The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eight black transit workers got promoted. Thousands of white workers walked off the job.

Philadelphia saw protests as pressure mounted for its transit system to allow black employees to work as motormen and conductors. The promotion of eight African Americans in the summer of 1944 triggered a mass strike by white transit workers. (John W. Mosley Photograph Collection; Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection/Temple University Libraries)

World War II labor shortages had stretched the Philadelphia Transportation Co. to the limit by July 1944, and so the company decided it had no choice if the city’s buses, trolleys and subway were to keep running: It promoted eight black men to positions previously reserved for whites.

The racial fallout brought the city to a tense halt. A worker insurrection slowed production of critical supplies for troops overseas and prompted an Army employee to attack one of the nation’s most prominent symbols of freedom: the Liberty Bell.

The events made for a “new and different Philadelphia Story,” two National Urban League officials wrote at the time — a story with particular resonance more than 75 years later as thousands protest systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody.

The black transit workers’ promotions to motormen quickly triggered a mass walkout by some 4,500 of their white counterparts. For six days that August, trolleys and buses sat idle. The subway stopped. So did one of the country’s leading wartime manufacturing centers.

Fearing an outbreak of violence, local officials summoned state police, forbade the sale of liquor and canceled a doubleheader between the Phillies and the Cubs. Even so, fights broke out across the city — resulting in 200 arrests and numerous injuries.

Many of the men and women employed in the war effort couldn’t reach their jobs on the first full day of the walkout. The federal government’s War Department announced that the strike had “seriously affected the production of radar, heavy artillery, heavy ammunition, military trucks, bombs, and other supplies vitally needed.”

Army troops seized control of Philadelphia’s transit system two days later. Hours later, a black armory worker went after the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall.

“Liberty Bell? Liberty Bell? That’s a lot of bunk,” shouted Charles White as he hurled a one-pound stone paperweight at the national icon. “There is no justice.”

Guards quickly arrested him, and the huge bronze bell had minor damage. But White made national headlines. His attack was both personal and patriotic, he explained after being taken into custody.

“I have a brother who is in [Army] camp in Virginia. He has five children,” he told Common Pleas Court Judge Harry McDevitt. “And yet war workers are being kept from their jobs and stopped from turning out equipment necessary to win the war. … I want my brother and others in service to have a chance.”

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He was ordered to undergo a mental evaluation, but a former New York judge intervened and offered to provide a psychiatrist at his own expense to examine the defendant. “There is nothing unstable about publicly proclaiming the ideals and principles for which the nation is fighting,” Nathan Sweedler wrote in a telegram to McDevitt.

White passed his psychiatric evaluation and was charged with inciting a riot, malicious mischief and “destroying a historical monument.” The next month, he was exonerated after testifying that an “uncontrollable emotional outbreak” had caused him to throw the stone at the Liberty Bell “to hear it ring again.”

“In some countries you would have been shot right on the spot,” Judge Eugene Alessandroni told White. “This trial proves how far we go in our democratic process to assure everyone of equal rights under the laws.”

Yet others drew a different conclusion from his protest over the transit strike, during which an estimated 4 million worker-hours of war production were lost.

“Here we are cheering the liberation of the persecuted people of Europe,” newspaper columnist William Freund wrote. “Yet American transport workers unauthorized by the union walked off their jobs … because a few American Negroes were willing to accept the position of streetcar motormen so they could live, work and fight for democracy against bigotry and racial intolerance.”

Federal grand jury investigators looked into the true cause of the walkout. Months before the action, Philadelphia’s transit employees had elected the Transport Workers Union, which did not publicly oppose the promotion of black drivers, as their official representative body. The runner-up labor group allegedly used race-baiting propaganda to incite its white members.

“There is a distressing story back of this tragic occurrence. It is the story of smoldering race prejudice fanned to flaming hate, the story of little men whose determination to ‘keep the Negro in his place’ overshadowed the urgent need for guns, tanks, and planes that would rid a war-torn world of Nazi race hate,” Reginald Johnson and Julius Thomas of the National Urban League wrote in the fall 1944 issue of “Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life.”

“It is the story of consuming fear, fear of insecurity, the driving force behind much of what was casually referred to as American race problem,” they continued. “It is a new and different Philadelphia Story, another stirring episode in the struggle for genuine democracy and equality of opportunity in America.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly dated the accompanying photo. It shows a protest march in late 1943.

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