Over the past month, the Trump administration has been rolling out “theme weeks” as if America were one big dysfunctional high school and the homecoming game will fix everything.
In July there was Made in America Week to highlight business; American Heroes Week highlighted the military; and to kick off August, the administration launched “White Pride” Week to highlight the plight of the oppressed white American male. (Actually, I’m not sure if that was the official title, but it was pretty close.)
With Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing that the Justice Department would start suing colleges for discriminating against white guys and Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller announcing cuts in immigration from nonwhite countries, the dog whistles were so loud, “the Hound” could hear it with one ear missing. This overtly hostile aggression from the federal government against black education, employment and lives is the perfect run-up to today’s critical racial anniversary.
On Monday, Aug. 7, 1944, the Philadelphia transit strike—one of the most costly, violent and important battles for African-American rights in the last century—ended. The story of black struggle against brutal, self-destructive white hatred is a perfect reminder of just how far back in history the Trump administration wants to take us.
During World War II, Philadelphia was one of the most important supply cities for the Allied efforts. There was a huge airfield, munitions manufacturing and one of the biggest repair yards for naval battleships, and access to the coast was essential for fighting Hitler’s Nazi troops in Europe.
All of this was made possible by the Philadelphia Transit Co.’s 11,000 employees, who managed trains, trollies and buses for almost 600,000 commuters in the City of Brotherly Love every day. PTC had only 537 black employees, and they were restricted to service, cleaning and maintenance jobs that provided no chance for advancement and little interaction with the white public on the still socially segregated city transportation.
In May 1943, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order No. 9346, which empowered the Fair Employment and Practices Commission to force companies with federal contracts to train, hire and promote African Americans equally. As the law began to trickle down to various cities across the country, the PTC was told by the federal government that it would have to start hiring and promoting black workers in order to deal with the labor shortage caused by the Great War. The company’s solution was to promote eight black men to bus and trolley drivers.
But the white transit employees weren’t trying to hear it. In January 1944, over 1,700 white employees signed a petition stating, “We, the white employees of the Philadelphia Transit Corporation, refuse to work with Negroes as motormen, operators, and station trainmen.”
When, after months of negotiations and insistence by the NAACP, the black workers were slated to begin training as drivers that August, white workers went on strike Tuesday, Aug. 1, 1944. Despite being in violation of their union contract, as well as of federal law, the four white ringleaders of the strike said that nobody was getting back to work until the eight black rail workers were demoted.
James McMenamin, the leader of the strike, insisted that black bus drivers and car operators had “bed bugs,” were “unclean” and would go after all the white wimmins the moment they had a chance. (He even paraded a woman named “Kay” around who lied to strikers, claiming that she’d been assaulted by black men on the trolley.) After a week of tension, during which a 13-year-old black child was shot by white strikers in a drive-by, and white strikers screamed “Nigger lover” and threw rocks and coals at black transit workers, federal troops finally brought the strike to an end on Aug. 7. McMenamin was fired and charged with violating federal labor laws but got off a year later when a jury found the evidence against him “inconclusive.”
There is a context to the pettiness of this strike that can’t be overlooked in our current political environment. The United States was in the midst of a war against Nazis, and transit employees were crucial to keeping troops equipped for that war, but keeping black men from getting promoted was more important than fighting the Nazi threat. Millions of pounds of munitions were lost that week, and the man hours lost amounted to the loss of five naval destroyers, according to some estimates. It is also estimated that thousands of American lives may have been lost in the European theater of World War II because of the strike. But that didn’t matter, because stopping a few black guys was more important to a large swath of working-class white America.
Within a year, almost 900 African-American workers received some type of promotion by the Philadelphia Transit Co., and now, in most urban centers, suburban areas and various WorldStar videos, the image of a black transit employee is almost standard. Nevertheless, it was a long-fought battle that required federal intervention, aggressive action by black organizations, and the clear-and-present danger of a global Nazi empire to finally convince the federal government and a local business to respect black lives.
It’s important to remember that while all of this occurred 73 years ago, with a stroke of a pen, a tweet and a few white nationalists at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Trump administration wants to return America to those days of white grievance, violence and discrimination, no matter what legitimate challenges our nation faces.