Last post, I wrote about how as I reread March and Darkroom I started thinking about the gutter within these texts, the moments and individuals that the texts do not have the space or the scope to cover. I wrote about Lillian Smith’s connection to the movement, a connection that does not fit in with the narrative scope of either March or Darkroom, both memoirs chronicling the experiences of John Lewis and Lila Quintero Weaver respectively. Even though Smith wouldn’t appear, the more I learn about other individuals in the movement, I ask myself, why couldn’t a panel or page illuminate their contributions? The main individual I am thinking about right now is Pauli Murray and her connection to the history of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
During the lead up to the 1963 March on Washington, March focuses on the work of A. Philip Randolph and his initial plans, in the early 1940s, to have a march on Washington to push for African Americans workers to become integrated into the war workforce and more. In the full page image of Randolph, as he stands with his left hand in his pocket and his right hand outstretched as if speaking, the narration reads, “The idea for the March on Washington came from A. Philip Randolph.” After extolling his work, even mentioning that “if he had been born at another time, he could’ve been president,” the narration points to the plans for the march that he envisioned and how the march didn’t happen because President Roosevelt “signed an executive order forbidding the defense industry from discrimination in hiring.”
March acknowledges the long history of the Civil Rights Movement through its recognition of Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and more in the organization and planning of the 1963 march, an event which brought to fruition Randolph’s plan from the 1940s. However, what this framing leaves out is Pauli Murray’s impact. March centers female members of movement such as Diane Nash, but when dealing with the long trajectory of the movement, men such as Randolph take center stage. Again, March cannot cover everything. It already covers so much, but once I learned about Murray’s role in the March on Washington Movement, I keep thinking about how a page, as is done with Malcom X, or even a panel could provide an in road for readers to dive deeper into Murray and her impact on the movement.
After getting out of jail in Petersburg, VA, where she and Adelene McBean were arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus, Murray returned to New York City and began working with the Workers’ Defense League (WDL). Murray served on the WDL’s administrative committee, and when the WDL heard about the case of Odell Waller, a sharecropper in Virginia sentenced to death for killing the white landlord Oscar Davis, she went to Virginia to raise awareness and funds for Waller’s defense.
While working to prove that Waller acted in self defense when he shot Davis, the WDL also positioned the case as a way to eliminate the poll tax in Virginia since the all white jury, each of whom paid the poll tax to vote and thus could serve on juries, convicted Waller swiftly of first degree murder and sentenced him to execution. The WDL argued that Waller did not receive a fair trial by a jury of his peers. Murray and the WDL worked to raise money for an appeal; however, the appeals proved unsuccessful. The Supreme Court refused to grant certiorari and declined to hear the case. All the while. Murray, Randolph, Mary McLeod Bethune, and others petitioned Roosevelt to commute Waller’s execution, but that didn’t occur either. Roosevelt sent entreaties to governor Colgate Darden, but to no avail. Virginia executed Waller on July 2, 1942.
Following Waller’s execution, Randolph called for a Silent Parade in New York on July 25 to protest Waller’s electrocution, the lynching of Willie Vinson, a Black youth in Texarkana, TX, the lynching of Private Jessie Smith in Flagstaff, AZ, and the beating of musician Roland Hayes and his wife in Rome, GA. Murray notes, in her autobiography Song in a Weary Throat, that Randolph wanted the march to take place under the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) banner to “mourn Odell Waller and to protest the poll tax system as well as the recent lynchings of two Negroes and the attack upon Roland Hayes and his wife.”
Randolph put Murray in charge of the march then left for an NAACP meeting in Los Angeles. She continues by writing that he left “behind little organizational structure to carry out his mandate.” Plus, he did not secure the adequate “financial resources” from other Black leaders and organizations who could help bolster the protest. Even with these things lacking, Murray, with the help of Madia Springer and Dollie Lowther, were able “to mobilize the Waller Silent Parade,” a march that Murray nites “would go down in civil rights protest history as ‘a very minor achievement.'”
Around 500 people marched from 56th and Eighth Ave. to Union Square. The People’s Voice, a newspaper based in Harlem, wrote that the individuals marched solemnly as they carried banners, one reading “We solemnly pledge that these our dead shall not have died in vain.” Murray continues by pointing out that the importance of the march. She writes, “The first and perhaps the only actual march of Mr. Randolph’s movement in the 1940s failed to bring thousands of protestors into the streets, but it was a beginning,” a beginning that foresaw the 1963 March on Washington. Murray, along with other activists such as Randolph, “pointed the way,” as she puts it, “to the massive nonviolent protest demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1950s and 1960s.”
In The Firebrand and the First Lady, Patricia Bell-Scott points out that the march provided Murray with “a desperately needed outlet for her emotions” following Waller’s execution. Murray wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt following the march, telling the first lady, “The significance of this demonstration lies in the fact that it was Negro-inspired, led and executed; non-communist and non-political. It marks an era of independent action on the part of American Negro citizens to see to it that our country fulfills the obligations of a democracy at home.”
Murray details much more of her involvement in Waller’s case, the march, and her work with Randolph in her autobiography Song in a Weary Throat. As Well, I’d suggest watching Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary My Name is Pauli Murray for more on Murray’s life and work.
From the outset, I’ve noted that March and Darkroom have so much in them that they cannot present everything connected with the movement. This post is in no way meant to diminish what both of these works do for readers. The discussions of Lillian Smith and Pauli Murray are individuals that I have thought about as I reread March and Darkroom because they do not appear frequently within our historical understanding of the long civil rights movement. March and Darkroom do so much to break down the nine word problem of the ways we think about the movement, and they open up a space for us to dive deeper into the history of the movement and how it continues to impact us today.