In the generation before Martin Luther King rose to prominence, America’s premier black activist was A. Philip Randolph, union leader and civil-rights organizer.
On September 27, 1940, Mr. Randolph met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, along with Walter White of the NAACP and T. Arnold Hill of the Urban League.
Their agenda: to convince FDR to end racial discrimination in the armed forces. They didn’t succeed.
Believe it or not, this meeting was secretly recorded. The microphone was hidden in a lampshade on President Roosevelt’s desk.
On orders from FDR, the Secret Service had set up an experimental recording system in June of 1940. The system was operational for less than three months. This meeting was one of several that was recorded.
These recordings survive. Which means that we, today, can hear the actual sound of Negro leaders going toe-to-toe with the most powerful man in the free world... in 1940! It is history brought to life.
I’m streaming an 8-minute recording on my Vox audio stash. Click here to listen. Much of it is difficult to understand. But you can download an MP3 of this Roosevelt-Randolph meeting, courtesy of the University of Virginia. To commence downloading, hit this link.
Speaking of history, A. Philip Randolph pressed the issue in 1941, planning a “March on Washington” to protest segregation in the armed forces and job discrimination in the defense industries.
Concerned about the embarrassment such a protest would cause, FDR brought Randolph and Walter White back to the White House. He tried to convince them to cancel the march. But Randolph called it off only after Roosevelt issued an executive order banning racial discrimination in hiring by defense contractors.
The armed forces would remain segregated until 1948.
UPDATE (02/29/08): Thanks to a comment from a blogger named Paul, I’ve been digging deeper into the website of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, which has the “secret” FDR tapes – plus other presidential recordings – available for downloading.
Regarding this 1940 A. Philip Randolph conversation, I have a useful link: Click here and you can hear the audio while following an easy-to-read transcript on screen.