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This Day in Labor History: January 25, 1941

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On January 25, 1941, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the most important civil rights leader of the World War II era, called for a March on Washington to protest discrimination in defense industry work. The success of this movement in convincing the government to act on employment discrimination both opened unprecedented economic opportunities for African-Americans during the war and helped lay the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement after the war.

The civil rights movement was perking up in the 1930s. Between the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, cases that led to the integration of the University of Maryland and University of Missouri law schools, and other small but significant victories, civil rights leaders had hope for the future. As the nation turned its attention to fascism in the late 1930s and President Franklin Roosevelt began to prepare the nation for war, civil rights leaders hoped that African-Americans would see their share of economic advancement. But persistent discrimination from both employers and labor unions meant that defense work remained strictly segregated.

Randolph and other leaders, including Walter White, Mary McLeod Bethune, and T. Arnold Hill, met with Roosevelt, hoping to convince him to desegregate defense work. But for as great as FDR was, he basically didn’t care much about discrimination against African-Americans. The New Deal in fact reinforced segregation on the job. For instance, TVA administrators were so worried about offending local racial sensibilities, they segregated what were previously integrated manual labor work. The result of this meeting was that FDR agreed more African-Americans should be in the military. In 1941, the Army had 230,000 members, but only 5000 African-Americans. But in creating more black units, Roosevelt explicitly said they would remain segregated.

A. Philip Randolph

Angry at Roosevelt’s indifference to advancing racial equality, Randolph and other civil rights leaders turned to more direct pressure. After planning the logistics of this in the fall of 1940, on this date in 1941, Randolph officially announced the March on Washington. He created the March on Washington Committee in Harlem, involved the NAACP, and began spreading the idea around the country. It was to take place on July 1 with estimates of up to 100,000 African-Americans attending.

Originally, much of the nation’s African-American leadership was skeptical that Randolph and the NAACP could pull this off. But Randolph’s tireless work and alliance building made the idea a real threat to the Roosevelt administration. Working with groups such as the National Negro Congress, as well as Randolph’s own close ties to socialist groups, the infrastructure to create what would have been a truly unprecedented protest in African-American history took shape. Most important was Randolph’s union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which not only used their privileged positions within African-American communities to give the movement legitimacy in cities across the nation, but also chartered buses and trains to take people from around the country to Washington before July 1.

Roosevelt was desperate to avoid the embarrassment of a nation preparing to fight fascism having its own caste system publicized before the world. He asked Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia to intervene, but Randolph refused to budge. Roosevelt finally decided to use his personal charm on Randolph, calling him for a private meeting, but again, Randolph remained firm. Randolph told the president:

Mr. President, time is running on. You are quite busy, I know. But what we want to talk with you about is the problem of jobs for Negroes in defense industries. Our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can’t live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Roosevelt caved on June 25. He issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry. The order also established the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice to investigate and resolve discrimination on the job. Under last-minute pressure from Randolph, Roosevelt also agreed to end official discrimination in federal employment as well, although actual implementation of this was quite varied and depended on the agency (Hoover’s FBI, no).

This milestone cannot be overstated. It was the first federal action to prohibit job discrimination on the basis of race in American history. It also opened the door for hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to achieve high-paying jobs during World War II, working in factories and building the economic and political base that would be vital to laying the foundation for the postwar push for civil rights. It was a key part in the NAACP’s Double-V campaign–V for victory against racism both at home and abroad.

In the end, the sheer need for workers was more important in African-American employment than the FEPC or anything else Roosevelt did. Desperation broke employer resistance. But the institutional framework for involving the government in racial discrimination on the job was absolutely necessary to these changes. African-Americans held about 3% of defense jobs in 1942, mostly janitors. But by 1945, that number had risen to 8%, including a lot of craftsmen, as well as industrial laborers more broadly. Black employees of the federal government tripled. In all of this of course, significant discrimination remained. Blacks were the last hired and first fired, were often paid less for the same labor, and had few chances at advancement on the job. That said, the World War II black experience at work helped create the postwar world.

The employment of African-Americans in the defense industry reshaped the geography of African-American life. Blacks moved in huge numbers not only to northern cities but to the American West as well, establishing large communities in important manufacturing centers like Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. 750,000 African-Americans moved during the war. This caused massive tensions of its own, including the Detroit Hate Strike of 1943. In the South, blacks usually worked in segregated jobs, but in northern cities integration caused wildcat strikes, particularly among the recent white migrants from the South for those same jobs. Yet despite violence, de facto segregation, white flight, and massive employment discrimination, African-Americans kept coming after the war. Why? The prospect of decent work in the wartime and then Cold War defense industry offered the hope of a better life.

Randolph’s inspiration for the March on Washington was recognized by Martin Luther King and other leaders of the postwar movement; although isolated from the movement in the 60s, Randolph was asked to be on stage in 1963. Perhaps his most notable contribution to the March was talking John Lewis off the ledge when an increasingly infuriated SNCC demanded change now, with a tone that made a lot of allies, including United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, organized labor’s most important ally with the civil rights movement, nervous. Lewis agreed to tone it down slightly after a discussion with the godfather of civil rights.

This is the 49th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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