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This Day in Labor History: January 25, 1941

[ 30 ] January 25, 2013 |

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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  1. Jeremy says:

    I was going to say something about how surprising this was to happen within my parents’ lifetime. Then I realized they weren’t born yet. Then I was going to say something about how it’s surprising to happen within my grandparents’ lifetime, but given their prejudices, it’s really not.

    So I’ll just say that it’s fascinatingly sad that humanity could fly faster than the speed of sound and go into orbit before the US would give equal rights to black people.

    That, and this, “Roosevelt was desperate to avoid the embarrassment of a nation preparing to fight fascism having its own caste system publicized before the world.” is also rather pathetic.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      “That, and this, “Roosevelt was desperate to avoid the embarrassment of a nation preparing to fight fascism having its own caste system publicized before the world.” is also rather pathetic.”

      You could say almost the exact same thing about 1963. Just substitute Kennedy for Roosevelt and Cold War for fascism.

      • Charlie Sweatpants says:

        “You could say almost the exact same thing about 1963. Just substitute Kennedy for Roosevelt and Cold War for fascism.”

        Off topic from the original post, but sadly this doesn’t seem to apply to the way the government today treats Muslims, Arabs or anyone who can be stereotypically mistaken for one these days. They’ve been going after those communities with no shame whatsoever.

        • Hogan says:

          But we weren’t fighting blacks in WWII or the Cold War. Assuming arguendo the vulgar GWOT frame, a better comparison would be the Japanese during WWII or Communists during the Cold War.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            Neither is as good of an analogy as FDR’s treatment of Germans and Italians in the US during WWII. There you had the FBI arbitrarily targeting members of the group and interning them unjustly. This included naturalized US citizens who were denied their Constitutional rights to due process. But, there was not a wholesale round up of all people of German or Italian heritage. The number of Germans in the US interned was 11,507 not including those sent to the US for internment from Latin America which numbered about 4,500. This seems to be a much closer model to the treatment of Arabs in the US in recent years. Racist and arbitrary to be sure, but the worst punitive acts are reserved for a minority of the ethnic group.

    • LawSpider says:

      A propos of nothing, your comment indicates the huge range in childbearing ages among Americans. I am just 40, and yet my parents were upper elementary schoolchildren when this happened.

      • Jeremy says:

        Not too much, we’re pretty much the same. I’m 33, my father was born in ’45, mother in ’52. Although having a great-grandfather who was alive in the 1800s was always interesting.

  2. JoyfulA says:

    A fascinating post!

    In the Tin Can Navy, my father said the ships were integrated, sort of: All the black sailors worked in the mess (the kitchen).

    • Bruce Vail says:

      Everybody has heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, but there is a Navy analog to that story.

      I can only vaguely recall the details, but the Navy brass chose a specific ship to be integrated in all the ratings (but I don’t think the officers were included).

      It was very controversial in Navy circles and I don’t think the ship ever saw combat.

      • Marc says:

        Actually, The USS Mason had a nearly all-black crew (except the officers), so it was hardly “integrated”, it was more like the Navy equivalent of the Tuskegee Airmen. Oddly enough, my grandfather (who was black) got a job as a welder and ship fitter at the Boston Navy Yard as a result of the executive order, and was part of the mostly white crew building the Mason.

        My dad (who was also black, strangely enough) graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1944. Navy recruiters were sent BTHS explicitly to recruit blacks with technical backgrounds (my father claimed it was under the “orders” of Eleanor Roosevelt). So, in 1944 he joined the Navy, had to eat his meals in the kitchen during basic training in Alabama, but was the sole black in his graduating class of 400 electronic technicians mates at the Great Lakes Naval Station. He was “integrated” into the crew of a submarine tender, and spent the waning days of the war shuttling between Pearl Harbor and the South Pacific installing and updating radar systems in submarines. After the war, the GI Bill paid for his college education in the form an an Electrical Engineering degree from MIT.

        A more famous example of the stealth integration of the Navy towards the end of WWII was Jesse Brown, a black who managed to become a Naval Aviator mostly because he kept persisting in the face of various attempts to get rid of him. He got his wings too late for WWII, but was a pilot in the peacetime Navy, and was shot down and killed during a mission over Korea…

  3. Anna in PDX says:

    Really fascinating post. Is there a good bio of Randolph you would recommend to the general reader?

  4. Bruce Vail says:

    It speaks to the worst parts of Roosevelt’s character that he tried the slough the whole issue off on to Eleanor, as if civil rights were merely a concern of lady do-gooders.

    The whole issue of FDR’s racism seems to be an unexplored corner of American history.

    • Murc says:

      I wouldn’t say unexplored, but there aren’t a ton of popular histories about a lot of it.

      His shockingly racist internment policy re: Japanese-Americans is very well-documented and has had much ink spilled on it. But the other aspects of it have indeed gone largely unnoticed.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        I was thinking more about his attitudes about African-Americans.

        I don’t recall ever seeing a direct quote from FDR about Jim Crow, African-American voting rights, or any other related subject that would reflect any sympathy on his part to the prejudice and hatred faced by black people.

        Roosevelt’s attitudes instead are implied by reference to Eleanor. The implication seems to be that Franklin agreed with her in general, but avoided a demonstration of that out of political expediency.

        Unlike his uncle Theodore, FDR didn’t leave a massive paper trail to document his own personal bigotry.

        • Hogan says:

          Roosevelt’s attitudes instead are implied by reference to Eleanor. The implication seems to be that Franklin agreed with her in general, but avoided a demonstration of that out of political expediency.

          Or that he thought he should care, but really didn’t, so he outsourced that part of his conscience to someone who really did.

  5. J. Otto Pohl says:

    This is only tangentially related. But, I have recently thought that the acceptance by many white Americans of Civil Rights for black Americans had a lot to do with a strong reaction against Nazi racism in the wake of WWII. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a growing awareness of the Holocaust and I am thinking it probably had some impact here. In 1959 the movie version of Anne Frank’s Diary came out and in 1961 there was the Eichmann Trial. That same year you also had the publication of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of European Jews although it obviously wasn’t a popular book. I know that Ghana the independence movement got a huge push from returning Gold Coast soldiers who had fought with the British and now demanded equal treatment on the basis that the UK leadership had said it was fighting against racism in Germany. Without the extreme example of Nazi racism and the Holocaust I am guessing that a lot of American whites in the North would have been a lot more reluctant to force the South to give up racist policies.

    Of course I fully expect everybody here to disagree 100% with this and resort to calling me an idiot over and over again. But, hope always springs eternal that the disagreement might actually have some substance other than merely consist of insults. Unlikely, I know, but still.

    • Matt McKeon says:

      I would agree that the Nazi enemy did discredit racism and antisemitism, and the mechanisms that enforced them.

      Randolph was concerned with war production work. I vaguely remember that the Higgins boat(landing craft) shipyards in LA were models of intergration and quite a contrast with other factories.

    • The Dark Avenger says:

      The idea of anti-racism was also explored right after the war with Gentlemen’s Agreement, and Orson Welles’ character, a Nazi war criminal in hiding, in The Stranger gives himself away when at a dinner table conversation he explains that he considers Karl Marx a Jew, not a German.

      There were also radio episodes of the Ellery Queen show where there was explicit condemnation of racism in the plot and in breaks in the show.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        Yes, but at that time I do not think there was a very good understanding of the Holocaust. Almost all of it took place in territory that fell behind Soviet lines and the USSR. According to the Soviet Union Nazi Germany was “Fascist” although there is no equivalent of the Holocaust committed by Italy and its primary victims were “workers” oppressed because of their class. In reality the Soviet interpretation of Nazi violence as being aimed primarily against “workers” and therefore the “Soviet People” covered up the genocide against Jews and Gypsies. Although to be honest if the Nazis had only targeted Gypsies for murder I do not think anybody other than Gypsies and a few odd scholars would have cared. What you had in the US during the late 1940s and early 1950s was a sense that the Nazis advocated a superior race and were anti-semitic and put lots of people in concentration camps where they died. Deaths in the camps seen by US and UK forces, however, were mostly from typhus. The death camps were all captured by the Red Army. I think it is only in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the actual details of how the Holocaust was implemented are really understood. That is the time people like Hilberg and Baumann were starting to publish serious scholarly research on the subject.

  6. bobbyp says:

    Erik,

    A great post, indeed. Many thanks.

  7. Matt says:

    On a marginally related note, a NR writer decides that it’s time to ignore everything but the Jeebusy bits of MLK’s speeches:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/338177/king-s-media-makeover-lee-habeeb

    Truly a remarkable work of doublethink – simultaneously accusing “the Left” of ignoring King’s religion, while studiously ignoring both NR’s long history of horrifically racist anti-King blather and basically EVERYTHING ELSE that King said.

  8. [...] January 25, 1941: March on Washington Movement leads to end of official segregation in defense industry [...]

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