Blank Rome’s Black History Month D.C. Easel Project—and a Surprising Connection between the Defense Industry and the 1963 March on Washington

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Justin A. Chiarodo and Robyn N. Burrows

In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to highlight one of the most impactful traditions in our Washington, D.C., office: the Black History Month D.C. Easel Project, in which Blank Rome attorneys, staff, and clients work together to create easels depicting notable historic events and figures from D.C.’s rich African American history. Thanks to the leadership and innovation of our partner Saminaz Akhter, the Easel Project has deepened our awareness and appreciation of the significant contributions Black people have made in our Nation’s Capital (you can learn more about the program in this video).

The theme for last year’s easels was civil demonstrations and protests, including the 1919 Red Summer riot, the 1939 Marian Anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial, the 1958/59 Youth March for Integrated Schools, the 2020 George Floyd protests, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Our research on the origins of the 1963 March on Washington revealed a surprising connection to the defense industry that we wanted to spotlight for our “Sustained Action” readership.

The seeds for the March on Washington were sown decades earlier, when A. Phillip Randolph (head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and an early leader of the civil rights movement) proposed a mass march on Washington, D.C., to highlight segregation and discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces and the defense industry.

Shortly before this march was to take place in July 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order (“EO”) 8802, which prohibited discrimination by federal agencies and defense contractors because of “race, creed, color, or national origin.” EO 8802 also established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (“FEPC”), an early precursor to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. By the end of World War II, these initiatives had almost tripled the percentage of African Americans working in the defense industry and in federal government positions. But these gains were to be short lived. Faced with a limited budget and no enforcement authority, the FEPC was disbanded by Congress in 1946.

Momentum for another mass march on Washington continued to build in the following years, culminating in more than 250,000 people gathering in a peaceful demonstration on the National Mall on August 28, 1963, in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Featuring an impressive and diverse roster of civil rights and religious leaders, musicians, entertainers, and labor union officials, the March is best known for featuring Dr. Martin Luther King’s transcendent “I Have a Dream Speech.” After the March, the organizers met at the White House with President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson to advocate for civil rights legislation, which stalled in Congress. The goals of the March would be partially realized in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, followed the next year with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

President Johnson also signed Executive Order 11246 in 1965, which today remains one of the widest-ranging executive orders prohibiting non-discrimination in hiring and employment by government contractors.

The D.C. Easel Project, and initiatives like it, help reinforce our collective history and highlight perspectives we might otherwise miss. This year’s theme will focus on the legacy of Howard University, a federally chartered, historically Black university, which has awarded more than 100,000 degrees in the professions, arts, sciences, and humanities. Howard ranks among the highest producers of the nation’s Black professionals in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, nursing, architecture, religion, law, music, social work, and education.

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