strike at Great Northern Railway. Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company,  many of whom were already ARU members, organized a wildcat strike over pay cuts in the summer of 1894. Debs initially opposed calling a boycott, citing the weakness of the union.

However after workers began boycotting Pullman cars in several areas of the country, Debs called for a nationwide boycott by the ARU against handling trains with Pullman cars, in what became the nationwide Pullman strike, affecting most lines west of Detroit, and more than 250,000 workers in 27 states.

Using the excuse of keeping the U.S. mail running, President Grover Cleveland used the United States Army to break the strike. Thirteen strikers were killed and thousands blacklisted.

As a leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted of federal charges for defying a court injunction against the strike and served six months in prison. The right of the government to use the injunction was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While in prison, Debs began reading socialist literature and its message hit home. He became an articulate spokesperson for socialism.

He later helped found the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—a radical rival to the American Federation of Labor.

He ran five times for U.S. president, receiving nearly a million votes in 1912 and 1920. In the latter election, he ran for the office from a prison cell.

Imprisonment

Canton speech lands presidential candidate Debs in jail: 1918

Debs imprisoned for this speech in Canton, Ohio June 16, 1918.

Debs was opposed to U.S. workers fighting for the capitalist class in World War I and made a speech against the war in Canton, Ohio in 1918. Debs said he phrased his words carefully mindful of the possible consequences.

Nevertheless, he was charged with ten counts of sedition, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

He gave two thundering speeches to the court, saying at one point,

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.

At his sentencing hearing he said,

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

After his appeals were exhausted, he began serving his sentence April 13, 1919. More than one million signed a petition calling for Debs release. However, President Woodrow Wilson denied appeals for clemency saying at one point, “This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.”

When Warren Harding succeeded Wilson, renewed appeals for clemency began in earnest. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty invited Debs to Washington in March 1921 as part of an evaluation of Debs status. Debs then returned to prison.

Eugene Debs clemency telegram: 1921

Telegram ordering Debs release from prison, December 24, 1921.

On Christmas Day 1921, Debs’ sentence was commuted. When he left the Atlanta Penitentiary, he was sent off with the cheers of 2,300 inmates. The warden provided him with a first class train ticket to Washington, D.C. (instead of to his home or to his place of sentence which is customary).

Debs rode in a sleeper car and donated the difference in the ticket to the Russian relief fund. He was accompanied by his brother Theodore; Celia Rotter of the Debs freedom conference; Lucy Robbins of the American Federation of Labor and the Debs freedom conference; along with a number of newspaper reporters.

Arrival in Washington, D.C.

Debs at the Hotel Harrington: 1921

Debs (tall man in center) at the Hotel Harrington with supporters and newsmen Dec. 26, 1921.

Debs arrived in Washington’s Union Station where he found the taxicabs were non-union and promptly headed for a streetcar. However, a reporter prevailed upon him to accept a ride in an automobile to the Hotel Harrington where he sat down in the barber’s chair, had a shave and then ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

He walked from the hotel at 11th & E Streets NW and called upon Daugherty at the Justice Department offices at 1010 Vermont Avenue NW about 11 a.m. dressed in clothes provided by the warden when he left prison—brown suit, dark felt hat, dark overcoat and black shoes.

Debs calls on U.S. Attorney General: 1921

Eugene Debs outside the office of U.S. Attorney General Harry Dougherty Dec. 26, 1921.

“I was courteously received by the Attorney General,” Debs said, “and expressed to him my interest in and my devotion to my fellow prisoners who were no more guilty than I and who still remain in prison.”

By fellow-prisoners, he said he meant both “political offenders and prisoners in general.” Hundreds of war opponents were sentenced to prison for speaking out against the war while the U.S. government was claiming it was fighting to make the world “safe for democracy.”

After a 30-minute conference with Daugherty he then walked to the White House arriving shortly before noon. “I’ve started for here four or five times,” Debs said tongue in cheek, “but this is the first time I ever landed,” (referring to his five times running for President).

Eugene Debs leaving the White House: 1921

Debs outside the White House Dec. 26, 1921 where he met with U.S. President Warren Harding. Debs ran for president as a socialist five times.

He was received by President Harding and met with the president for about 30 minutes inside the White House.

At the White House I was received very cordially by President Harding, with whom I exchanged opinions and points of view, so that he might perfectly understand my attitude in reference to my future activities. During the visit I took occasion to express my appreciation of the consideration.

Debs walked back to his hotel. He originally planned to leave Washington the same day, but a parade of visitors caused him to stay overnight at the Harrington.

Among those who called upon him was Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor who had urged his release. Gompers committed to working to free the remaining political prisoners—mostly men and women from the rival IWW.

Debs with group outside Dougherty’s office: 1921

Debs shown with supporters and newsmen Dec. 26, 1921 in Washington, D.C.

The following day on the 27th he saw Peter MacSwiney, brother of the late Lord Mayor of Cork; Frank Morrison, Secretary of the American Federation of Labor; Philip LaFollette, son of the senior Senator From Wisconsin; Santiago Iglesias of the Puerto Rican Senate and Canuto Vargas, Secretary of the Pan American Federation of Labor; Urbain Ledoux, the advocate for unemployed who bestowed his lantern on Debs ending Ledoux’s quest for “an honest man;” along with dozens of friends and well-wishers.

Before leaving Washington, Debs held an unauthorized rally with several hundred supporters in Union Station where he said in part, “I believe in free speech. In the expression of these differing opinions we find our way to higher civilization.”

“With every drop of blood in my veins,” he concluded, “I am opposed to war. Human life is too sacred a thing to be spent in bloodshed.”

He then left for his home in Terre Haute, Indiana and when he arrived, he was greeted by 50,000 well-wishers in a public demonstration.

Questioned about his prison-issued suit, Debs stated his desire to wear his too-large suit for some time saying, “Like the wrinkles on my face, they (the prison issued clothes) have cost me something.”

During his time in prison, Debs refused all privileges not accorded the other inmates and his health suffered. Debs never recovered his health from his time in prison and died October 20, 1926. He left a legacy as the greatest socialist leader in the history of the United States, although he said,

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the Promised Land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.


Sources include The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, Nick Salvatore’s Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist among others. The author is a student at the University of Maryland.

 

Strike Wave at Washington, DC’s Capital Transit: 1945

10 May
Transit Union Members At Pythian Temple:

Union members outside Pythian Temple Nov. 6, 1945.

By Daniel Hardin

“Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands.”

Walter H. Vanstavern

Nearly 4,500 workers on the Washington, D.C. Capital Transit streetcar and bus system went on a wildcat strike November 6, 1945 to demand higher wages, despite a no-strike provision in the contract between the Amalgamated Association of Street Electric Railway Employees (the Amalgamated) Division 689 and the company.

The strike ended briefly with a truce, but a second wildcat strike took place two weeks later that ended when the U.S. government seized the company and threatened to operate the system with U.S. troops.

Post-War Turmoil

The Capital Transit strike was part of perhaps the greatest strike wave in U.S. history–during 1945-46–that involved upwards of 4.5 million workers across the country.

DC telephone operators leave union meeting at Turner's Arena in 1946

DC telephone operators leave union meeting at Turner’s Arena before strike in 1946..

As GIs returned to the U.S. and sought employment, workers’ hours, and thereby their take-home pay, were cut in nearly all industries. Pay demands were also pent up due to relatively small raises granted during the war years of 1942-45 where many unions entered no-strike pledges. The companies also began pushing elimination or weakening of seniority and other work rules designed to protect employees.

The strike wave involved workers in the auto, meatpacking, steel, coal, railroad, mining and oil industries, among others. The government responded by seizing the railroads, threatening to seize other industries and to draft strikers into the army.

Division 689

Division 689 of the Amalgamated was established after a one-day strike in 1916 at the Capital Traction and the Washington Railway & Electric companies. A year after the settlement WRE president Clarence King sought to break the union when he fired key union supporters and refused to negotiate a new agreement, instead offering individual contracts to workers.

Crowd Blocks Scab Streetcar During Transit Strike: 1917

Workers & supporters halt a scab WRE streetcar at 9th & F St. during a 1917 strike.

Capital Traction settled the day before a scheduled strike. The union called a strike against the larger WRE, but the company operated with strikebreakers and broke the union. The unionization of city lines wasn’t completed again until Capital Traction merged with the WRE to become Capital Transit in 1933 and applied the union contract to all workers.

The defeat at WRE in 1917 loomed large over the union leaders for the next two decades and as a result they pursued a policy of accommodation with the company. The old guard was defeated in 1940 by upstarts calling for a more militant approach, but former president William F. Simms recaptured the position by defeating Jonathan G. Bigelow in 1944 by accusing him of being soft on resisting de-segregation of bus and trolley operators.

Segregation

The transit companies in Washington, D.C. had no practice or law requiring Jim Crow seating like those south of the Potomac River, but the D.C. companies had long refused to hire African American operators or conductors.

In 1940 a group of young activists began undertaking a campaign to integrate the Capital Transit operator ranks through education, pickets, lobbying and demonstrations. The federal government had the power to integrate the company during World War II through a Fair Employment Practices Commission; however, despite repeated promises they had failed to do so by 1945.

Jonathan G. Bigelow, Transit Union Division 689 President: 1940

Jonathan G. Bigelow, union president 1940-44.

While Bigelow was union president, he took the position of the Amalgamated’s International Union that the union accepted anyone who was hired. Indeed, he pointed out that hundreds of maintenance employees were African Americans. But he warned that bus and streetcar operators might not accept black drivers and would likely strike if they were employed. Simms was not so reticent He vowed to oppose any attempt to hire African Americans.

Against this background of pent-up wage demands, talk of strikes opposing integration, the end of World War II and the beginning of a new general labor militancy, the Capital Transit workers gathered at a union meeting to consider their situation.

 The Strike Begins

In October 1945, Capital Transit rejected the union’s wage demands. To put pressure on the company, Simms called for a “continuous union meeting” to begin at midnight at the Gayety theater near 9th & E Streets NW. It was attended by around 2,500 workers.

The strike effectively began at 2:30 am on November 6, 1945 when the first trains and buses were due to leave their barns and workers were still in their meeting.

Idol is Idled by Streetcar Strike: 1945

A man listens for a streetcar on the 2800 block of 14th St. in the early hours of the first 1945 strike.

The strike left heavily-streetcar-dependent Washington paralyzed. Over 500,000 passengers normally made between 1.2 and 1.5 million trips per day.

Without any preparations for the strike, the federal government opened on time, but closed two hours early. Downtown department stores closed at 4:30 p.m. All district government employees except firemen and police were let out at 3:30 pm.

The Washington Post wrote, “Scenes on the Capital’s streets included: a naval officer pedaling a bicycle with a government stenographer in a basket on the handlebars; a Negro riding to work on horseback, and a youth zigzagging down Sixteenth Street on roller skates he obviously hadn’t used for years.”

“Among the hundreds of thousands affected by the strike were delegates to President Truman’s labor-management conference called to write a national peace formula for industry and labor. They had to depend on scarce taxicabs or private automobiles,” the Washington Post reported.

The rolling union meeting shifted to the Pythian Temple on 9th Street between L Street and Massachusetts Avenue in the morning and still later to Turner’s Arena at 14th Street and W Street. NW, where 3,000 union members showed up.

Capital Transit Union Leaders in mid-20th Century

New negotiating committee (l-r) W. H. Van Stavern, Walter J. Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna with transit union president William F. Simms.

The raucous meeting was divided into two points of view—one urging a return to work and the other wanting to continue to exercise their newfound power. An early sign of how the meeting was to go came when a new negotiating committee was elected composed of a more militant trio, Walter Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna and Walter H. Vanstavern.

Simms, the Amalgamated’s International secretary-treasurer Sam Berrong, and federal mediator Richard W. Goodrick all urged a return to work.

“The company is more than willing to enter negotiations with the union. But the company insists that the terms of the contract, which requires that ‘service shall not be interfered with’ be honored. Go back to your jobs and I am sure that you and the company officials can get together,” Goodrick told the crowd

 Compromise or Unusual Manner?

Vanstavern, newly elected to the negotiating committee spoke next: “Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands. We regard the sentiments of our International leaders and our own president with considerable deference. But this is an unusual controversy which must be handled in an unusual manner.”

Transit Union Strike Meeting: 1945

“Continuous meeting” of DC transit union at Turner’s Arena on 14th St. NW

Vanstavern’s words were met with 10 minutes of shouting, foot stamping and applause by supporters of the new negotiating committee. The workers voted to continue the strike.

E. D. Merrill, president of Capital Transit, responded that the company would lose $2.5 million annually if the workers were awarded their demand of a $0.30 per hour raise to all workers. Instead he offered to incorporate the $0.07 per hour bonus that was already being paid into the basic rate—the same offer he had made in October—well before the strike.

Government Intervention

The federal government immediately reacted to the strike. More than 500 military MPs at Ft. Myer were put on alert. Labor Department Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach and Sen. Jennings Randolph, chair of the House District Committee, met the union leaders and the company during the morning of Nov. 7th.

DC Transit Union President Confers with Mediator: 1945

Simms (right) confers with federal conciliator Richard Goodrick (center).

Randolph made the implicit threat of government seizure when he said that President Truman had told him to “step in and help end the dispute that had seriously impeded the government of vitally needed Government employees.”

The National Negro Congress issued a statement calling for granting the wage increase to the workers, but urged the company to desegregate its operators at the same time.

The company issued a statement refusing to bargain, citing a “no interruption of service” clause in the union’s contract.

 Union Demands

The union demands centered on increasing pay to $1.25 an hour as a basic wage for operators and to which other classifications were tied. The current wage was $1.02 per hour that consisted of $0.95 cents basic wage and $0.07 an hour wartime bonus. Mediation in October 1945 had recommended no increase beyond incorporating the $0.07 bonus into the basic wage, a proposal the union rejected.

Workers in most departments, including bus and streetcar operators, had been working an average of 48-hour work weeks that were threatened with cut back to 40 hours as members of the armed services were released from duty. In order to make up for the lost pay, the strikers were demanding the wartime bonus be incorporated and an additional $0.23 be added to make up for lost earnings plus a nominal increase in take-home pay.

Company President Refuses to Hire Black Operators 1941

E. D. Merrill, Capital Transit Co. president

“E.D. Merrill, president of the Capital Transit, said that if the workers were paid the 30 cent an hour increase they are demanding, the company would have to raise car and bus fares to meet the added operating costs,” the Washington Post reported.

“To raise the fares charged now the company would have to petition the District Public Utilities Commission and show cause why they should be raised,” said Merrill.

“To do that would result in a long dragged out rate case that would probably take months to settle. And there’s no way you can charge bus and streetcar passengers retroactively for underpaid fares. No one can say exactly how much it would cost the company,” Merrill stated, according to the Washington Post.

 Capital & Labor

The union adopted a position that was later cemented during the 1955 strike and continues to underpin the union’s position on wages and benefits today.

Streetcar Union Members at Pythian Temple: 1945

Transit workers outside the Pythian Temple during “continuous union meeting.”

It can be summed up as follows: that the workers have value and needs independent of the company’s profit (or later the government’s funding) and in a society of tremendous wealth—those needs must be met.

But even without the union adopting that position, Capital Transit owned outright nearly all its facilities and equipment, had little debt, good operating profits, and large cash reserves.

Truce

The union’s negotiating committee reconsidered their bargaining position and entered into a temporary truce calling for a 14-day cooling off period.

At the same time the truce was reached, taxicab drivers of Local 953 of the Taxicab Operators Union were meeting to consider joining the strike.

The 1:00 pm meeting of about 3,000 seesawed back and forth between speakers calling for a continuation of the strike and those who urged backing the negotiating committee. In the end, the union members voted nearly unanimously to ratify the agreement. It contained three points:

  1. That the prestrike status quo be restored
  2. That all employees be returned to work without discrimination or penalties against strikers or the union.
  3. That negotiations proceed for a 14-day period before a special three-man Conciliation Service panel.
Sam Berrong, Transit Union Official During DC Strike: 1945

Sam Berrong, the Amalgamated’s International representative during the strike.

After the ratification vote, Berrong told local union leaders that; “I want to congratulate you on your decision. I happen to know that if you hadn’t decided to go back to work, the Army was prepared to take over at 2 o’clock,” according to the Washington Post.

Transit service began to be restored at around 1:30 pm and was completely restored by 9 pm November 7th.

Negotiations over the next two weeks moved slowly but the agreed-upon deadline was moved up just prior to Thanksgiving. On Tuesday Nov. 20th a tentative agreement was reached and a union meeting was called for midnight at Turner’s Arena.

Wildcat Strike

Union president Simms presented the proposal that called for arbitration to resolve the pay dispute. In no uncertain terms, the 3,000 assembled rejected the proposal and voted to strike in the early morning hours of November 21st. Simms then recessed the meeting until 1:00 pm.

Service was crippled on the day before Thanksgiving and the federal government reacted quickly.

Office of Defense Transportation (ODT–a World War II agency) director of highway transport Guy A. Richardson appeared before the 1:00 pm union meeting and announced President Harry Truman’s decision to seize the company and operate it.

Berrong, the representative of the Amalgamated’s International union, and Simms both denounced the strike and pledged cooperation with the federal government to end it.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Union member Thelma Hodges speaks out at Turner’s Arena during the strike.

Union members rushed to the microphones and shouted out a motion to continue the strike that Simms in turn ruled out of order. Union members called for Simms’ impeachment, but he ignored them.

Some of the assembled workers began to drift out of the meeting while others debated the next course of action. Someone ordered the lights cut at 5 pm and the debate continued out on the street.

Truman Denounces Strike

President Truman issued his formal seizure order at 3:00 pm, saying the work stoppage “strikes…at the very roots of orderly government” and vowing that, “The federal government will not permit this kind of action to interfere with its processes either in the capital or any part of the nation.”

Seized Trolleys, Buses Begin Operating: 1945

President Truman seizes Capital Transit and activates the U.S. Army.

As Truman spoke, thousands of troops in the Washington Military District were placed on alert. Brig. Gen. Robert N. Young, the commanding general of the district, announced, “We are prepared to do anything that ODT requires,” and said he had “more than 4,000 men who can serve as bus or streetcar operators—or as military police.”

While the union members continued to debate at Turner’s Arena, others headed back to work.

The first streetcar left the Southern Division barn at Maine Ave. SW at 3:07 pm and the first bus left the Trinidad Division at 15th & Benning Road NE at 6:10 pm Most service was restored Thanksgiving Day, and Friday, November 23 saw a complete restoration of service.

Aftermath

Following the strike, Capital Transit fired a number of men who were accused of urging a continuation of the strike at the Brookland Division near 10th St. and Michigan Ave. NE.

Idled Streetcars During 2nd Strike: 1945

Idled streetcars Nov. 22, 1945 while striking workers begin to return to work.

One of those discharged, Ernest M. Hatfield, said “I didn’t attend the continuous meeting of the union either November 7th or last week, In fact I didn’t know about the first strike and reported to work as usual. The company refused to give me my equipment that morning when I showed up for work,” according to the Washington Post.

“I have worked seven days a week for months. I have a wife and two small children. My hours at work were from 6 am to 10 pm. Every day but Sunday. Sundays I worked from noon to 9:30 pm. The only hours I got to see my kids when they weren’t asleep was before noon on Sunday. I tried to do my bit for the company during the war. I can’t understand their action yesterday. I have had only two days off since August 12—more than three months,” Hatfield declared.

A month later, the union settled the grievances of the nine terminated men to return them to work without back pay.

Congressional Reaction

While union power was being demonstrated across the country, many Congressional leaders were denouncing the workers’ actions, and particular ire was directed at the Capital Transit strikers.

The Washington Post reported that “Congress…reacted to the Washington transit, General Motors and Chicago telephone strikes with a whole series of moves aimed at organized labor.”

Representative Eugene E. Cox (D-Ga.) declared, “The goons have the country at bay,” and labeled it “an assault of organized outlaws.”

Senator Alexander Wiley (R-Wi) called the strike, “intolerable and outrageous.”

Representative Charles a Halleck (R-Ind.) offered, “The transit workers are out today in violation of their contract and the company is entirely without recourse.”

Caravan to Oppose Taft-Hartley Act: 1947

A union caravan in Washington, D.C. urges a veto of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

Representative Roger C. Slaughter (D-Mo.) suggested the transit workers could be sued for damages under the terms of a bill he supported.

Despite having the greatest number of workers involved in militant action in the history of the U.S labor movement during 1945-46, labor leaders were unable to consolidate their gains. Instead a coalition of Republican and Democratic legislators acted to pass the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—severely restricting union and individual rights.

Segregation

Activists in the five-year fight to desegregate Capital Transit were buoyed by the opportunity presented by the federal seizure of the company. The wartime FEPC had repeatedly found against the company, but had not enforced their order to desegregate.

Transit Union Members at Pythian Temple (African Americans): 1945 # 1

Capital Transit barred African American transit union members (shown at Pythian Temple)  from operating buses and streetcars.

In August 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the seizure of the Philadelphia Transit Company during a wildcat strike and enforced the integration of operator ranks. However, in the case of Capital Transit Truman refused to do so. Charles Hamilton Houston, a longtime civil rights leader serving on the FEPC, resigned denouncing the government’s lip service to desegregation.

The Capital Transit Company’s operators were not desegregated until 1955 while the union prepared for another showdown with Capital Transit.

Pay issue Arbitration

The three member arbitration panel (one company, one union and one neutral) voted 2-1 January 2, 1946, with the company dissenting, to increase the basic wage for operators to $1.14 per hour and to guarantee a 48-hour week until the expiration of the current contract in June 1946. The increase made the union members the highest paid on the East Coast.

However the company refused to comply until the Wage Stabilization Board acted, although wage board and company agreed that its action was not necessary. Ultimately the company relented and paid the increases.

The new insurgent forces within the union were satisfied. They felt the strikes had served their purpose and they would never have received the increases without demonstrating the seriousness of their demands though the strikes.


Union President With Members After Strike Ends: 1955

Walter Bierwagen (right) relaxes with members after the vote to end the 1955 strike.

Author’s Notes:

Walter Bierwagen, a member of the 1945 negotiating committee, cut his teeth in the 1945 wildcats and went on to defeat William Simms in the 1950 Division 689 elections. He applied the lessons learned during the 1945 wildcats—that increasing the amount of public support and a united membership would be essential to outright winning a strike. Further, that stage must be set so that government intervention was on the side of the strikers—not the company.

Dependent on African American support for his election, he led the union in a 1951 strike that established seniority rights for track and maintenance departments where many African Americans worked, and ultimately forced a resolution through the union’s executive board and membership endorsing desegregation in 1955.

Congrats to First DC Transit Union African American Officer: 1974

Walter Bierwagen (right) congratulates first ATU Local 689 African American officer Rodney Richmond at a 1974 installation of officers..

He made a very public case in 1955 that Capital Transit’s owners had looted the company at the public’s expense. He led a two-month strike in 1955 that won a small wage increase but firmly established a principle that workers had value independent of the way the company was run.

During Bierwagen’s tenure as head of the local transit union, pension and health and welfare benefits were established. He was elected a vice president of the international union, where he played a crucial role in protecting transit workers’ bargaining rights as public entities took over private transit companies.

The strike wave of 1945-46 was a missed opportunity for workers. Failure to consolidate gains directly led to the crippling Taft-Hartley Act. In turn that has in large part resulted in the past 60 years of defensive battles by workers while union density declines.

Sources include The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Afro American, and surviving records of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 among others.


Postscript: Early D.C. Transit Union Organizing

Amalgamated Associated of Street & Electric Railway Employees Division 689 (currently named Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689) was established in the Washington, D.C. transit system after a one-day strike March 5-6, 1916. It was settled when District government officials stepped in and brokered an agreement to arbitrate disputes not settled. The ad-hoc agreement was for one year.

Knights Street Car Union President: 1895

Earlier efforts at organizing transit workers in Washington, D.C. met with brief successes, but ultimate defeat. The Knights of Labor established a Street Railway Protective Association in the 1880s that waged several strikes against street railway companies and achieved some success in improving wages and working conditions under the leadership of Thomas J. Lawrence before falling victim to the weaknesses in the Knights’ organization around the turn of the century.

There was a brief strike on the Metropolitan Railroad in 1900. Division 161 of the Amalgamated was established by 1901 and achieved early success on uniform issues. However, by October 1901 the Capital Traction Co. fired union president John McCrackin and the union lapsed shortly afterward.

Organizing efforts continued with attempts to establish the Amalgamated in 1907 and 1909, before Division 689 was established in January 1916.

The union currently represents 13,000 active and retired, bus and rail employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as well as some paratransit workers at private companies.

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Want to see more images of the transit union or other unions 1945 strikes?

Want to read more about the battle to desegregate Washington, D.C.’s transit system?

Want to see more images of the transit union in 1916-17, 19551974, 1978, WWII, Desegregation of the transit system?

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Shootings by DC Police Spark Fight Against Brutality 1936-41

20 Apr

A campaign from 1936-41 against police brutality in Washington, D.C. was led by the local National Negro Congress, which built a broad-based coalition. They won a sharp decline in the number of police shootings, a police review board, and new political power in an early civil rights struggle in the city.


Marchers Gather to Protest Police Brutality in DC: 1941

DC rally against police brutality Sept. 14, 1941. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Historical Image Collection. All rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Leonard Basey was out with co-workers on the evening of August 30, 1936 enjoying a respite from the work and barracks life in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at 26th and M Streets NE in Washington, D.C. The unit was doing the physical labor to build the infrastructure for the National Arboretum.

Basey was part of a group of young enlistees in Company 1360 in camp NA-1-DC, an African American post with white officers.

That night, Basey was walking with five other men from the camp, who were laughing and joking loudly as they walked along M Street toward Bladensburg Road through a predominantly white neighborhood.

Later testifying that he received a phone call from someone disturbed by the noise, police officer Vivian H. Landrum left his home in the neighborhood and approached the youths near 17th and M Streets NE. Landry placed the group under arrest and walked them to a police call box near Bladensburg Road and M Street NE.

When Basey questioned the arrest Landry reportedly responded, “Shut up, and don’t give me too much lip, or I’ll fill you full of lead,” according to a companion’s later testimony reported in the Afro American.

It was then that he “grabbed Basey, who was standing sideways toward him, spun him around and shot him in the abdomen,” said Basey’s companion, according to the same article.

He was just another black man who was the victim of a police murder in Washington, D.C…. or was he?

National Negro Congress

The first national convention of the National Negro Congress (NNC) took place in February of 1936 in Chicago. The NNC was formed to fill the void left by the NAACP’s reliance on a legal and lobbying strategy and would be more of an activist organization, engaging in pickets, protests and direct action to advance the cause of African American rights.

National Negro Congress Leaders at Banquet: 1940

NNC leaders John P. Davis (left) and A. Phillip Randolph (right) in March, 1940.

The NAACP had often placed a greater emphasis on issues of concern to the black elite, while the NNC was based in the black working class and was composed of many local African American union leaders along with a significant section of the black intelligentsia.

The founding Congress contained a relatively small group of activist ministers. Two national board members of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins and Charles Hamilton Houston, also attended. The NAACP as an organization, however, boycotted the group’s formation, although a number of leaders of local chapters attended.

The NNC attracted members with political views across the spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans, socialists and communists. The NNC selected A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as its president and John P. Davis as executive secretary. Its headquarters was established in Washington, D.C.

Local Washington NNC

In contrast to the national convention, the Washington, D.C. chapter almost immediately gained wide representation among the black clergy.  Rev. William H. Jernagin, the former president of the National Race Congress, a previous broad-based African American organization, lived in the city and attended the first NNC convention.

Longtime Rights Leader Rev. William H. Jernagin: 1940 ca

Rev. William H. Jernagin circa 1940.

Jernagin was also a local rights activist and after the convention he persuaded the influential Interdenominational Ministers Alliance to affiliate with the local NNC.

These ministers were quickly able to prevail upon the local Elks, NAACP, the New Negro Alliance and other District of Columbia groups to join with the local NNC either directly or in coalition. A minister, Rev. Arthur D. Gray, was elected president of the local NNC.

The D. C. NNC began taking up issues of race discrimination in employment and the issue of police brutality.

In the Spring of 1936, during a meeting held at the Metropolitan Baptist Church to call for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys,” Davis called for expanding the cause to fight police brutality in the city.

According to Erik Gellman in Death Blow to Jim Crow, William Hastie, a Howard University professor, told the crowd,

It doesn’t matter whether a person is hanged by an unauthorized mob or by an organized mob known as the law.

The city commissioners and the police department didn’t know it yet, but a new force had risen to challenge police violence.

Newspapers Report Self-Defense

The day after Basey was shot, the Washington Post reported

…Landrum fired at the man when Basey and several others rushed the policeman to prevent his arrest of another man who was with them.

DC National Negro Congress President Rev. Arthur D. Gray: 1940 ca

Washington branch NNC president Rev. Arthur D. Gray.

Basey died September 1 at the Casualty Hospital at 3rd and B Streets SE. The Afro American initially reported as part of a headline, “Policeman Fires as Gang Demands his Prisoner.”

But the official story began to unravel as witnesses came forward.

In testimony before a coroner’s jury inquest on September 3, white witnesses testified that Landrum was surrounded and did not draw his gun until after the group reached the call box.

One 11-year-old white youth said “Basey had his arm drawn back as if to strike Landrum when he was shot,” according to the Afro American. But the youth admitted that Landrum and another white man had talked to him the following day about being a witness for the defense.

When Landrum himself testified, he contradicted the white witnesses and admitted that the group did not surround him and he drew his service weapon as soon as the group was arrested.

‘Vision’ Flashed Through Policeman’s Mind

He also testified that the reason none of the youths struck him was because he fired his weapon when “a vision of officer Kennedy at Truxton Circle flashed through my mind.” He was referring to a police slaying by three youths at Logan Circle in 1932.

A later letter to the Washington Post characterized Landrum’s testimony thusly,

The officers’ tale resembled that of the sportsman who arrested for catching black bass out of season, maintained that he had taken the fish in self-defense, since they had jumped out of the water and bitten him.

African American CCC Camp Under Construction: 1934

CCC Camp NA-1-DC under construction in 1934.

Landrum’s testimony and that of other defense witnesses was disputed by the other CCC youths, but also by white CCC camp commander Richmond Bowen, who came on the scene shortly before the shooting. A white gas station attendant also testified he was about 40 feet from the group and heard Landrum tell them, “Shut up unless you want some of it too.”

The first inquest jury, composed of four whites and one black person, deadlocked 4-1 in Landrum’s favor and a mistrial was declared.

A second inquest held September 6 heard 29 witnesses give essentially the same testimony, but at 10 pm returned with an inexplicable verdict exonerating Landrum.

We believe the said V. Harry Landrum discharged his gun when he believed his life was in jeopardy, such a belief being initiated by a mental process and not by any overt act or acts on the part of those under arrest.

Press Ramps Up Outrage

NNC executive secretary John P. Davis and A. S. Pinkett, head of the local NAACP, immediately called for the district attorney to ask a grand jury to indict Landrum for the killing and for a police trial board to be convened to dismiss Landrum from the force.

DC Killer Cop is Free: 1936

‘Killer Cop Free.’ Afro American, Sept. 12, 1936.

But the case really began to take on a life of its own when the Afro American published its story September 12 under the headline “KILLER-COP FREE.”

The Afro printed a dramatic report that,

Lawrence Basey was the fortieth colored person shot to death by Metropolitan police since 1925. Every officer involved has been exonerated. Most of the victims were under 21 years of age.

Adam Lapin of the Washington bureau of the Daily Worker jumped on the story.  The Afro shared their research with Lapin so he could detail the victims’ names, dates of death, ages, and officers involved.

Afro Lists Victims of DC Police Killings: 1936

List of the slain. Afro, Oct. 17, 1936.

The national Communist Party paper published the statistics and an accompanying story where Lapin gave additional details on some of the deaths, writing that all forty cases “are similar, indeed, all the police murders of Negroes in Washington follow the same pattern.”

For one example, Lapin wrote,

On December 9, 1933, Policeman Wallace M. Suthard shot in the abdomen and killed Robert Lewis, a Negro worker who had been placed under arrest suspected of breaking into a home. Suthard claimed that he shot in self-defense because Lewis reached for a gun. No gun was found on the dead man.

A furor directed at Washington’s police erupted. Other newspapers around the country, particularly the African American press, began to run stories about the police shootings.

Officials Refuse to Act

Evidence came out during the inquest that Landrum had a past record of shooting at CCC workers and had beaten another African American some years before without justification.

The NNC held a protest meeting at the YMCA at 1816 12th Street NW attended by several hundred people. The NNC called for Landrum’s immediate suspension and for his indictment on murder charges. The group said that Landrum “requires the attention of a psychiatrist” because the officer believed that black people were inherently violent.

Despite the outcry, District Attorney Leslie C. Garnett refused to bring charges against Landrum before a grand jury, telling Lapin he was “not interested in the case,” according to the Chicago Defender.

A. S. Pinkett, the local NAACP secretary, said in a statement,

Thus we have the picture of a policeman arresting men for being disorderly, when there was no disorder; the shooting to death of one of them by the arresting officer; a meaningless verdict by a coroner’s jury and lastly the refusal by the District Attorney to lay the facts before a grand jury.

YE GODS! And colored persons are expected to have faith in their governmental machinery.

The Chicago Defender reported that a few minutes after interviewing Superintendent of Police Major Ernest W. Brown, Lapin announced that,

Major Brown made it perfectly clear despite his professions of sympathy for the colored people that he is opposed to a Congressional investigation or any kind of investigation of police brutality. He won’t even undertake one himself.

The Afro American published an editorial on October 31 saying,

Citizens ought to keep pounding away at Major Brown’s door in an effort to find out whether the police chief sees any connection between the Afro American’s list of fifty deaths, forty of them colored youths, at the hands of quick-trigger white policemen here in the past ten years, and the fact that nearly half of these killings have occurred during his term of office.

We believe they could make him understand that four years is long enough to ‘get away with murder.’

With the issue still boiling in November, the District of Columbia commissioners refused to release data on police killings to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Gardner Jackson, a representative of the group.

Unable to contain the broadening protests, authorities finally responded by retiring Landrum on a pension. On November 14, 1936, the police department announced during a conference with brutality opponents that Landrum is “mentally and physically unfit for further duty as an officer,” according to the Afro.

Rev. Ernest. C. Smith: 1940 ca

Rev. E. C. Smith (shown circa 1940) lobbied for a Congressional investigation.

Fight Against Brutality Broadens

The city commissioners and the police superintendent may have thought the issue would go away with Landrum’s retirement, but the local Negro Congress continued to pound away.

The city of Washington, D.C.’s affairs were overseen directly by the U.S. Congress, to an even greater extent than today, and in 1937 the NNC began lobbying for a House subcommittee investigation…

…to determine whether and to what extent the use of unnecessary and unlawful use of force by police officers…have become a menace to life, liberty and the general security within the District of Columbia.

The group also organized an effort to lobby for an African American magistrate in the District. The NNC, NAACP, Elks, Afro American, YMCA, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, Howard University and the Washington Bar Association, along with other groups, lobbied local D.C. officials and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

To ramp up the pressure for a congressional investigation, the alliance named itself the Joint Committee for Civil Rights in the District of Columbia and sponsored a series of weekly radio broadcasts on local station WOL. It was another new tactic in the fight for civil rights in the city.

In an account by the Afro of the second broadcast on March 23, 1937, John P. Davis reminded the listeners of the exoneration of police officer Landrum in Lawrence Basey’s death:

I want you to realize the meaning of such a verdict. A coroner’s jury has held that an officer who has a mental fear for his life has a right to kill another person who has done nothing to cause that fear, who is not armed, and who has submitted peacefully to arrest.

Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: 1947

E. Franklin Frazier (shown in 1947) was among the leaders of the anti-brutality fight in 1937.

In April 1937, a meeting was held under the banner of the Joint Committee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church protesting three more police killings in recent months. At the meeting William C. Hueston, education director for the Elks, called for organized action to “stop this ruthless brutality on the part of the police,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.

Other prominent leaders included John P. Davis, Judge William Hastie, Rev. William Jernigan, Julia West Hamilton, Rev. E. C. Smith, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and John C. Bruce. Similar meetings were soon organized around the city while radio broadcasts on the issue continued.

Howard U Dean of Women Lucy Slowe

Lucy Slowe was among those acting as a judge at the mock police brutality trial.

Put Police on Trial

In May the protest effort culminated with a “public trial” of Washington’s “killer cops” at the John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church. The trial “provided a complete picture of the lawless police terror which has reigned in Washington for the past ten years,” according to the Chicago Defender.

John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress presided. Judges included Major Campbell Johnson, secretary of the YMCA; Lucy Slowe, dean of women at Howard University; Rev. Robert W. Brooks, pastor of the Lincoln Congregational Temple; the Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood; William C. Hueston, commissioner of education of the Elks; and Dr. Victor Tulane, chemistry professor at Howard University.

Those prosecuting the case included George E. C. Hayes, of Cobb, Howard and Hayes; George A. Parker, dean of the Terrell Law School; and Edward P. Lovett, of Houston and Houston.

Major Campbell Johnson in His Office: 1942

Major Campbell Johnson was another judge in the mock police brutality trial.

“Eyewitnesses to numerous unpunished police murders, citizens who have been beaten by the police and leaders of civic associations and newspaper men who have investigated police brutality gave evidence,” according to the Chicago Defender.

Hundreds had attended each of the previous meetings and even more turned out for the trial, which included a number of whites in attendance and testifying as witnesses.

“This event demonstrated the new-style tactics of the NNC: with the theatrics in front of a large public audience, the mock trial showed how the District ought to protect citizenship rights through democratic governance,” Gellman wrote in “Death Blow to Jim Crow.”

No Victory Yet

But since many in Congress overseeing District affairs had few African American constituents, there was little interest on Capitol Hill in investigating police brutality in the city.

The White House put out trial balloons for the vacant judge position for two men: Hobart Newman, a young white attorney, and William L. Houston, founder of the firm Houston & Houston, whose son Charles was leading the NAACP legal defense effort.

However, local white officials nixed Houston’s nomination and the Roosevelt administration put forward Newman’s name for the position.

The brutality continued through the winter of 1937-38.  Incidents included the beating of a Howard University student by police and the assault by police on a black man and his wife when the man did not move his parked car fast enough. Police shot a twenty-year old African American man to death when he fled a traffic accident.

Police Shoot WWI Vet in Home: 1938

Afro American March 19, 1938 photo of Leroy Keys and the house where he was slain.

New Killing Sparks New Protests

On March 8, 1938 a distraught and delusional African American World War I veteran was making noise at his sister’s house at 2470 Ontario Road NW. When police arrived Leroy Keys began shouting at them, apparently believing they were German troops.

Keys threw small household objects through the window towards the police. Two police officers opened fire and shot him dead, despite the pleas of his sister that he needed help.

Rights groups demanded charges against the two police officers, calling the shootings “wanton and unwarranted,” and said police should have used tear gas or water to subdue the clearly disturbed man, according to the Afro American.

Two coroner’s juries deadlocked and a grand jury refused to indict.

The Afro wrote, “We think Hitler is a tyrant and a brute, a ruffian and a cur. We detest him for the way he is crushing the Jew [but] don’t forget that there is a man right here at home who has his heel on our neck.”

Thirty-six organizations joined the Keys campaign, including the United Federal Workers, which called it an “urbanized form of lynching.” Invited in to the coalition, the local Communist Party (CP) began holding open-air meetings around the city.

Martin Chancey, local CP secretary, told a gathering at 10th & U Streets NW that

We don’t hear of lynchings in Washington in the same manner as in Georgia or Alabama, but lynchings are perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect human life and property–the members of the District police force.

Chancey went on to demand suspension of the two officers involved in Keys’ death according to the Afro.

As the campaign picked up steam, another African American was shot by a police officer, this time over a bag of food.

Shot in the Back

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 26, officer John Sobolewski saw Wallace McKnight walking north on 15th Street near Massachusetts Avenue NW carrying a package under his arm.

According to Sobolewski’s testimony, he stopped McKnight and questioned him. During the interrogation, McKnight ran away, according to Sobolewski, and he [Sobolewski] opened fire.

McKnight was shot in the back, the bullet passing through his liver, and he died the next day. The package contained a chicken, a pound of butter, a dozen oranges, two pounds of bacon, a dozen bananas, several dozens eggs and some other fruit.  McKnight worked at a restaurant on the 1700 block of K Street NW not far from where he was shot.

The Rev. Robert W. Brooks observed, “Because of the record of the police department for the last eleven years, McKnight not knowing what officer John Sobolewski might do, took [his] chances on running away,” according to the Afro.

Coroner’s Jury Orders Cop Held

Police Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen tried to head off the gathering storm on June 27 by suspending Sobolewski and ordering an investigation of the McKnight shooting and a re-opening of the Keys death matter.

He also ordered a daily roll call reading of police rules on the use of revolvers. It stated: “Members of the force shall not use their revolvers except in the most urgent cases and then only in such a manner as will not jeopardize the lives of innocent people.”

The shifting public opinion also had an effect this time at the coroner’s jury. Police Lieutenant Arthur C. Belt, commanding officer of the Third Precinct on the night of the shooting, tried to save Sobolewski by telling the jury, “I would have done the same thing under the circumstances.” But his statement only added fuel to the fire.

A packed hearing room erupted in outrage at Belt’s statement and the coroner’s jury deliberated only 10 minutes before ordering Sobolewski held for grand jury action.

Edward Felder Urges Police Chief’s Firing During Brutality Protests: 1938

Edward Felder speaking to crowd of 2,000 at 9th & Rhode Island Ave. NW on July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Communists Organize March

With only a little over a week’s planning, the local Communist Party organized a march on July 8th beginning at 10th & U Streets NW, led by a car carrying Mollie McKnight, the widow of the slain Wallace McKnight. The local NNC, the New Negro Alliance and other coalition partners endorsed the march, but it was the communists who led the event.

The crowd heard Communist Party speakers including Martin Chancey, Tansell Butler and Calvin Cousins. Police were present and seized signs calling for chief Brown’s ouster, but the crowd made up for this strong arm tactic with their later chants.

Kids Swarm Widow’s Car During Police Brutality Protest: 1938

Children gather on the auto that carried the widow Mollie McKnight during the police brutality demonstration July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Over 2,000 people, of whom about 20% were white, marched and chanted “Major Brown Must Go,” “Police Brutality Must Stop,” “Everybody Join the Parade,” and “Stop Legal Lynching.”

Estimates of those who lined the streets ranged from 10,000 to 15,000. They watched marchers carrying signs like, “You May Be Next,” “Stop Police Murders,” “Compensation for Police Victims” and “Washington is not Scottsboro.”

The march ended at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th Street NW. A second rally was held there and speakers including Edward Felder of the Young Communist League urged the firing of Major Brown.

Resolutions adopted at the rally included calls for the suspension and trials of six police officers, appointing representatives of African Americans, civil organizations and labor to the panel of D.C. Commissioners, an impartial investigation into police killings, and compensation to victims’ families.

National marches for civil rights had been held previously in the city in 1922 over lynching and 1933 over the “Scottsboro Boys.”  However, this marked the first mass action in the streets of a significant size over a local African American issue in Washington since the 1919 picketing over the Moen’s school child abuse case.

First White Officer Indicted

In mid-July, the grand jury indicted Sobolewski for manslaughter. The Afro American reported it was the first time in D.C. history that a white policeman was charged in the death of a black person.

The National Negro Congress followed up the Communist Party-led march and demands by organizing a conference of over 100 organizations at the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church on July 31.

Negro Congress Leader Doxey Wilkerson at Town Hall Radio: 1942

Doxey Wilkerson (2nd from left).

The meeting was presided over by Rev. Arthur Gray in preparation for a mass meeting to be held the next day. Among the principal NNC speakers were Doxey Wilkerson of Howard University, former judge James A. Cobb, and former judge William C. Hueston.

Alphaeus Hunton, a Howard University professor, outlined eight proposed demands to be adopted at the mass meeting. They included removal of Major Brown; denial of pension rights to former officer Vivian Landrum, who had killed Leonard Basey two years earlier; suspension and trial for officers involved in shootings and recent brutality; public hearings on police brutality; and compensation for victims.

Ministers Rally 1,200

The next day, 1,200 rallied at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church under the auspices of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, where the pastor C. T. Murray presided.

John P. Davis, national secretary of the National Negro Congress, as quoted in the Washington Post, spoke of the “terror of urban lynching” which led to an “intolerable state of affairs” as “unwarranted beatings and needless killings were perpetrated by the police.”

NAACP Counsel Charles H. Houston Speaks: 1940 ca.

Charles Hamilton Houston.

Charles Hamilton Houston, counsel to the NAACP, blamed the lack of voting rights of citizens in the District and pledged legal services to help fight police brutality.

The National Negro Congress also announced a petition drive to seek 50,000 signatures to President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress.  A collection of $170 was taken up by Rev. William Jernagin from the ministerial alliance to be divided equally between Mollie McKnight and the NNC.

The petition campaign brought new allies into the fight.  The Washington Insurance Underwriters Association pledged 5,000 signatures to be collected through its 55 agents. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American League for Peace and Democracy, and the United Federal Employees also established committees to seek signatures.

The coalition organized “flying squadrons” that went house to house seeking signatures. Both black and white ministers conducted Sunday sermons across the city to popularize the cause.

Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter after two hours of deliberation by an all-white jury in September. In addition, Sobolewski was also brought before a re-constituted police trial board in September where he was again exonerated. The two officers who shot Leroy Keys were also cleared of charges by a police trial board.

However, despite the coroner’s jury verdicts, the grand jury failure to act, an acquittal at trial, and the police trial board whitewashes, change was in the air in Washington.

A Year Free of Police Killings

On June 26, 1939, one year after McKnight was killed, the NNC held a meeting at the Second Baptist Church at 3rd & I Streets NW attended by 1,500 people and hailed “a year free of police killings.”

National Negro Congress leader John P. Davis: 1940 ca.

John Preston Davis.

The meeting was presided over by local NNC president Rev. Arthur Gray.  Police superintendent Major Ernest W. Brown also spoke, trying to assure the group that he took the issue seriously. Other speakers included John P. Davis, Rev. J. L. S. Holloman of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, and Eugene Davidson of the New Negro Alliance.

The Washington Tribune saluted the work and said the “job could not have been done had it not been for the tireless energy and leadership the National Negro Congress gave to other organizations in this fight against police crimes on the Negro people of Washington.”

Rev. Gray, the D.C. NNC president, said after the campaign that the new trial board for police officers made a difference, according to Gellman’s book. The board obtained some suspensions and indictments against several police officers and Gray said, “The number of incidents has markedly decreased.”

A. Phillip Randolph Speaks at 1940 Negro Congress Convention

A. Phillip Randolph speaking at the 1940 National Negro Congress convention.

NNC Weakened

During 1939-40, the NNC was weakened by a campaign by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX) to smear the group as a communist organization.  Then, in 1940, the president of the NNC, A. Phillip Randolph, refused to stand for re-election at the group’s Washington, D.C. national convention after delegates approved a resolution condemning the “imperialist war” in Europe and another calling for closer ties to the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The NNC’s broad political umbrella was broken. Randolph was president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters and his departure left the NNC without its most prominent leader. The Dies attack and Randolph’s withdrawal caused a number of organizations, clergy and others to drift away.

Even with its weakened state at the national level, the organization continued to wage an effective campaign in the city to desegregate defense-related employment throughout most of World War II. Further, despite the friction at the national level, the Washington, D.C. NNC continued relatively strong relationships with both the NAACP and the clergy at the local level.

Renewed Brutality in Washington

However, as time passed the initial success achieved during the 1938 police brutality campaign began to fade.

Protests spread to the Capitol Police force after the shooting and wounding of 10-year-old Fred Walker Jr. in the Senate Office Building on June 24, 1940. Sergeant Vernon Deus was quickly suspended while rights leaders demanded his dismissal and prosecution.

A month later the NNC, along with the Elks, several churches, the NAACP and the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, held a series of protest meetings against police brutality in the 4th police precinct in the city.

Over 100 people attended a mass meeting at the Zion Baptist Church at 333 F Street SW on July 18. Leaders, including pastor A. Joseph Edwards, condemned police for intimidation of African Americans in the precinct against attending the rally.

At another rally at the Mount Lebanon Church at 814 25th Street NW on July 29, Dr. C. Herbert Marshall, local NAACP president, urged African Americans to “stick together” to achieve the rally’s purpose, to “stop the cops from beating Negroes,” according to the Washington Post.

The broad coalition against brutality, now re-named the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality, took up the issue of a laundry workers’ strike at the Arcane-Sunshine Company, where police intervened on the side of strike breakers and beat pickets with their clubs.

On April 30, police officer Francis E. Davis arrested Robert Gray for disorderly conduct near 13th & Q Streets NW. According to Davis, Gray struck him and ran from the scene and when Davis caught up to him a scuffle ensued. Davis then shot Gray twice in the abdomen and Gray later died.

A coroner’s jury quickly cleared Davis, but the NNC demanded that the case be presented to a grand jury.

Three More Killed by Police

Three more African American men were shot to death by police officers in early August.  Police sergeant John Leach came upon an apparent robbery in an alley near the 1300 block of Ninth Street NW. Leach testified that Clarence Whitby struck him and fled, then Leach fired two shots, one striking Whitby and killing him.

Just days later, police officer Donald R. Webber came upon two men in an alley near 14th and Florida Avenue NW, standing beside an automobile.  Webber testified later that when he demanded a driver’s license from the two brothers they told him, “We don’t have to show you our driver’s permit,” according to the Washington Post.

During his testimony before a coroner’s jury, Webber testified he shot Jasper and Edward Cobb August 4 after he tried to place Jasper under arrest for being drunk and the two resisted. There were no other witnesses to the shooting, although Edward Cobb said before he died that he intervened in the arrest when Webber began beating his brother.

Longtime NNC nemesis police chief Maj. Ernest W. Brown was forced to retire just days after the three killings. Brown’s retirement was only tangentially related to the police brutality issue and was mainly due to Congressional concern over District crime rates and an internal police spying scandal.

But Brown’s departure also marked an opportunity for the anti-brutality coalition when Edward J. Kelly was named chief from among several internal candidates. Kelly had enemies within the department and needed broad political support to succeed as its head.

Stephen Gill Spottswood: 1940 ca

Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood.

More than 1,500 jammed the John Wesley A.M.E.Z. Church August 17 for the funeral of the Cobb brothers. Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood, pastor of the church declared, “this is not a funeral service, it is a mass meeting, protesting this occurrence,” according to the Afro American.

Spottswood continued, “They are but symbols, these two men, typical of what might happen to any of us, to you or to me. We must cooperate in decisive action to demonstrate our interest in the freedom of black men and women in the nation’s capital.”

Even as outrage against the killings was building during the month of August, coroners’ juries exonerated all the police officers in the three deaths.

Protests Escalate Again

In September, the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality in Washington called for mass protest.

Crowd Listens to Speakers at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Over 1,100 rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

At the Metropolitan Baptist Church on the 1200 block of R Street NW, a crowd estimated by the Afro American at 2,000 (the FBI estimated 1,100) gathered on September 7th to hear a wide array of speakers denounce police violence.

Doxey Wilkerson, an NNC leader and Howard University professor, presided at the meeting and called the police the enforcers of a system where black people “were segregated in living conditions and public affairs and also discrimination in employment,” according to Gellman.

Wilkerson added, “Police brutality used to be considered a local problem, today it must be viewed in terms of world significance. Police brutality and racial discrimination are part and parcel of this evil we are fighting on an international front,” the Afro American reported.

Hugh Miller, white leader of the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, said “the problems of the Negro were also the problems of the white” and urged the group to fight “Hitler’s theory” of “racial superiority” demonstrated by the killings, according to Gellman’s account.

John P. Davis, the national NNC leader, demanded permanent reforms in the department, shouting, “Don’t take no for an answer,” according to Gellman.

DC Police Chief Kelly Speaks at Anti-Brutality Rally: 1941

DC police chief Kelly speaks at anti-brutality rally on Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Wilkerson then introduced the new police chief Major Kelly, who addressed the crowd. “As long as I am head of the police department, I will not tolerate violence against any citizen or against any police officer,” he declared, according to the Afro American.

Kelly evaded calls for grand jury action against the officers involved in the three killings by saying he was not in charge at the time and urging the crowd to lobby the district attorney, but agreed with adding civilians to the police review board

Kelly also supported hiring additional African American officers, promoting an African American to captain and ending the police practice of holding people without specific charges.

It was a remarkable achievement for the group to have the police chief at the meeting and respond favorably to specific demands.

Following Kelly, a quartet from the United Cafeteria Workers Local 471 sang spirituals.

J. Finley Wilson, leader of the Elks, led off the second half of the rally saying that government protection of African American soldiers and civilians was necessary before the Elks would “battle and defend America and make it safe for the black and white under the ‘Stars and Stripes,” according to Gellman’s account.

Other speakers included Rev. L. Collins, Curtis Mitchell, Rev. E. C. Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Jack Zucker, representing the Washington Industrial Council.

The rally ended with a call for marches through the streets of Washington the following week that would converge for a single rally against police brutality.

Four Marches Through the City

Protesting DC Police Brutality in Washington: 1941

One of four simultaneous marches marking each victim, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

A week later on September 14, four marches from different points in the city got underway involving an estimated 2,000 total participants. Each march was dedicated to one of the four recent victims.

Signs carried by protestors included, “Old Jim Crow Has Got to Go,” “Protect Our Civil Rights” and “Police Brutality is a Disgrace to the Nation’s Capital.” A hearse and an undertaker’s automobile carried signs in memory of persons shot in recent months by the police.

The treks converged at 10th and U Streets NW for a rally where about 500 remained to hear a number of speakers including Alphaeus Hunton, professor at Howard University, who reiterated the six demands put forth at the rally that were developed at the previous week’s meeting.

Demands included holding police officer Webber for grand jury action in the Cobb brothers shooting, internal police action to curb brutality, a citizens trial board to replace the current police board, appointment of 50 African American police officers, charges to be placed immediately against anyone arrested, and compensation to be granted dependents of those killed by the police.

Rev. Frank Alstork of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance argued for a peaceful solution but warned, “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” according to the Washington Post.

CIO Union Speaks Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Craig Vincent of the CIO speaks at anti-police brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and the police brutality committee urged the crowd to sign and circulate a petition to be sent to the District government and the police department with the six demands.

Other speakers were Henry Thomas of the CIO United Construction Workers, Craig Vincent of the local CIO Industrial Council and Frank Donner, chair of the case committee of the brutality group.

In closing the rally, Doxey Wilkerson led chants of “Police Brutality has got to go” with the loudest for “Old Jim Crow has got to go,” according to the Afro American.

Aftermath

The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and  the subsequent German declaration of war.

The local NNC was weakened shortly afterwards when the National Negro Congress moved its headquarters to New York. In addition, Alphaeus Hunton, a key organizer behind the scenes, also moved to New York City. In 1943 Doxey Wilkerson, another local NNC leader, quit his post at Howard University to take a position with the Maryland Communist Party.

Rally Against DC Police Brutality on U Street: 1941

Crowd begins gather at 10th & U St. NW for anti-brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. DC Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

Other NNC organizers entered the armed services. The local NNC continued the fight for integration of war-related industries.  Mass protest activities continued up to the march demanding hiring of African American operators at Capital Transit in May 1943.

While large-scale actions faltered after this point, the local NNC continued to press for rights throughout the war and resumed larger protest activities after GIs began returning after the war ended in 1945.

The police brutality campaign marked a new chapter in the African American struggle for rights in the city. Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP summed up the police brutality campaign by writing,

The persistent and forceful campaign, which the Washington Council [of the National Negro Congress] and allied organizations have waged against police brutality in Washington, has been one of the most significant battles for civil rights and personal freedom and security ever conducted in the District of Columbia.

While this campaign achieved some limited reforms and curbed some of the more egregious police brutality, the lasting contribution may have been to bring new forms of mass protest to the local Washington, D.C. civil rights struggle, much as the Scottsboro campaign had done on a national scale just a few years previously.

This post was updated April 21, 2013 to reflect that officer Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Wallace McKnight.


Author’s notes:

The five-year campaign against police brutality united the disparate elements among African Americans into a single unified local coalition that lasted for a significant span of time.

The effort produced both institutional reforms and an overall reduction in brutality.  Just as importantly, the campaign moved the local civil rights struggle beyond mass meetings in churches and small picket lines into mass marches in the streets. The campaign also used creative tactics from investigative reporting to utilization of radio broadcasts.

The mock trial of police practices involved every strata of the local African American community and attracted significant support from whites as well. Building off the “Scottsboro Boys” campaign, the NNC used a petition campaign to involve those unable or reluctant to join the protest activities.

The Dies Committee designated the National Negro Congress, which led the campaign, as a communist dominated organization in 1941.  Again, in the late 1940s, it was called a communist front group by the Truman administration.

The truth was significantly different. The Washington, D.C. NNC was a truly broad based organization that worked well with other rights organizations in the city.  In addressing its broad character, Thelma Dale, a youth leader and NNC member in Washington, D.C. said in a 2003 interview with Erik Gellman,

Sunday Worker on Sale at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

A woman sells the Communist Party’s Sunday Worker at an anti-brutality rally  Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

“In Washington in the fight against police brutality, were we going to put a circle around a Communist? Martin Chancey…the head of the Communist Party in Washington, D.C. functioned fully openly. So, who were we to turn them away? We didn’t.”

For activists today, the issue of how to work independently and in coalition with others who hold different viewpoints is just as complex as it was during this era. While conditions faced are vastly different, the same questions arise.

The 1938 police brutality campaign perhaps illustrates how divergent groups can work separately, but also function together around a common goal.

During the campaign organizations independently organized around the brutality issue in the communities, but also worked within the coalition together to strengthen the broad campaign and present a united front. Those on the left did so even when they thought the demands put forward by the coalition were limited and the tactics passive.  Likewise, participants who opposed left-wing political views and sometimes their militant tactics welcomed their help in building a campaign around the brutality issue.

In this instance, it produced an ongoing movement that began to break down the worst aspects of Jim Crow in the city.

Sources for this article include Erik Gellman’s book Death Blow to Jim CrowThe Chicago Defender, The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Atlanta Daily World, The Washington Herald, The Washington Star and The Crisis. 


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Related Posts:

“Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
The Fight Against Jim Crow at Capital Transit
A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson


Native Americans Take Over Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

26 Mar

By Bob Simpson
From The Montgomery Spark, November 29, 1972. page 13 & page 14

Trail of Broken Treaties Participant: 1972

Sign of distress by unidentified Trail of Broken Treaties protester. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] by militant Native Americans in early November [1972] began almost by accident.

Leaders of the Trail of Broken Treaties were negotiating with the Interior Department over the question of housing. Suddenly fighting broke out between several GSA security guards and a group of young Indians.

Apparently the guards misunderstood that the BIA had given the Indians permission to stay in the building past closing time. The guards were quickly overpowered and escorted from the building. Indians ran through the BIA building at 19th & Constitution breaking up furniture to barricade entrances and manufacture makeshift weapons. The occupation was on.

Trail of Broken Treaties Press Conference: 1972

Before the takeover. From the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Trail Required Concerted Effort

The Trail of Broken Treaties had originally come to Washington as a concerted effort by militant Native Americans from across the continent. Numbering well over 1,000, they had to negotiate over a series of 20 demands.

These demands involved the abolition of the BIA, whose paternalism and corruption is infamous, plus a whole series of reforms leading to greater self-determination for Indian people. Both urban and reservation Indians had joined the protest. Discriminated against in jobs, their land ripped off by greedy whites, water rights threatened, possessing a terrible infant mortality and T.B. rate, the Indians of over 250 tribes were represented.

Rumors of Police Violence

When the Indians seized the building Nov. 2, the government began a series of complex legal maneuvers to force the Indians out. A deadline was set for the night of Nov. 3. Rumors of impending police violence led the Indian leadership to put out a call for support.

Prepared for the Worst at the Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

One Native American is prepared for the worst. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Groups began to appear outside the BIA with food, supplies and political support. On the night of Nov. 3, several hundred non-Indians formed a line of bodies to interfere with the expected police assault. Confronted with hundreds of armed Indians plus their supporters, the government backed down. The waiting game was on.

From the beginning the government game was clear, keep the occupiers in a constant state of doubt and suspense to wear down their morale.

Deadlines Repeatedly Postponed

With the election on Nov. 7, the Nixon administration could not afford a massacre until after this date. So they kept setting shifting, fluid deadlines. They sent dozens of undercover agents to spy on the occupation force.

Army buses would ride by and ominously park in front of the building. Pig cars would race around the block. From across the street, cops would stand and photograph demonstrators. This type of harassment failed to break the spirit of the fighters.

Housekeeping During the BIA Occupation: 1972

Protesters set up basic services during the occupation. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

A relatively efficient system of organization was set up. Armed Indian security ringed the building. Child-care was set up. A paramedical team from the University of Maryland contributed themselves and their resources. Food distribution was organized.

Tribal ceremonies were held and large council meetings of all the occupiers kept people informed and allowed for democratic decision-making. Communication was set up with support groups.

Native Americans Take Over BIA in DC: 1972

The occupation on Nov. 5, 1972. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Tensest Moments

The tensest moments of the occupation occurred on Monday, Nov. 6. The judge had given an order that the Native Americans must vacate the building by 6 p.m. or face forcible eviction. A large force of GSA [General Services Administration] and Civil Disturbance Unit riot police were quartered about a block away.

Tension mounted Monday afternoon as the Indians broke down into teams of four and established military perimeters. Armed with clubs, knives and spears they passed out rags to cover their mouths against the expected tear gas. Inside the building itself, firebombs and other more potent weapons were prepared. Some Indians barricaded inside reportedly had guns. People broke up pieces of iron grating for missiles and Indians on the roof prepared to rain down destruction upon the expected invaders.

Molotov Cocktail in BIA After Native Americans Leave: 1972

At the BIA. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

As the deadline approached, Indian leaders spoke on the steps of the BIA. Russell Means spoke of the telegrams of support they had received from the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panther Party.

He spoke of the occupation of the BIA office in Seattle, Washington. Indians had seized the Indian Affairs office in Ottawa, Canada and had all their demands met. The Canadian police had refused to march on the occupation force. Means reminded those present that the mostly black GSA riot squad was using one oppressed group to smash another.

Plead for No More Massacres

After the Civil War, Freedmen had been used in all black cavalry regiments in the Indian wars of the west. They had a reputation for brutality and harshness. Means pleaded for the black riot police not to follow in the infamous footsteps of their post-civil-war predecessors and aid in the smashing of Native American aspirations.

He asked all non-Indians to stand in solidarity, comparing the anticipated massacre at Washington, D.C. with American actions like the massacre of Vietnamese at My Lai, and the slaughtering of Indians by the 19th Century cavalry at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek.

Native Americans Vow to Fight

The Indians had come to Washington in peace, but had been given the prospect of war. They were ready. Many of the young warriors had daubed on war paint, signifying that they had taken vows to fight until death.

Had the government decided to attack, much death and injury would have resulted. The 6 p.m. deadline came and went. Soon the word was out that the judge had extended it until Wednesday, Nov. 8. There was much rejoicing as once again the government had backed down.

Documents Liberated from BIA Commissioner’s Safe: 1972

Documents were taken from BIA commissioner’s safe. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

On Election Day the leadership held several press conferences. It was announced at the first press conference that many records had been removed in order to expose the record of corruption and scandal within the BIA. It was revealed that massive corruption was involved in the building dams on Seneca land in upstate New York, and that Senator Mike Mansfield was involved in shady real estate dealings in his hometown in Oklahoma. It was stated that the files would be kept in secret hiding places until Native American lawyers could untangle them and expose their content.

Indian leader Russell Means explained that people would begin leaving but that an occupation force would remain the building until the Wednesday deadline. He announced that the BIA was effectively abolished. Prosecution for activities was expected, but [he said] that they would meet this bravely.

DC Police Spy Captured

Later on in the day, a metropolitan police detective was captured while spying in the building. After being chased, captured, and knocked around a little bit, he was taken back inside the building for questioning.

Bill Cross at Trail of Broken Treaties Demonstration: 1970

Bill Cross of the Dakotas, a participant during the protest. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post

Indians called on his police band walkie-talkie and the cops at headquarters freaked. He was brought outside in his own handcuffs and forced through a humiliating press conference. He said his name was Roger O’Day of Criminal Investigation but pleaded ignorance to other questions. He was eventually turned over to his superiors.

By late Tuesday afternoon, it was clear that a settlement was in the offing. The Indians were demanding a twelve person commission be set up with seven of their leaders and five top Nixon aides. This commission would work to implement the 20 demands.

Settlement Reached

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, a settlement was reached. As a task force was set up to deal with the demands, amnesty for the occupiers was agreed upon. As the Indians left, they took with them many paintings and artifacts. Police made no attempt to stop them.

Marilyn Nuttle at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Marilyn Nuttle of the Pawnee during protests. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Although they left the building interior totally destroyed, it was not set afire or blown up as had been threatened. Although over $2 million damage was done, these acts of destruction were nothing compared to the destruction that whites have wreaked upon the Indian people.

Before you join the ranks of those condemning this action, think who was it who stole the Indians’ land, ravaged it, despoiled it, polluted it, and put up fences and ugly stinking cities. The real criminals are where they have always been in the highest corporation and government offices in this land. If there is to be prosecution, let the real criminals go on trial.

US Betrayal on Amnesty
[Originally published as a sidebar]

Although representatives of Nixon signed an agreement with Native Americans occupying the bureau of Indian Affairs recommending against prosecution, the government has decided to go ahead and begin indictment proceedings.

This means the White House has broken yet another treaty with the Indians. A White House spokesperson claimed the amnesty agreement did not mean that the government couldn’t prosecute the Indians for stolen property and destruction of the building.

Total damage to the building was estimated by the government at over $2 million. The government said damage was the third heaviest ever to government buildings, surpassed only by the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 and the destruction of government buildings in the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.


Floyd Young Horse at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Floyd Young Horse, a participant at the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Public LIbrary Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Postscript: March, 2013

The Trail of Broken Treaties was originally proposed by Robert Burnette during a Sun Dance ceremony in South Dakota. Burnette was a former tribal chair of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Others at the ceremony agreed that a demonstration in Washington was needed because of numerous treaty violations and widespread poverty among Indian people.

A dozen Indian organizations eventually signed on to the caravan idea including the American Indian Movement (AIM). When the caravan reached Minneapolis, the coalition drew up a 20 point document, mostly written by Hank Adams, a longtime fishing rights activist in the Pacific Northwest.

Central to the 20 points was that Indian people were members of sovereign nations and should be negotiated with on that basis. When the caravan arrived in Washington DC, there was a major communications breakdown between the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the caravan members, resulting in the takeover of the BIA building. AIM then assumed a dominant role in the leadership of the Trail of Broken Treaties.

At the Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Unidentified participant in the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

AIM’s role in the BIA takeover as well the armed occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, put it directly in the crosshairs of federal COINTELPRO-type repression.

AIM supporters on the Pine Ridge Reservation were assassinated by mysterious death squads widely believed to be linked to the FBI. AIM was infiltrated by informants who spread rumors that various leaders were actually working for the FBI, leading to divisions and violence within the group.

The mayhem on the Pine Ridge reservation led to the shooting of two FBI agents under murky circumstances. AIM member Leonard Peltier is serving 2 life sentences for the killings even though the evidence against him was contradictory. Two other AIM members indicted for the killings were found not guilty. There has been considerable international pressure to free Leonard Peltier.

AIM survived in a weakened state and eventually split into two different AIM organizations, one headquartered in Minneapolis and the other in Denver. Both continue to be active today.

As for the 20 points originally raised by the Trail of Broken Treaties, most still remain unaddressed.


Robert “Bob” Simpson is a former University of Maryland and Washington, DC area social justice activist who moved to Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1970s. He is one half of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. Bob remains active in greater Chicago and is a regular contributor to the Daily Kos, Counter Punch and has his own blog The Bobbosphere.


See the Trail of Broken Treaties photos in larger sizes and with more description at the Washington Area Spark Flickr set: BIA Takeover 1972


DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by 1939 Marian Anderson Concert

14 Mar
Marian Anderson Sings at the Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 6

Marian Anderson arrives in Washington, D.C. for her 1939 concert. Photo: Scurlock Studio.

By Craig Simpson
3rd in a series

The Lincoln Memorial became the symbolic focal point for civil rights in 1939 when over 75,000 people attended a Marian Anderson concert there after she was barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (DAR) Constitution Hall and from the all-white public Central High School in Washington, D.C.

Most versions of the story focus on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dropping her membership in the DAR and President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes arranging for the concert to be held on federal parkland. But the struggle to desegregate theaters in Washington was much more complex. It began long before Anderson’s 1939 concert and did not end in victory until long afterwards.

This was a struggle led primarily by the African American elite in the city and at times was a microcosm of the tensions inherent between the struggle to uplift all and the quest for individual achievement.

Segregation in the city

Segregation in public accommodations in the District of Columbia had actually been prohibited since Frederick Douglass’s son, Lewis H. Douglas, successfully introduced a bill into the District of Columbia Legislative Council in 1872.

But while that law was not repealed, it was removed from the published city code in the early part of the 20th Century, when many gains achieved during the Civil War and Reconstruction were reversed.

Laws were passed mandating segregation in public schools and parks, but attempts at mandating Jim Crow on streetcars, housing and other areas were defeated. However, even without segregation laws, businesses were imposing the practice throughout the city by the 1920s and courts upheld this discrimination as the right of individuals or businesses.

Many theaters for the performing arts in Washington required Jim Crow seating arrangements, often relegating African Americans to the upper balcony. Some barred admission to African Americans altogether or staged separate performances for blacks and whites. A very few venues barred African American performers altogether. A minority of theaters, mostly those oriented toward African American audiences, permitted mixed seating.

No Jim Crow for Civil War Vets: 1922

Civil War vets have the only integrated seating at the 1922 Lincoln Memorial dedication.

Lincoln Memorial Dedication

The African American elite in the city looked forward to the dedication of the “great emancipator” Abraham Lincoln’s memorial on May 30, 1922.  President Warren Harding took office as a Republican the year before and there was great expectation that he would reverse the policies of his Democratic predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, who had introduced segregation into the federal government and fired hundreds of black workers.

They believed that the President might announce new civil rights initiatives at the ceremony. But when they arrived on a blazing hot day to their reserved seats in Section 5, the invited African Americans discovered they had been roped off from the rest of the guests in Jim Crow seating by Lt. Col. Clarence O Sherrill, Director of Public Buildings and Parks in the city.

Shelby Davidson, president of the Washington, D. C. NAACP wrote afterward,

Platform seats reserved for white were in chairs and within distance of the speakers that might be called reasonable, considering the crowd, while back of those seats were those reserved for colored roped off from those occupied by the white and placed about a block away from the Memorial in the grass and weeds with rough hewn benches with no backs or supports.

The Harding administration did not invite any activists to address the crowd and instead asked Booker T. Washington protégé Dr. Robert Russa Moton, principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to speak on behalf of African Americans, and required Moton to submit his speech for approval in advance.

Dr. Moton Speaks at Lincoln Memorial Dedication: 1922

Dr. Robert Russa Moton speaks during Lincoln Memorial dedication in 1922.

After a brief exercise by an integrated group of Civil War veterans, Moton spoke perhaps more forcefully than Harding expected. Moton departed from his prepared speech, according to published reports, pointedly saying, “among 30,000 persons convicted of disloyalty during the last [Civil] war, not a single one was colored.”

Moton went on to call on the country to fulfill

the task imposed upon it by the martyred dead: that here it highly resolves that the humblest citizen of whatever color or creed, shall enjoy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom…

But Harding ‘s own speech downplayed issues of race discrimination and did not mention the Dyer anti-lynching bill pending in Congress. He praised the South and credited Lincoln not for the Emancipation Proclamation but for saving the union.

The African American press castigated the ceremony after the event with one headline summing it up, “Opened But Not Dedicated Stands Memorial to Lincoln.”

Refuse to Perform

The fight against Jim Crow performing arts theaters and concert halls in the District of Columbia began in the 1920s and was waged in the city by the NAACP and other African American rights groups for more than a dozen years before the Anderson concert.

National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune: 1930 ca

Mary McLeod Bethune circa 1930.

One of the first organized actions occurred on May 5, 1925, when more than 200 African American artists refused to take the stage at the newly opened Washington Auditorium at 19th & E Streets, NW, in a protest over segregated seating.

The “All American Music Festival,” sponsored by the International Council of Women, had given written assurances to Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women, that there would be no Jim Crow seating at the event.

However when singers from the Richmond Treble Clef, the Howard University Glee Club, the Hampton Institute Choir and the Howard University Choral Society arrived at the hall, they found all black people in the audience seated on the left side of the hall and in the balcony.

The groups walked out of the hall and refused to perform. African American members of the audience followed the singers and left the theater.

Roland Hayes

Singer Roland Hayes circa 1925

Seating at Roland Hayes Concerts

The fight over Jim Crow continued at tenor Roland Hayes’s concerts.

Hayes first achieved fame in Europe when career avenues were shut to African Americans in the United States. In the 1920s he returned to the U.S. and took the country by storm.  He was the most famous African American of his time.

A 1925 Atlanta, Georgia concert ignited a firestorm of criticism of Hayes when he performed before a Jim Crow audience in the city.  He was scheduled for a concert on January 5, 1926 at the Washington Auditorium and the District’s African American rights organizations swung into action.

The NAACP, Equal Rights League, National Race Congress and ministers throughout the city began bombarding the hall and the promoter with telephone calls, telegrams and letters protesting the planned Jim Crow seating.  The local NAACP’s head of the “Ladies Service Group,” Beatrice Francis, coordinated the campaign.

Hayes, unsure of how to proceed, called promoter Katie Wilson-Greene who agreed to arrange to mix the tickets.  Hayes performed without incident. The next night, however, protests failed to change Jim Crow seating at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore.  Hayes delayed taking the stage for 32 minutes before relenting and performing before a segregated audience.

Roland Hayes Blasted for Jim Crow Performance: 1926

Afro covers Hayes on front page January 9, 1926

Hayes Blasted by Activists

In a debate that continues today over the role of prominent African Americans in the civil rights struggle, there was fierce criticism and impassioned defense of Hayes within the African American community as he continued to perform before Jim Crow audiences.

“From a popular hero, acclaimed because of his European and American success, Mr. Hayes became overnight an outcast, who betrayed his race for gold,” the Afro American wrote in 1925.

Dr. Kelly Miller, a Howard University professor, responded in his weekly Afro column, “He [Hayes] will serve his race to better advantage if we permit him to function before the world as an artist, and not as a professional Negro agitator.”

Hayes was confronted with the issue again in another Washington concert in 1928. Hayes sang before a segregated audience where African Americans were relegated to the back rows of the balcony at Poli’s Theater.

Neval Thomas, president of the local NAACP, said, “Mr. Hayes could make it far easier for us in the campaign we are conducting if he would end his policy of silence.” Thomas added, “Upon Mr. Hayes’ last appearance in Washington, we urged him to condemn the Jim Crow seating arrangement and his only reply was that, ‘I make my speech from the stage,’” according to the Afro.

Hayes continued to have defenders with one reader of the Afro writing, “I could agree with you [the Afro] in blaming a Garvey or DuBois or Trotter for tolerating race conditions in Washington, but surely not a Hayes or Marian Anderson.”

NAACP criticism of Hayes became more muted when Hayes agreed to perform a number of benefit concerts for the organization, including an April, 1930 event at the Belasco Theater in Washington.

Constitution Hall Desegregated

The DAR opened Constitution Hall in 1929, and the Wilson-Greene Agency booked Hayes for a concert on January 31, 1931. African American leaders again sought assurances that the audience would not be segregated. This time Wilson-Greene, which was responsible for ticket sales, agreed to sell tickets to African Americans in any area of the hall.

Howard University Professor Kelly Miller

Howard University professor Kelly Miller defended Hayes. Photo undated.

Accounts of what occurred that evening differ. Immediately after the event, The Afro American reported that the concert went off without incident and that there was no Jim Crow seating. The paper also reported that there were few black people in the audience.

Fred Hand, the hall manager who ultimately initiated Jim Crow policies, ten years later related that Hayes refused to sing until a large group of African Americans seated together were dispersed in the crowd, although he said Hayes relented and performed.

Following the Hayes concert, the Hampton Choir performed on March 21 at Constitution Hall. After the concert, the Washington Daily News blasted the DAR for its treatment of African Americans:

The DAR management ruled that only two blocks of seats, those on the corners of the surrounding tiers, might be sold to colored people…hundreds of colored people were turned away.  The turnout of Washington’s regular concertgoers was small…consequently the Hall was two-thirds empty. The seats assigned to colored people were packed; beside them were empty blocks.

The DAR didn’t take long to respond. They began including a “white artists only” clause beginning with all contracts starting on March 23, 1932.

Marian Anderson Rises in Fame

Meanwhile Marian Anderson’s career began to blossom. Anderson started as a young girl singing at neighborhood events for small amounts of money that began to grow larger over time. She was active at her church in the junior and, later, the adult choir in her youth. She gained attention in both church and other venues where she was often a featured singer.

The Philadelphia black community banded together and paid for private music lessons when she was refused admittance to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy.

She continued her studies in New York, where she booked to favorable reviews at several concert halls, including Carnegie in 1928. However, the opportunities for an African American singer were limited and like Hayes, she went to Europe where she became a star.

Anderson returned to the U.S. and the contralto began giving concerts, including one at New York’s Town Hall in 1935 that received highly favorable reviews. She was soon a star in the states and continued to give concerts in Europe and the U.S. throughout the late 1930s.

Singer Todd Duncan in undated photo

Singer Todd Duncan in an undated photo.

Desegregation Attempts Continue

The fight to desegregate Washington’s theaters continued into the 1930s. This time, however, high-profile African American performers would lead the effort.

Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the two leads of “Porgy and Bess,” announced their refusal to perform at the whites-only National Theater unless the theater admitted a fully integrated audience.

Howard University Professor Dr. Ralph Bunche: 1934 ca

Dr. Ralph Bunche circa 1934.

They were threatened with being fired from the show and fined by the actor’s union, but they held their ground and the rest of the cast backed them. Ralph Bunche, chair of Howard’s Department of Political Science Department and a leader of the Howard Teachers Union (HTU), rallied other labor groups and met with management, threatening to picket the theater.

The theater finally offered a compromise: blacks could sit in designated sections. The cast rejected this and held firm that they would not perform if there were any restrictions. The National Theater management gave in and the performance opened on March 16, 1936 with African Americans present in every section. The victory was short-lived, however, as the theater immediately went back to its whites-only seating.

Howard University Approaches DAR’s Hall

The same year, Howard University treasurer V. D. Johnson approached Hand about booking Anderson at Constitution Hall, perhaps thinking that the controversy then being generated by the dispute over “Porgy and Bess” would win the day for an acclaimed singer like Anderson.

Hand simply reminded Johnson of the “whites only” clause. Johnson let the matter drop and Anderson was booked in Washington at the public African American Armstrong High School in 1936 and 1937 and at the larger Rialto Theater in 1938, appearing in all cases before mixed audiences.

In 1939, with Anderson’s popularity outgrowing these theaters, Charles Cohen, chair of Howard University’s concert series that arranged Anderson’s performances in Washington, applied to the largest venue in the city—the DAR’s Constitution Hall. Three days later Hand wrote back that April 9 was already booked, and reminded Cohen of the whites-only performers clause.

Marian Anderson 1933

Marian Anderson 1933.

Eleanor Roosevelt Refuses to Help

This time officials at Howard balked at the refusal. The hall often booked more than one performer on a Sunday and there was no other suitable venue available.  In early February of 1939, Johnson reached out to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to rebuke the DAR. However, Roosevelt initially refused to do so.

Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok and Howard’s University’s Cohen scrambled to find another venue. They singled out the District of Columbia public whites-only Central High School’s large auditorium as being most suitable.

But on February 3, Superintendent Frank Ballou wrote back, “In the opinion of the school officers, it is not possible under the law for the Community Center Department to grant your request for the use of Central High School auditorium to present Miss Marian Anderson.”

Howard officials were ready to take the fight to the next level and turned to Walter White, executive secretary the NAACP and to Doxey Wilkerson, professor of Education at Howard, who was also one of the leaders of the HTU and of the local National Negro Congress.

Wilkerson presented the appeal to use Central High School at the February 15th meeting of the Board of Education.  The Board upheld Ballou’s decision to deny the use of the school.

Howard University Professor Doxey Wilkerson: 1940 ca.

Doxey Wilkerson circa 1940.

Protests Ignite

The American Federation of Teachers reacted first at a February 18th meeting at the YWCA, where they condemned the school board’s refusal to permit Anderson to sing and began circulating petitions.

The following day, Feb 19, Charles Edward Russell, chair of the citywide Inter-Racial Committee, convened a meeting that formed the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) composed of several dozen organizations, church leaders and individual activists in the city.

Among the groups were the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council-CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress. Some predominantly white citizens’ associations also joined.

By February 20th the group was picketing the board of education, the first time that the school system had been picketed since the Moen’s case drew thousands of African Americans into mass meetings and picketing in March of 1919.

The MACC collected signatures on petitions and planned a mass meeting February 26th and a mass protest March 1st at the next board of education meeting. MACC elected Charles Hamilton Houston as chairman, John Lovell, Jr. as secretary, and Bertha Blair as vice chair.

First Mass Protest

Fliers called upon Washingtonians to rise,

Marian Anderson is a Negro. Thus, even as in Naziland, superb art is here crucified upon the altar of racial bigotry. Shall we permit the DAR and the Board of Education to impose this unwholesome policy upon our community? Shall the people of Washington dictate, or be dictated to?”

Over 1,500 people crowded into the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church at 1701 11th Street, NW to hear Doxey Wilkerson,

We must note that … if it is legal to present a white artist in Armstrong Hall, for a considerable fee, as was done recently, before a mixed audience, then it is equally legal to present a colored artist in the auditorium of a white school before a similar audience.

The growing protest movement also caused Roosevelt to reconsider her earlier refusal to condemn the DAR. She sent a telegram to the rally saying, “I regret extremely that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist.” Unknown to the meeting, Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR the same day.

Roosevelt Announces Resignation

The next day, Roosevelt announced in her weekly newspaper column and at a press conference that she had resigned from a major organization to which she had “belonged since coming to Washington.” The Anderson situation turned quickly from one covered in the local newspapers and the African American press to one also covered by the white press across the nation.

DC School Board Member Col. West A. Hamilton: 1940 ca.

Col. West A. Hamilton circa 1940

Hundreds of Washington residents descended on the Franklin School on March 1st to protest the school board’s decision. Telegrams began pouring in to the school board from around the country and 3,000 signatures were presented at the board meeting.

Charles H. Houston, speaking for the NAACP, called the school board’s decision a “travesty on democracy.” Sidney Katz of the local CIO spoke for the Anderson committee, comparing her treatment to “the treatment of Jewish artists in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.”

Col. West A. Hamilton, one of two African American members of the school board, made a motion to permit Anderson to sing at Central, but failed to get a second. The board voted to defer a decision to a committee meeting the following day.

Board Sets Impossible Conditions

Fearing the consequences of an outright refusal, the school committee voted to permit Anderson to use the school on a basis that did not set a “precedent” and

only on the positive and definite assurance and agreement…that the Board of Education will not in the future again be asked to depart from the principle of a dual system of schools and schools facilities.

The full board upheld the committee decision on a 6-2 vote on March 3rd.

Charles Hamilton Houston & the Capital Transit Fight (Photo 3)

Charles Hamilton Houston circa 1940.

Houston was stunned by the decision, “I had expected Friday a real hearing by the Committee, and had obtained thru the Committee (MACC) new signatures on the petition, a file of newspaper comments, letters and telegrams of endorsement [and] resolutions.”

All rights leaders were appalled. They could accept the no-precedent language, but not a restriction on whether anyone could ever apply again. After considering their options, Cohen wrote that he would accept the auditorium, but not the conditions.

Superintendent Ballou withdrew the offer March 17, writing, “The responsibility for making the Central High School auditorium unavailable for the concert of Miss Marian Anderson on April 9 must be assumed by you and your associates of Howard University.”

MACC leaders vehemently denounced the board and scheduled another mass meeting. Houston summed it up best when he said after the school board decision, “I wanted Marian Anderson to sing in Central, but not at the cost of my dignity and self-respect.”

Scramble for a venue

While the fight with the school board was playing out, efforts were made to find other solutions.

Hurok surreptitiously discovered that April 8th and 10th were available at Constitution Hall and applied for those dates, but Hand responded on February 15th that, “the hall is not available for a concert by Miss Anderson.”

Options were growing narrower, since the Rialto Theater was closed for repairs and the National and Belasco theaters would not give definitive answers.

It is not clear who came up with the idea to stage the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The director of music at Howard, Lulu Childers, had said in exasperation in early January that Anderson would “Sing here—even if we have to build a tent for her.“

Hurok announced publicly in late February that Anderson would keep the April 9th concert date and sing “out in the open air in the park immediately in front of Constitution Hall. She will sing for the people of Washington and there will be no charge.”  NAACP Executive Director White, however, opposed holding the concert at that location, believing it would show weakness.

Venue discussions were taking place among Howard officials, Hurok, Houston and White in early March and they included ideas about outdoor concerts.  According to one account, White favored Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, early in the strategy sessions.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 5

Marian Anderson and Oscar Chapman 1939.

Lincoln Memorial

But by March 13th, White drafted a resolution adopted by the NAACP directors calling for Anderson to give her concert at the Lincoln Memorial. White approached Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, about the use of the Lincoln Memorial.

Chapman was a fervent New Deal Democrat who had previously worked on anti-lynching legislation. He had been active in a number of progressive causes and was even accused of being a communist in 1938 by Rep. Noah Mason (R-IL) because of his support for the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War.

Chapman recalled in a 1972 interview that White approached him saying, “Oscar, wouldn’t it be a ten strike if we could have her sing at the feet of Lincoln, at the Lincoln Memorial?”

Chapman immediately agreed and contacted Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. Chapman recalled appealing to Ickes’ vanity saying,

We’ll build a platform on that low level of steps so cameras down here can take pictures of Lincoln right straight through from the platform we build for you and Marian Anderson who will be sitting there. And when she’s singing, they’ll be taking pictures; we can get the picture of Lincoln, you, and Marian Anderson all the time.

Chapman added after his recollection, “Well that pleased him.” Ickes quickly agreed to use the Memorial and contacted President Franklin Roosevelt who also gave his assent. With only days to prepare, Marian Anderson had a place to sing in Washington, D.C.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 2

Marian Anderson and the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial 1939.

The Marian Anderson Concert

While the parks department began site preparation, the NAACP began organizing buses to come to the concert. Nobody really knew how many people would turn out for the event and Anderson had never performed outdoors before.

Sunday, April 9 was a cold, blustery day and rain threatened throughout the day. Nevertheless, more than 75,000 people—black and white– showed up to hear Anderson, with no segregated areas. Millions more listened to the radio broadcast by NBC.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 3

April 9, 1939 crowd at the Marian Anderson concert

The DAR’s refusal of a concert hall to an African American performer turned into the largest affirmation of civil rights at that time. It marked an unofficial dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans. The battle for civil rights was far from over, but the concert also signaled a turning point in the fight against Jim Crow.

Anderson, who avoided political statements and claimed to know little about the battle over her concert venue in Washington, did her part that day. In a slight twist of words, she gave a new civil rights meaning to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” when she sang, “to thee we sing” instead of “of thee we sing.”

Battle Far from Over

While the concert marked a turning point, the long battle to desegregate theaters went on in Washington, D.C.

Picket at the National Theater: 1947 ca.

A picket at the National Theater circa 1947.

The fight continued at the National Theater, where picketing began in 1946 over the lessee’s refusal to admit black patrons.  The theater even employed a “spotter” in an attempt to bar anyone trying to “pass” as white.

President Harry Truman crossed the picket line in 1947 to see a performance of “Blossom Time,” but that only inflamed the protests led by the Committee for Racial Democracy chaired by Leon Ransom.  Later that year, the Actor’s Equity Association ultimately voted to ban performances until the theater desegregated.

Marcus Hyman, who held the lease, converted the theater to a movie house rather than desegregate and the landmark theater didn’t open its doors to African Americans until his lease expired and it was reconverted to a theater in 1952.

Desegregate Lisner Auditorium Pickets: 1946 # 1

Pickets at the opening of Lisner Auditorium in 1946. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Ingrid Berman Spat on At Lisner

The Lisner Auditorium opened at George Washington University in 1946, excluding African Americans.  Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the star of the play “Joan of Lorraine,” said at a press conference the day before the show opened, “If I’d known black people weren’t allowed in, I’d have never set foot in this town.”

Bergman reported that pro-segregationists waited outside her dressing room and spit on her and called her an “n_____-lover.”

The Washington chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare set up a picket line opening night October 29 demanding that African Americans be admitted. The cast of the production signed a petition denouncing the “deplorable and un-American practice of segregation.” A veterans group and other students at the school joined them in subsequent days.

In response to the outcry against segregation, the university voted to admit African Americans as patrons of university sponsored events in 1947. However, privately-sponsored events at Lisner continued to be segregated until 1954.

Protest Signs, Campaign to integrate Uline Arena, (1948-49)

Picket signs plastered on Uline Arena circa 1948.

The Warner Theater desegregated in 1953. Other battles, including picket lines at the Uline Arena and at movie theaters throughout the city, were waged continuously in the post World War II period.

Concert venues and theaters in the city accelerated desegregation in the wake of the 1953 Supreme Court decision reinstating Washington’s “lost laws” prohibiting segregation in facilities open to the public, and the Court’s 1954 Bolling vs. Sharpe decision outlawing segregated schools in the District.

Marian Anderson in D.C. after 1939.

Anderson was invited to appear at DAR Constitution Hall for a World War II relief benefit in January, 1943. Her representatives demanded that the audience be mixed and that the ban on black artists be lifted. The DAR agreed to a mixed audience, but refused to drop their “whites-only” performers clause, except on a case-by-case basis. Anderson ultimately sang, citing the need for wartime unity.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial: 1952 # 2

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1952.

She reprised her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 20, 1952 in a remembrance service for Harold Ickes. Over 10,000 came out to the event.

She performed again at DAR Constitution Hall in 1953—the same year the organization finally dropped its “whites only” performers clause—and appeared several other times at the hall in subsequent years.

Perhaps in triumph as she gazed out on the 250,000 gathered, she sang at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—again at the Lincoln Memorial.

Perspective

Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert was in many ways the symbolic beginning of the end of Jim Crow.  Though taking the form of a concert, it marked the first mass rally for civil rights, using the emblematic Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 1

Marian Anderson concert April 9, 1939.

Most accounts miss the symbolic dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans that took place with the 1939 Anderson concert. It stood in stark contrast to the segregation at the official dedication held in 1922.

The same accounts usually give most of the credit to President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Ickes for Anderson’s historic concert, but in 1939 local NAACP secretary John Lovell Jr. saw it a little differently when he wrote in The Crisis,

The spirit they [D.C. African Americans] showed this year was beyond the recollection of the oldest old-timer. They flooded the newspapers with letters, bitterly and skillfully written. They got their friends from outside to shower Congressmen with petitions. They hung from the rafters when the Board of Education met.

They demanded a picket line against the DAR national Convention and shouted for the opportunity of being the first to ride in the Black Marias [police paddy wagons], if the Black Marias were to materialize.

The national press put the credit for the furor upon Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary Ickes; but it was the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee which first notified Mrs. Roosevelt and which got her first response.

The 75,000 who heard Miss Anderson on Easter Sunday were a tribute to the fighting Negroes in the District of Columbia as much as to democracy and the preservation of art.

(Note: This post was updated March 14, 2016 to clarify that while there were not explicit laws requiring segregation of public facilities such as theaters, housing and restaurants; the courts upheld the “right” of individuals and businesses to impose Jim Crow. Further, restrictive covenants requiring houses to be sold only to whites were upheld by the courts)


Watch and listen to Marian Anderson’s rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the 1939 concert:


This is the third part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The March that Wasn’t & a Renewed Focus on Washington

Read Part I, “Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington
Read Part II, “‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights”


Author’s Notes:

Central High School was the old name for what is now known as Cardozo High School.

Sources include The Washington Post, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Afro American, Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta World, New York Amsterdam News, Washington Daily News, Washington Star, Allan Keller’s “Marian Anderson: A Singers Journal,” Victoria Garrett Jones, “Marian Anderson: A Voice Uplifted,” The Crisis, and Howard Kaplan’s “Marian Anderson.”


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


DC Police Raid 1948 Fundraiser by Progressive Party Supporters

6 Mar
Demonstration Protests DC Police Raid on Veterans Dance: 1948

Civil Rights Congress protests police raids in 1948. Courtesy, DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

By Craig Simpson

In the fall of 1948, Washington police for the second time broke up an interracial gathering when they raided a political fundraiser at the Laborers’ Union Hall at 525 New Jersey Avenue, NW, and arrested seven people and detained two-dozen others.

About 350 people were attending the dance that began Saturday night October 9, and continued past midnight. It was sponsored by the United Negro and Allied Veterans of America to support the Progressive Party campaigns of Henry Wallace for President and Dr. John E. T. Camper for Congress in Maryland’s Fourth District. The election was a mere three weeks away when this raid occurred.

When the police entered the union hall, the band struck up “The Star Spangled Banner,” which momentarily halted the police. But when the last notes faded away, police began herding attendees into lines. The crowd responded by singing Progressive Party songs.

“They [the police] brought in a batch of index cards and police would copy the names down on the index cards and several times they would jot down the source of the identification papers,” according to the Washington Daily News.

About two dozen people refused to give their names and were detained, taken to police headquarters and eventually released after establishing their identity. The Washington Herald published their names and addresses in the next day’s newspaper.

It was almost two years into the post-World War II “red scare” and the dominos were falling at the local level.

Future Progressive Party Presidential Candidate Henry A Wallace: 1939

Henry Wallace in 1939. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Progressive Party Fights Tide

Henry Wallace’s third-party campaign for president was a reaction to President Harry Truman’s move to the right following Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II in 1945.  Wallace stood for peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, repeal of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, universal health insurance, and civil rights.

Wallace refused to appear in segregated halls in the south and was often attacked with eggs and vegetables during campaign appearances. When his opponents tried to shout him down at political rallies, supporters would drown them out with labor and civil rights songs.

Dr. Camper was an African American physician who devoted his life to racial justice in Baltimore. He organized a group of African American physicians into  MeDeSo (Medical-Dental Society), which helped provide the funding for many civil rights suits, including Brown v. Board of Education.

Baltimore Civil Rights Activist Dr. John E. T. Camper

Civil rights activist Dr. John E. T. Camper in an undated photo.

Along with Juanita Jackson Mitchell, he organized a 1942 march on Annapolis by 2,000 protesters demanding civil rights in Maryland. Dr. Camper was also a founder of the Baltimore NAACP.  He was chair of the Baltimore Committee on Non-Segregation, which picketed the whites-only Ford’s Theater in that city for six years until the playhouse desegregated in 1952.

Kicking off his Progressive Party campaign, Camper said in part,

To the workers of the Fourth District who have witnessed the bipartisan attack on our living standards…I say that we stand for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, for real price control, for a dollar minimum wage, and for wage increases to meet the rising cost of living.

No resident aware of the shameful betrayal of the Jewish people…and of the callous disregard of the rights of the Negro people can fail to support…Wallace.

Political Motivation Charged

The police denied any political motivations in breaking up the Wallace/Camper fundraiser and said they were just conducting a raid where illegal alcohol was being served.

However, the invitations to the party were under the names of Henry Thomas, leader of Laborer’s Local 74, who had helped lead police brutality protests earlier in the decade, Edward Fisher of Cafeteria Workers Local 471 that had engaged in the 11-week strike earlier caused by Cold War politics, and William Johnson of Local 209 of the Cooks, Pastry and Kitchen Workers union and a long-time civil rights leader in the city.

Among those arrested at the Laborer’s hall were Winston Edwards, national chairman of the veterans’ organization and Sidney Goldreich, acting chairman of Veterans for Wallace.

Local Progressive Party chair Clark Foreman, who was also national treasurer of the organization, said police broke up “parties composed of white people and Negroes, apparently on the theory that any such party is subversive,” according to the Washington Post.

Civil Rights Congress Denounces DC Police Raid on Progressives: 1948

D.C. Civil Rights Congress leader Thomas G. Buchanan Jr. speaks at a rally against police raids in 1948. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The D.C. chapter of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) held a demonstration on October 18 where 150 people marched on police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave., NW, carrying a coffin that read “Don’t Bury American Freedom” and carrying signs reading “Give Storm-trooper Tactics Back to the Nazis” and “Civil Rights Congress.”

Thomas G. Buchanan Jr., executive secretary of the local CRC branch, put perspective into the arrests saying, “The lottery charge is based on the allegation that veterans organizations were raffling off small prizes to those attending the party as a fundraising measure,” according to The Washington Herald. Such raffles were “a common practice among church groups and organizations of all types,” according to the Herald.

The CRC called for a police investigation of the incident and of police Captain Howard V. Covell, who had led the two raids.  Covell responded, “There was nothing political about those raids,” according to the Post.

Earlier Raid on Interracial Party

But eight days earlier, Washington police raided an interracial housewarming party given by Julius Kaplan at his apartment. According to Kaplan, police showed up about 1 a.m. and pretended to be looking for a fictional person named “Mrs. Schwartz,” ostensibly to tell her about a refrigerator leaking gas.

An hour later, 20 police officers showed up saying there had been a report of a shooting in the apartment. By the time the police arrived, there was only one African American still present and police demanded to search him for a weapon, according to Kaplan.

Police arrested 14 people at the address and held them at the police station until 5 a.m. before releasing them.  Kaplan said when the parents of one of the young women called the station to find out why she was being held, a police officer allegedly told them, “Communists are being questioned.” No charges were made related to a shooting.

Protests to Truman & DC Commissioners

The Progressive Party sent a telegram to President Harry Truman and the District of Columbia commissioners protesting the raids, saying in part, “We note that [Police Commissioner] Major Barrett has given as a reason for the high crime rate in Washington that he does not have enough police. We should like to call your attention that…he used nearly 50 police to break up a veterans dance on the pretext that certain individuals were selling liquor without a license and holding a raffle…”

The Washington Post editorialized that “Despite the explanation of Washington police that there was no political significance to Saturday night’s raid, local authorities have shown enough indifference to rowdyism launched against the Wallaceites to arouse suspicion that the arrests at this meeting were not entirely accidental. The case is at best a flimsy one, and, as police well know, illegal sale of liquor in Washington is by no means confined to Wallace rallies.”

The words may have rung true, but the political climate was stacked against those arrested.

Red Scare Takes Hold

Headlines about “reds” and “commies” filled the daily newspapers. The “Hollywood 10” had been convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail for refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs.

Afro Devotes Full Page to Progressive Party Convention: 1948

The Afro American covers the Progressive Party convention in July 31, 1948 edition.

The U.S. government had instituted loyalty oaths for federal employees and indicted leaders of the Communist Party on the charge of advocating insurrection. They were scheduled for trial the day before the Presidential Election.

The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, among its many provisions, effectively barred alleged communists from holding union office.  It was used locally by a government-sponsored corporation to refuse to bargain with the cafeteria workers union, forcing an 11-week strike earlier in the year.

Wallace, a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Vice-President, and Secretary of Commerce, was personally attacked as a communist sympathizer. Baltimore-based, nationally known journalist H. L. Mencken wrote that Wallace and the Progressive Party were under covert control of the communists.

Wallace ended up finishing fourth in the presidential election with about 1.2 million votes, running slightly behind segregationist Strom Thurmond in the popular vote. John Camper won 10% of the vote in the Maryland Fourth District in a three-way race, despite evidence of vote rigging by the Pollack political machine in African American precincts.

Fight in Court Against Raid Arrests

Notwithstanding the minor charges growing out of the dance at the Laborers’ hall, federal prosecutors were determined to convict the men, while those arrested battled back in the legal arena.

Edwards and Goldreich had their arrests dismissed because no police officer had actually observed them selling liquor or “operating a lottery.” Instead, police had arrested them because they said they were in charge of the dance.

However, this victory was short-lived as both still ended up facing charges for the alleged alcohol sale and lottery operation. Separate trials were scheduled for the lottery and alcohol sales.

The “illegal lottery” trial took place January 5, 1949, with the assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur McLaughlin proclaiming that the four men arrested, including Edwards and Goldreich, acted in “open defiance” of the law.

When undercover police officers testified, the “open defiance” of the law that required 35 officers to suppress on a Saturday night turned out to be chances that were being sold for 25 cents each to win three prizes—one fifth of scotch, one fifth of bourbon and a Paul Robeson “Freedom Train” record.

Veterans for Wallace: 1948

1948 Vets for Wallace button.

Police Officer Suggested Raffle

When Edwards, the head of the African American veterans organization, took the witness stand and was being questioned by McLaughlin, he testified that undercover police officer Benjamin Chaplain was the person who suggested holding the raffle to raise money.

Police testified they seized $19.80 at the event as evidence, but when Edwards testified he said he counted over $200 in proceeds two hours before the raid. “I am wondering what happened to all the money,” he said on the witness stand.

In his closing statement, prominent civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston argued that the raffle was conducted for a “cause” similar to church bazaars and fairs where contributions were requested. Houston went on to say that criminal intent was absent.

All were found guilty and fined; three of them were fined $50 and one $25.

Those charged with illegally selling whiskey, including Edwards and Goldreich, had a trial that stretched over three days, from January 17-19.

Leon Ransom, another well known civil rights attorney, argued that the five men charged were accepting contributions, but not selling liquor. Nevertheless, all five were found guilty.

After the trial, juror Anne Mallory filed an affidavit stating that she and other jurors understood that they could find all five guilty or all five innocent. She further stated that she believed two of the men were innocent, but Judge Aubrey B. Fennell denied the motion for a new trial. Fennell imposed fines of  $200 on all five defendants in February.

Further court appeals for both groups were unsuccessful.

Breadth of Suppression

In the overall context of the post World War II “red scare,” this was a minor incident. Those who were jailed or lost their jobs during that period suffered worse fates.

However, it illustrates the depth and breadth of the suppression of the country’s left wing movement during the period, including the use of fear and apprehension at being even remotely connected to progressive, socialist or communist issues and campaigns.

Police and the FBI routinely made files of everyone associated with left-wing activists or events. In this instance, it was those who attended a housewarming party or a dance. Authorities prosecuted minor offenses and created arrest records for others. An undercover police officer urged an act that police later conducted arrests for. Proceeds from the fundraiser went missing after police seized them.

Newspapers during this period published the names, addresses and often the employer of people even if they were not arrested or convicted of any crime. In this instance, The Washington Herald published the names and addresses of people who were booked for “investigation” and not for any crime. All the local newspapers carried the names and addresses of those arrested for minor alcohol violations in this case.

It also illustrates how those affected continued to fight back. They campaigned in elections, held demonstrations and waged court battles. The message of “Don’t Bury American Freedom” carried during the protest of these arrests turned out to be one repeated many times during the next decade.


Author’s Notes:

Sources include the following newspapers: The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star and The Washington Herald.  Also consulted were “Hearings Regarding Communism in the District of Columbia” conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and “A Doctor’s Legacy: Dr. John E. T. Camper and the MeDeSo” by Jonathan Cahn.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Police Break Up Unemployed Protest at White House: 1930

26 Feb

Police at the White House broke up a protest by the unemployed on March 6, 1930. The demonstration was part of the first nationwide protest response to the Great Depression that had begun the previous fall.

Protests were held in Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Seattle, Las Angeles and San Francisco among other cities. Demonstrations were also held on the same day in cities around the world.

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 1

Pickets arrive at the White House, March 6, 1930. Photo courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress.

The clash began when District of Columbia local Communist Party leader William “Bert” Lawrence stopped and began to speak to the crowd, police in street clothes attacked him. Uniformed police then assaulted the picketers and bystanders with tear gas and black jacks. Some the protestors fought back against the police.

Some reports said President Herbert Hoover watched the demonstration from the White House windows along with a delegation from the District of Columbia Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), while other reports had his wife watching along with the DAR.

The District of Columbia Communist Party and allied groups began preparations in the city for weeks before and police responded by arresting 10 people on April 30 for holding soapbox style speeches on the street corners near the Communist Party headquarters at 1337 7th Street NW. Similar meetings and police harassment took place at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union statue at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Unemployment Rally in DC: 1930

Meeting at 1337 7th St. NW prior to picketing, March 6, 1930. From the Library of Congress

The communists and along with others held a rally the night before at the Communist Party headquarters where speeches were given and signs were made for the next day’s demonstration. The main themes were demands for good jobs, against police brutality, Jim Crow schools in the District and lynching.

Among the organizers were Lawrence, Solomon Harper of the International Labor Defense and Edith Briscoe of the Young Communist League.

Briscoe was among those arrested at the White House picket line after she jumped on the back of a police officer he was getting ready to strike an African American demonstrator. Lawrence was detained and charged with speaking in a public place without permission.

Harper was arrested for disorderly conduct, but was acquitted. He still faced charges from an outdoor speech he gave the night before condemning the lynching of sixty-year-old Laura Wood at Barber Junction in North Carolina.

Tear Gas Quells Reds: Washington Post 1930

Jobless pickets are the lead story for the Washington Post, March 7, 1930.

Public demonstrations of this type were fairly infrequent at that time and public protests involving blacks and whites even more infrequent.

The picket in front of the White House was held with blacks and whites locking arms while picketing. Press reports estimated that several thousand nearby office workers came out to watch. The newspapers also indicate that 13 picketers were arrested with an unknown number of injured, but only one that required hospital treatment.

The demonstrations made front-page news and were the lead stories in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun and helped put the Communist Party at the forefront of the fight against unemployment and racial discrimination in the District for the next decade.


To see still photos of the March 6, 1930 demonstration, go to the Washington Area Spark Flickr site.

The photos in the short video are courtesy of the Library of Congress. The video clips were originally from Sherman Grinberg, but are believed to be in the public domain. The clips were misidentified as part of the the 1932 bonus march in a Newsreel production. The Library of Congress has mis-dated some of the photos to a period earlier than they actually were taken.

Note: This post was updated February 28.

‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights

19 Feb
4000 March in Washington to Free ‘Scottsboro Boys’ – 1933

4,000 march on Washington on May 8, 1933 to “Free the Scottsboro Boys.” ©Bettman/Corbis.

By Craig Simpson
2nd of a series

During the height of the Great Depression, on May 8, 1933, a crowd of 4,000 people marched more than six miles through steady rain in Washington, D.C. demanding freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys” and other prisoners.

More than ten years had passed since the last predominantly African American mass march in the nation’s capital centered on a call for anti-lynching legislation and basic civil rights.

The “Scottsboro Boys” were nine African American youths accused of the rape of two white women in Alabama. Eight of them were convicted and sentenced to death. A mistrial was declared for the ninth, 13-year-old Roy Wright, after the jury deadlocked on the death penalty.

‘Scottsboro Boys’ with Attorney Leibowitz: 1933

‘Scottsboro Boys’ with Attorney Leibowitz: 1933

An all-white crowd packed the courtroom during the trials while thousands more gathered outside. When the first verdicts were announced, a band began playing, “It’s going to be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

The case inspired unprecedented activism in black communities across the country and cast a worldwide spotlight on treatment of African Americans in the United States.

The tactics used in the fight to free those accused also set off a years-long,  acrimonious public debate between the Communist Party (CP) with its legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD), and the NAACP.

Communist Party Takes Control of Case

During the initial trial a local lawyer, hired with the assistance of a ministers’ group allied with the NAACP, did a poor job of representing the Scottsboro defendants. The ILD attorneys then took control of the case with the support of the youths and their mothers.

Eight of the defendants had been sentenced to death on April 11, 1931 and were scheduled for execution on July 10th. The CP acted quickly to organize protests across the country, characterizing the trial as a “legal lynching.”

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2

Solomon Harper shown at a 1930 picket line at the White House. National Photo Company, courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress

In Washington, D.C. meetings and rallies were held, including one on May 29, 1931, led by ILD District of Columbia leader Solomon Harper at Fisherman Hall (320 F Street, SW).

Harper outlined the holes in the prosecution’s case, pointing out, for example, that three trial witnesses had placed the defendants in different locations.   Harper also  addressed those criticizing communist involvement by calling for a united front to aid the youths. Ada Wright, mother of two of the defendants, also spoke and appealed to the crowd for aid in freeing the youths. Wright’s 17-year-old son, Andy, was scheduled for execution in six weeks.  Her other son Roy, 13, was still in jail, awaiting sentencing.

Letters and telegrams poured in to the county, the courts, the attorney general, the governor, Congress and the President to free the young men.  Nationwide direct action—including civil disobedience—was employed on an extraordinary scale in the quest for the young men’s freedom.

Communist parties in other countries also led marches and rallies to demand release of the youths, including a July 1931 rally of 150,000 German workers who heard Wright speak and plea to save her sons.

In addition to the mass pressure, the ILD challenged the initial guilty verdict in the courts on three broad grounds: that the trial had taken place under mob intimidation, that the defense was incompetent and had deprived the young men of a fair trial, and that African Americans had been excluded from the jury pool.

NAACP Leader DuBois in Washington: 1932

W.E.B. DuBois, shown at an Alpha Phi Alpha dinner, blasted communist tactics of mass action. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy of National Museum of American HIstory.

NAACP Blasts Tactics

The NAACP was initially reluctant to take on an appeal. However, once the communists brought public attention to the youths, they fought bitterly to regain control of the case, even offering the services of famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow at one point.

W. E. B DuBois, editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, blasted the ILD in a 1931 article, “If the Communists want these lads murdered, then their antics of threatening judges and yelling for mass action. . . is calculated to insure this.”

The NAACP also didn’t believe any significant legal principles were involved in the case. NAACP executive secretary Walter White wrote in a letter to field secretary William Pickens, “It is equally true that there is no broad legal principle to be established in the cases. The principle involved in them was established by us in the Arkansas Cases…ruling that a trial in a court dominated by mob influence is not due process of law.”

However, events proved the NAACP leadership wrong.

Case Goes to Supreme Court

The communists directly challenged every institution involved in the case—local officials, state officials, judges and the federal government—denouncing them as tools of the ruling class.

The CP engaged in high profile civil disobedience when they staged a banned demonstration at the Supreme Court on November 11, 1932–the day the Court was due to deliver its first decision in the case. A captain of the Capitol police, Stephen Gnash, refused to issue a permit because the protest “might be interpreted as an attempt to coerce the Supreme Court.”

The ILD held the demonstration anyway and police broke it up with clubs and tear gas, but not before the pickets threw a few counter-punches at the police.  Reports of the clash were met with horror by more conservative elements in the African American community.

7 'Scottsboro Boys' Win: 1932

Protestors are arrested at the Supreme Court prior to the ruling reversing the Scottsboro verdicts, November. 1932.

Precedent Set by Court

But in a precedent-setting ruling, the Supreme Court found that the defense provided the Scottsboro youths was incompetent and ordered a new trial. Justice Felix Frankfurter said at the time that the ruling was “the first application of the limitations of the [fourteenth] amendment to a state criminal trial.”

The Court also rejected the mob intimidation legal theory with the majority writing, “It does not sufficiently appear that the defendants were seriously threatened with, or that they were actually in danger of mob violence. . .” This was another blow to the NAACP and White, who had earlier written this was the sole basis for overturning the convictions.

The Alabama prosecutors then split the defendants into different groups for retrial,  where eight of the youths were again found guilty.

March on White House and Capitol

The CP continued its campaign to free the youths, their efforts climaxing in the 1933 march on Washington.

The night before the march, several thousand African Americans mixed with several hundred white supporters at the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church located at 3rd and I Streets, NW. There they heard Ruby Bates, one of the accusers of the youths who had recanted her testimony during the second trial, say,

They were framed-up at the Scottsboro trial, not only by the boys and girls on the freight train, of which I was one, but by the bosses of the southern counties.

Scottsboro March Rates Four Photo in Afro American: 1933

Afro American publishes four photos of the 1933 march on Washington.

The next day the lengthy march began at Florida and New York Ave NE and wound through the city before heading toward the White House and then on to the Capitol, where it was to disband near the House office buildings. Ruby Bates and Janie Patterson, the mother of defendant Haywood Patterson, led the group.

Marchers also called for freeing labor leader Tom Mooney, a Maryland African American named Euel Lee who was also facing the death penalty, and Angelo Herndon, a black communist labor organizer charged with insurrection in Georgia.

Roosevelt Refusal Angers Demonstrators

The demonstrators were angered when President Franklin Roosevelt refused to see a delegation. Instead the White House appointments secretary received representatives who presented a petition with 145,000 signatures. The crowd paused their march and gathered outside the White House where they sang The Internationale and shouted, “Free the Scottsboro Boys.”

Delegation Demands Justice Depart Action on Lynching: 1940

William D. Patterson, 2nd from left, shown in 1940. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy National Museum of American History.

They then marched to the Capitol where a delegation led by William D. Patterson (no relation to defendant), a leader of the ILD, met briefly with Speaker of the House Henry Rainey and Vice President John Garner. They presented more petitions demanding freedom for the Scottsboro Boys and for the passage of an anti-lynching law.

Rep. Oscar De Priest (R-IL), the only African American in Congress at the time, continued the debate over tactics. He rebuked Patterson, telling him the case “cannot be settled by your parading in the capital: it is a case for the state and your presence in Washington fails to help the cause.” DePriest, who also opposed higher taxes on the wealthy and federal relief programs, was defeated in an election the following year.

Louise Thompson Patterson - late 1920s, CRC Worker, Former Wife of Wallace Thurman

Louise Thompson said the 1933 Scottsboro march was only the beginning and predicted a million would return. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.

The march concluded with a rally at Seaton Park near the Capitol where the throng heard a dozen speakers, including Louise Thompson. She told the crowd this was “only the beginning” and that “another time will come when 500,000, even a million marchers” will descend on Washington.

Mothers Return to D.C.

On the morning of Mother’s Day, May 13, 1934, four of the mothers and Ruby Bates returned to Washington and spoke at churches throughout the city.  In the afternoon, they were refused an audience with the President or any of his representatives. That evening several hundred people rallied in support of the Scottsboro defendants at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, 901 Rhode Island Avenue, NW.

'Scottsboro Boys' Mothers: 1934

Four of the Scottsboro mothers and Ruby Bates at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, DC in May 1934. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy of National Museum of American History.

Janie Patterson, whose son had three times been sentenced to die in the electric chair, told the crowd, “The President wouldn’t see me and he is supposed to be my President too.” Viola Montgomery, mother of defendant Olen Montgomery, stated, “If a colored woman had been attacked by white men, nothing would have been done.”

Ida Norris, mother of Clarence Norris, praised the ILD, “If it hadn’t been for them, our boys would have been electrocuted or lynched long ago. If you are ever going to vote, vote nothing but the Communist ticket.”

The group went back to the White House the following day and was received by the President’s representatives.

Court Rules Jury Exclusion Illegal

The case came back before the Supreme Court as Norris vs. Alabama on February 15, 1935. The Court overturned the guilty verdict again in another precedent-setting decision, finding that Alabama’s exclusion of blacks from the jury rolls violated the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution.

“Scottsboro Boys Must Not Die,” DC Mass Meeting: 1934

Flyer for a 1934 Washington, D.C. protest meeting on the ‘Scottsboro Boys.’ Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By this time, the ILD had made its own mistakes in handling the case, including two ILD members being caught trying to bribe the principal accuser of the youths.  In addition, the NAACP was under pressure by its members to end its fight with the communists.

A joint legal defense committee, supported by both groups, the ACLU and others, was finally formed in 1935 to take charge of the case. With the legal defense under a unified banner, the CP and ILD continued to organize mass pressure.

Partial Victory

Patterson’s fourth trial, in January, 1936, resulted in another rape conviction, but this time he was sentenced to 75 years—the first time in Alabama that a black man had avoided the death penalty after a conviction for the rape of a white woman.

In July, 1937, prosecutors dropped charges against Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright after they had spent six years in prison. Wright, 13 at the time of the events, had been imprisoned all that time, even though he was never tried again after the first mistrial.

During an altercation, a deputy shot and wounded Ozie Powell in 1936 while he was being transported to a prison. Powell eventually pled guilty to assaulting the deputy and the rape charges were dropped as part of the plea deal. Powell was released in 1946.

The other three were convicted of rape. Clarence Norris, Andrew Wright and Charlie Weems were eventually paroled in the 1940s, and Patterson escaped in 1948. Wright was sent back to prison for a parole violation and wasn’t released until 1950.

New Rights, New Tactics

The debate over tactics would continue for decades, but the Scottsboro campaign established that direct action could produce change.  The defendants weren’t all acquitted, but they were all saved from the death penalty. Two new important precedents were set: the right to competent defense counsel and a prohibition against excluding African Americans from juries.

145,000 Protest Scottsboro to Roosevelt: 1933

The May 10, 1933 New York Amsterdam News headlines the Scottsboro mass protest.

Equally important was the communists’ use of mass protest and civil disobedience alongside a strident legal defense. Charles Hamilton Houston, who served as the first NAACP special counsel from 1935-40, summarized the Scottsboro case and put the Communist Party/ILD approach in perspective when he wrote in 1935:

By its uncompromising resistance to Southern prejudice the ILD has set a new standard for agitation for equality. Through its activity in the Scottsboro case the ILD has made it impossible for the Negro bourgeoisie in the future to be as complacent and supine before racial injustices as it was prior to Scottsboro. It has introduced the Negro to the possibilities and tactics of mass pressure.

Years later, Houston reflected that Scottsboro marked “an historic departure” and that African Americans

were made to feel that even without the ordinary weapons of democracy…[they] still had the force…with which they themselves could bring to bear pressures and affect the result of the trial…

Nobody who ever sent a telegram of protest to any of the Scottsboro judges…ever inside himself accepted the fact that he was willingly from then on going to tolerate the system and the oppression to which he hitherto had been unresistingly subject.


This is the second part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The 1939 Marian Anderson Concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Read Part I, Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington

Read Part III, DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by Marian Anderson Concert


Author’s notes:

In 1976, Norris, the last living defendant at that time, was pardoned with the support of the NAACP and civil rights groups across the country. The Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center was opened in the town in 2010, acknowledging the history of the youths’ ordeal.

This year, two bills were introduced into the Alabama legislature that would finally clear all the defendants.  A resolution would find the Scottsboro youths “victims of a series of gross injustices” and declare them exonerated. The other legislation would grant the state parole board the power to grant posthumous pardons, a legal prerequisite before pardons to the now deceased defendants could be issued. Though 82 years late, observers predict that both bills will pass.

The quotes by Charles Hamilton Houston are excerpted from Genna McNeil’s, “Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” Quotes by the Scottsboro mothers, Ruby Bates and Louise Thompson are from articles from The Afro American. Quotes from Walter White and W.E.B. DuBois came from “Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial” by James A. Miller. Other sources include: The Crisis, The Afro American, The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Chicago Defender and The Amsterdam News.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Spark 4th Quarter in Review

26 Dec

Miss our earlier posts? Catch up here!


Fighting Capital Transit’s Jim Crow Hiring

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)by  Craig Simpson
Posted October 14

A struggle initiated by a group of young African American union leaders against the most visible symbol of Jim Crow hiring in the District of Columbia reaches a peak with a 1943 wartime march against racism.

It is derailed by the duplicity of a President in 1945 and the post World War II anti-communist crusade that destroys many of the campaigns’ leaders and weakens their unions. The fight is not won until schools, parks, theaters and restaurants fall in the battle to desegregate Washington and a brash new union leader confronts the future. Read it here.


Beltsville Strikers Block Truck & Win Strike

Confrontation at Mineral Pigment 230Posted October 19

A strike wave swept the country in the early 1970s as workers resisted attempts by management to increase profits by squeezing more work out of fewer workers. At a small plant in Beltsville, Maryland that manufactured the pigment that colors steel, workers waged a fierce battle against a management determined to win.

For a moment in time, the workers won a decisive victory. Watch the slide show as management attempts to move a truckload of pigment out of the plant and past the strikers. The workers stopped the truck and won their strike. Watch it here.


Meat Cutters Strike Betrayed

Meat Cutters Strike Betrayed 1973 photo 3Posted October 26

The meat cutters union was one of four unions important to winning wage and benefit gains in the retail grocery industry in the 1970s. The others were the retail clerks and separate teamster locals that represented warehouse workers and truck drivers. Normally if one union struck, the others would honor their picket lines

In 1973, the meat cutters struck Giant Food and the other grocery chains locked them out. The teamster locals and the retail clerks union all voted to support the butchers, but national teamster president Frank Fitzsimmons overruled the local unions and refused to authorize a work stoppage. The meat cutters were forced to accept an offer that few would have voted for before the strike.

The solidarity broken at that time has never been fully repaired. Read it here


Washington Free Press Battles Suppression

Free Press Response to Obscenity Convictionby Craig Simpson
Posted November 7

Before blogs there was the alternative press and the local Washington Free Press hit authorities where it hurt. They published articles on revolution and how to grow marijuana, they posted undercover policemen’s photos and addresses, and broke barriers to free expression wherever they could.

Maryland authorities hit back with a grand jury investigation into “subversion” conducted by the paper. An epic back and forth battle ensued between the paper and authorities in Maryland, Virginia and the District that featured charges of pornography, multiple arrests of vendors, evictions, police break-ins, picketing a judge’s home and  outbursts in court. In the end, neither the Free Press nor laws on subversion, pornography or restrictions on news distribution survived this battle in the greater Washington, DC area. Read it here.


Maryland Marriage Equality Retrospective

Washington, DC Gay Liberation Front: 1970

Posted November 14

The victory for marriage equality in a November referendum in Maryland owes its success to years of struggle and sacrifice by countless people.  This retrospective takes a few photos from the early days of Mattachine Society, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance to show appreciation for those pioneering efforts.

The three chosen? A 1966 picket of the White House, the third conducted by the Mattachine Society.  An undated photo of early gay liberation activists at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in late 1970 or early 1971.  A torchlit march against police repression at the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, VA in 1972. See them here.


Marie Richardson Remembered

Marie Lucinda Richardson (Harris)by Craig Simpson
Posted November 19

Marie Richardson organized a women’s auxiliary to Washington Red Caps union while a teen. According to the Washington Afro American, she was the first black woman to serve at a national level in a major trade union and helped to organize federal workers in the city. She headed up the Washington, DC branch of the National Negro Congress where she fought employment discrimination, against lynching and worked to aid predominently African American labor unions.

She received little recognition for her efforts after a federal prosecutor decided to make an example of her during the McCarthy era and charged her with failing to disclose her membership in subversive organizations.  She was sent to jail for four and a half years before being paroled and she died in obscurity.  Read about her here.


Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention

Big Man Speaks to the Press 1970Posted November 25

The Black Panther Party set an ambitious agenda to hold a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention that would provide a unified platform for the disparate groups and struggles of the late 1960s.

In 1970 they held a successful rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and drew 10,000 to Philadelphia for what was termed a plenary session. However, they were unable to find a venue for the Washington, DC convention as thousands streamed into town. Shortly afterwards internal divisions and FBI dirty tricks set in motion a downward spiral for the group.  See photos here.


600 Crab Pickers Hold Out Against Terror

A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938by Craig Simpson
Posted December 5

In a town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore beset by unemployment and surrounded by racial terror, 600 black women take on the packing houses in 1938 and win.

The five week strike saw a CIO organizer’s car overturned and burned. Strike leaders houses were broken into. Vigilantes ran a federal mediator and union organizers out of the county and town leaders blocked food shipments to the strikers.

But the women stood strong and the packers gave in. They won a restoration of their pay rates and their union.  Read it here.


Pressmen Take on The Washington Post

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1by Craig Simpson
Posted December 12

The influential and powerful Washington Post prepares for battle with its unions by training management to publish the newspaper without union workers. Some pressmen disable the presses before walking out on strike.

The battle ebbs and flows through the city for two and a half months in 1975 as the unions push a boycott and the newspaper has criminal charges brought against the pressmen.  The tide finally turns against the pressmen and the city’s labor movement suffers one of its biggest defeats.

Could the pressmen have won?  Read about it here.


Gay Teacher Fights to Stay in the Classroom

Joe Acanfora Winter 1972by Craig Simpson
Posted December

Attending Penn State on a Navy ROTC scholarship, Joe Acanfora quits the program and changes his major to education and joins with other early gay activists to form a rights group on campus.

He successfully fights to finish his student teaching assignment then prevails in a battle for a teaching certificate against those who question his moral fitness.

But Montgomery County Maryland transfers him out of the classroom and eliminates his job, setting off a firestorm of protest. The courts are determined to keep him out of the classroom and use every conceivable excuse to do so.

What happened to Acanfora?  Read it here.


 

Black Panther Party Revolutionary People’s Convention: November 1970

25 Nov

The Black Panther Party’s influence peaked in September 1970 when 7,000 attended a plenary session of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia PA. Many believed that an organized, broad-based revolutionary movement would follow the adoption of a common platform at the full constitutional convention Nov 27-29, 1970 in Washington, DC.

This movement toward bringing together the many threads of struggle in the US under a unified program was halted when authorities in the Washington, DC area refused to permit the Panther-sponsored group to meet or imposed financial barriers that were impossible to reach.

Thousands arrived in the District to find no adequate meeting space and the unity sought proved elusive. Soon afterward, the Panthers were wracked by an internal split and declined in influence.  Much of the rest of the New Left splintered as US involvement in the Vietnam war winded down.


Elbert Howard & Ossie Davis, June 1970

Big Man & Ossie Davis at Panther Rally 1970

Elbert “Big Man” Howard and actor Ossie Davis at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, June 19, 1970 to announce the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. Photo by Bernie Boston, courtesy of DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.


Panthers Banner in DC, June 1970Panthers Raise Banner at Lincoln Memorial 1970

Rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial June 19, 1970 attended by about 1,000 calling for a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention that would unite the struggles of black liberation, independence for Puerto Rico, students, women’s, gays, workers and other fights behind a common program. Photo by Thomas J. O’Hallorgan & Warren K Leffler, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Call to Philly Plenary, Aug. 1970
Call To Philly Panther Convention 1970

Image from page 23 of the August 29, 1970 issue of the Black Panther that advertises the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention plenary session scheduled for Philadelphia, PA Sept. 5-7, 1970.

The Philadelphia plenary drew over 7,000 (the Panthers claimed 15,000) and generated much excitement that unity would be achieved among disparate struggles in the country.

Image is from a microfilm copy of the newspaper and posted by the Rainbow History Project.


DC Convention Call, Sept. 1970
1970 Black Panther DC Convention Call

An unsigned and undated flyer following the Black Panther Party sponsored Philadelphia plenary session of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in September 1970. The flyer is a call to come to Washington DC to unite under a revolutionary banner Nov. 27-29, 1970.

Thousands had rallied in Philadelphia and expected that the Washington, DC convention would be the culmination of an effort to forge a revolutionary program and unite many sections of the American left.


Panther Press Conference, Nov. 27, 1970
Big Man Speaks to the Press 1970

Black Panther Party leader Elton “Big Man” Howard speaks to the press in front of the Washington, DC Panther Community Center at 1732 17th Street NW on Nov. 27, 1970.

Howard demanded that Howard University drop its $10,000 deposit requirement and provide free space for the Panther sponsored Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. Authorities had pushed institutions hard to deny space to the Panthers.  The DC Armory Board and the University of Maryland had already turned down requests for facilities.

At the press conference, Howard said that revolutionaries arriving in the city would stay three days or three weeks if they had to. Ultimately, no adequate space was found. A rock concert was held Nov. 27 in Malcolm X Park (Meridian Hill) that drew over 5,000 and churches provided some space to the gathering. However, most of the meetings scheduled to hammer out language could not be held.

Huey Newton, chair of the Panthers who had been recently released from jail, spoke Nov. 29 to 600 packed into St. Stephens of the Incarnation Church located ironically on Newton St. NW while another 2,000 listened though loudspeakers outside.

Newton promised another gathering to finalize the new constitution, but none was ultimately written or adopted. The Panthers soon underwent a decline, along with the New Left that provided much their external support, as internal splits and a dissipating movement took their toll.

Photo by John Bowden, courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post.


To see more information on the history of the Washington, DC Black Panther Chapter, see the Washington Area Spark Flickr set description “DC Black Panthers 1969-74.”

To see more information and photos on the Black Panther Party and what former Panthers are doing today, visit It’s About Time.