LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Our month-long series on race and politics continues now. In a moment we'll hear from listeners who've been part of our Web discussion. But first this historical footnote about the genesis of the march on Washington 45 years ago this week, made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Soundbite of speech)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Reverend; Civil Rights Leader): Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time...
(Soundbite of applause)
Dr. KING: To make justice a reality for all of God's children.
HANSEN: King's march was a long time in the making. On the eve of World War II, African-Americans in the north had achieved some real political leverage. But in the south, poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation had almost completely disenfranchised them. A. Philip Randolph was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a black labor union. He and union Vice President Milton Webster wanted to take action.
Mr. MILTON WEBSTER (Vice President, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters): Brother Randolph said to me, we ought to get 10,000 Negroes and march down Pennsylvania Avenue and protest.
HANSEN: That threat led to meetings with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Randolph described the president's reaction.
Mr. A.PHILIP RANDOLPH (President, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters): He said, we can't have 100,000 Negroes marching on Washington. You wouldn't be able to manage them. We might have bloodshed and death. I said, we want you to issue an executive order abolishing discrimination in munition jobs and also in the government.
HANSEN: The negotiations went on for months.
Mr. RANDOLPH: He said, I want you to call off this march first. I said, that, Mr. President, I can't do. The people would consider that I had betrayed them. And he said, will you march against the president of the United States? I said, we have no other alternative.
HANSEN: Roosevelt agreed to set up the first Fair Employment Practices Committee, and Randolph agreed to call off the march on Washington. Seven years later, Randolph again threatened demonstrations, this time against drafting blacks into a segregated military. He met with President Harry Truman.
Mr. RANDOLPH: I told him that Negroes today were in no mood to shoulder a gun again to fight for democracy abroad until they got democracy at home.
HANSEN: Truman agreed to integrate the armed forces. Randolph called off the march again. But in 1963, when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, it was finally on. And 45 years ago this week, Randolph marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., who told 200,000 supporters that he had a dream.
This historical footnote is adapted from independent producer Alan Lipke's "Between Civil War and Civil Rights" documentary series. You can find a link to it on our Web site, npr.org.