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 American blacks lived in the South, two-thirds of them 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 blacks’ per capita income was 39 percent that of whites. The war effort produced immense change by renewing 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 and to seek opportunities for political participation that did not exist in the South—where less than 5 percent of blacks were allowed to vote.49

Women Working Factory Jobs During the War/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_women_working_at-_factory.xml Image courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, NY World War II brought women of all races out of the home and into the workplace. With millions of men serving overseas in the military, women filled many factory jobs. Above, two women worked together at the North American Aviation Company Plant.
Roughly one million blacks served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, with approximately half serving overseas. The war effort offered more opportunities than ever for African Americans to defend their country, though discrimination and segregation circumscribed their ability to contribute. While thousands of African Americans 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. A lack of education among blacks generally and the prejudice of local draft boards and the military leadership accounted for much of the army’s reluctance to assign African Americans to combat roles.50 In 1942, Representative Mitchell repeatedly called attention to British military reverses in Singapore, noting that the colonial power failed “due in part to its own discriminations” against the native people, which undermined morale. “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 army and the navy, “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 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,” posed for a picture during World War II. Thousands of women in this and other 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. Enrollment in the NAACP, which soared from 50,000 on the eve of U.S. intervention in the war to 450,000 in 1946, constituted one measure of renewed political activity. 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 A Rising Wind (1945), influential NAACP Secretary Walter White suggested that although African Americans were maltreated and maligned even during the war effort, they were too resilient to wallow in “defeatist disillusionment.” Instead, White predicted, as the United States demobilized its wartime effort against 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 African Americans’ wartime experiences helped foster the modern civil rights movement.

Equally significant, the war against fascism and totalitarian regimes 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, earmarked for school improvements, 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, 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. However, the bill never cleared the Senate. 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. Still, 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 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). While 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 blacks 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 hiring practices. Thousands availed themselves of the FEPC mechanism, though it drew harsh criticism from opponents of the administration’s New Deal programs and racial conservatives. 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, presenting arguments on several fronts. 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“ beginning of a communistic dictatorship, the likes of which America never dreamed.”58

Mary Norton/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_norton_mary_hc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Mary Norton of New Jersey, who chaired the House Committee on Labor from 1937 to 1947, sympathized with the goals of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Women in Congress often served as important allies of early African-American Members.
Only one African American—William Dawson of Chicago—served in Congress and could defend the record of the committee. 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 blacks 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. 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 that was backed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—and funding was temporarily restored.60 Opponents of the FEPC prevailed in 1946, when they garnered enough support in both chambers to let the FEPC 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.

56“Executive Order 8802: Establishing the Committee on Fair Employment Practices,” 25 June 1941, published as part of the American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara, (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. “Coming at a moment that was kindled with opportunities for economic betterment and social mobility, Executive Order 8802 fanned the rising flame of black militancy and initiated a chain of events that would eventually end segregation once and for all and open a new era for African Americans.”

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.”