The Second World War

World War II marked a watershed moment in African-American history. It brought economic opportunities and opened new avenues for participation in American society. On the eve of the war, roughly 75 percent of the African-American population lived in the South; and two-thirds of the total number of southern African Americans lived in rural areas. For the year 1939, 87 percent of black families were estimated to live below the federal poverty level (compared to less than half of white families), and their per capita income was 39 percent that of whites. But the war effort produced immense change and renewed the Great Migration, which had stalled during the Great Depression. Between 1940 and 1960, more than 4.5 million African Americans emigrated from the South to the urban North and the West. During the war years alone, approximately 700,000 black civilians left the South for destinations such as Los Angeles to take industrial jobs created by the demands of full-scale mobilization. Along the way, they also pursued opportunities for political participation that did not exist in the South—where less than 5 percent of black citizens could vote.49

Women Working Factory Jobs During the War/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_women_working_at-_factory.xml Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library/National Archives and Records Administration World War II brought women of all races into the workplace. With millions of men serving overseas in the military, women filled many factory jobs. Above, two women work together at the North American Aviation Company Plant.
Roughly one million African Americans joined the U.S. armed forces during World War II; approximately half served overseas. The war effort offered more opportunities than ever for African Americans to defend their country, but discrimination and segregation circumscribed their ability to contribute. While thousands of black troops served in combat—among them the army’s 92nd and 93rd all-black divisions, as well as the famed 99th Pursuit Squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen—the most common assignments for black servicemen were rear-guard mopping-up actions and menial supply and requisition roles. The prejudice of local draft boards and military leadership accounted for much of the army’s reluctance to assign African Americans to combat roles.50

In 1942 Representative Mitchell repeatedly compared the policy of segregation in America to the setbacks the British military experienced in Singapore. Mitchell noted that the colonial power failed “due in part to its own discriminations” against the native people. “America might suffer a like fate,” Mitchell warned, “if we insist upon destroying the morale of one-tenth of its fighting strength.”51 The American call to arms, Mitchell noted bitterly while reflecting on segregation in the armed forces, “is for white people only, except where Negroes are needed to do the most menial service. Is this democracy? How long will this American practice be kept up? . . . While we are adjusting affairs the world over, we must not fail to adjust affairs in our own country and in our own hearts.”52

Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_NARA-two-WAVES43-0203a.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Lt. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Willis, the first two African-American Navy “WAVES,” or “Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service,” pose for a photograph during World War II. Thousands of women in military auxiliary units filled a range of jobs from nurses and clerical workers to parachute riggers, machinists, and even ferry pilots.
Wartime experiences also mobilized black political activism. In one measure of renewed political activity, enrollment in the NAACP soared from 50,000 to 450,000 during the course of the war. The organization’s “Double V” campaign, with its slogan “Democracy Abroad—At Home,” called for victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home. In his 1945 book A Rising Wind, influential NAACP Secretary Walter White wrote that African Americans would not succumb to “defeatist disillusionment” despite being maltreated and maligned even during the war effort. Instead, White predicted that as the United States demobilized after defeating the Axis Powers, homeward-bound African-American servicemen would enlist in the effort to conquer Jim Crow, “convinced that whatever betterment of their lot is achieved must come largely from their own efforts. They will return determined to use those efforts to the utmost.”53 In this way the wartime experiences of African Americans helped foster the modern civil rights movement.

Equally significant, the war against fascism and totalitarianism reminded millions of Americans of democracy’s shortcomings on the segregated home front. A number of southern states still used the poll tax—a fee as high as $2 (equivalent to nearly $30 in 2018) that voters had to pay before casting their ballots. The cost was prohibitive for poor voters, who were overwhelmingly black.54

In a brief speech on the House Floor during a 1943 debate on a bill to outlaw the poll tax, freshman Representative William Dawson recalled his meager public education as a boy in Georgia, which was supplemented by private schooling, that his family “slaved” to pay for. “You know that any method used to try to keep a citizen from exercising [the right to vote] is against the true spirit of the Constitution of the United States,” he told colleagues. “In the cause of the 13,000,000 patriotic and loyal Negro citizens I beseech the passage of this bill.” Several hours later, the House approved the measure by a sound 265 to 110 vote. The bill never cleared the Senate, however. In 1945, 1947, and 1949, the House again passed anti-poll tax bills. Over time, the measure became less controversial because fewer states employed the poll tax. But time and again southern Senators blocked the legislation from being enacted.55

Fair Employment Practices Committee

Fair Employment Practices Committee Legislation/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_powelll_adam_wrangle_FEPC_-feb_22_-1950_-LC-USZ62-104797.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In February 1950, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (second from right) worked towards gaining permanent status for the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Although Powell and others successfully shepherded a FEPC bill through the House, the measure was blocked in the Senate.
A critical moment in the development of black political activism came in 1941 when civil rights proponents, led by A. Philip Randolph, threatened to march on Washington, DC, to protest discrimination against African Americans in the war industry. President Roosevelt consented to act only grudgingly, when his efforts to cajole and dissuade black leaders from vigorously protesting his inaction had been completely exhausted. On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which declared “full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin,” based on “the firm belief that the democratic way of life within the Nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups within its borders.” The order required that the federal government, unions, and defense industries “provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers.”56 The President intended to mollify black protest in the face of probable U.S. intervention in World War II, but in issuing his executive order, he inspired black activists, who viewed it, and widely portrayed it, as a milestone victory in bending the federal government to their cause.

Roosevelt’s order also created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) in the federal Office of Personnel Management to investigate complaints about discrimination in hiring. Thousands availed themselves of the FEPC mechanism, though it drew harsh criticism from opponents of the administration’s New Deal programs and segregationists. In May 1944, congressional opponents of the FEPC, led by Representative Malcolm C. Tarver of Georgia, introduced a measure to repeal the $500,000 annual appropriation for the committee. Tarver suggested that the FEPC was an executive fiat “and does not have the approval or legislative sanction of Congress.”57 Segregationist and avowed New Deal foe John Elliott Rankin of Mississippi declared that the FEPC was the “beginning of a communistic dictatorship, the likes of which America never dreamed.”58

Only one African American—William Dawson of Chicago—served in Congress at the time and could defend the record of the FEPC. Noting that he spoke for “more than a million Negro Americans fighting today with our armed forces and more than 13,000,000 here at home,” Dawson argued that the FEPC finally ensured African Americans a fair part in the war production effort. “So when I hear some Members stand here and refer to it as a dictatorial committee, bent on making people do something that they do not wish to do, I know that they are not stating the facts to you,” he said. “They are merely making statements in order to carry out their own purposes.”59 Later that afternoon, the House voted 139 to 95 to agree to the amendment to pull funding for the FEPC. But the Labor Committee, chaired by sympathetic Representative Mary Norton of New Jersey, held hearings on permanently establishing the FEPC—a move supported by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—and temporarily restored funding.60

Opponents of the FEPC prevailed in 1946, when they garnered enough support in both chambers to let the committee lapse. Twice, proponents of creating a permanent commission—prodded by liberals like Adam Clayton Powell and California Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, who represented a large black constituency in Los Angeles—brought an FEPC bill before the House. A version of the bill passed the House in February 1950, but southern opponents had fatally weakened its enforcement powers. The measure, which provided only for investigatory and proposal functions, died later that year when it was filibustered in the Senate.

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49For a comparative perspective on changing African-American demographics from the 1930s to the 1980s, see Gerald D. Jaynes and Robin M. Williams, Jr., A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989): 35–42, 271–287. Statistics cited in this paragraph are drawn from pages 35, 271. A contemporaneous and hugely influential account of the plight of wartime blacks in the American South is Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper Publishers, 1944). For a concise summary of African-American participation in the war and its impact on civil rights, see Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: 761–776. For a standard account of the home front during the war, see John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976). For more on desegregation of the military, see Richard M. Dalfiume, Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969).

50See Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: 771–774; Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans: 481–491.

51Congressional Record, Appendix, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 February 1942): A607. See also Congressional Record, Appendix, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (16 July 1942): A2790–2791.

52Congressional Record, Appendix, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (22 January 1942): A210; Congressional Record, Appendix, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (28 January 1942): A290.

53Walter White, A Rising Wind (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1945): 144.

54This was true for many southerners but especially for African Americans, the majority of whom held low-paying agricultural jobs in a tenant farmer system in the South. According to wage and salary data compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the average agricultural worker in the United States earned $487 in 1940—a little more than $9 per week. See “Wage and Salary Accruals Per Full-Time Equivalent Employee, By Industry: 1929–1948,” Table Ba4397–4418, Carter et al., Historical Statistics of the United States, Volume 2: 282.

55Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (25 May 1943): 4853, 4889. In 1945, when the House again debated a measure to ban the poll tax, Dawson blasted Mississippi Representative John E. Rankin, who claimed the tax was necessary to support public schools. “Why is it then that so many of these people cannot meet the minimum educational requirement?” Dawson rebutted, calling attention to the literacy tests used to disfranchise many southern blacks. See Venice T. Sprags, “Anti-Poll Tax Bill Faces Bilbo Filibuster Threat,” 23 June 1945, Chicago Defender: 2.

56Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Executive Order 8802—Reaffirming Policy Of Full Participation In The Defense Program By All Persons, Regardless Of Race, Creed, Color, Or National Origin, And Directing Certain Action In Furtherance Of Said Policy,” 25 June 1941, in American Presidency Project, ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, (accessed 1 February 2008). For a discussion of FDR’s political position, see Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: 320–323. See also Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: 768. Kennedy observes that while the FEPC was hardly a “second Emancipation Proclamation,” it provided the seed for civil rights reform.

57Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 2nd sess. (26 May 1944): 5053.

58Ibid., 5054.

59Ibid. The full debate is on pages 5050–5068, quotation on page 5059.

60Congressional Record, Appendix, 78th Cong., 2nd sess. (15 June 1944): A3033–3035. In June 1944, Representative Dawson testified before Norton’s committee about the “psychological attitude” of “great bitterness” felt by African Americans who had been excluded from wartime work. The FEPC promised to alleviate the despair of discrimination. “Sooner or later, here in this country, we have got to face the question and settle it right for all times in the minds of the people. And there is no better way to begin to face the problem than to assure to every people that they will have the opportunity to work, along with all the other peoples in this nation of ours.”