Executive Order 8802—Fair Employment Practice in Defense Industries Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 25, 1941—just days before a planned mass march on Washington, DC, to demand increased protections for African American civil rights—Executive Order 8802 instituted a revolutionary federal policy barring employment discrimination among companies engaged in the production of defense goods for the US federal government. The order also created a federal agency charged with ensuring the implementation of this policy. Representing the first major federal effort supporting civil rights since Reconstruction, the order supported efforts to achieve greater economic equality by providing African American workers fair access to the growing wartime industrial economy. Although it fell short of civil rights activists' hopes of fully integrating the US military, the order served as a milestone achievement in the civil rights movement, spurred a major internal migration, and encouraged the rise of more organized and widespread efforts to resist racial discrimination.

Summary Overview

Issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 25, 1941—just days before a planned mass march on Washington, DC, to demand increased protections for African American civil rights—Executive Order 8802 instituted a revolutionary federal policy barring employment discrimination among companies engaged in the production of defense goods for the US federal government. The order also created a federal agency charged with ensuring the implementation of this policy. Representing the first major federal effort supporting civil rights since Reconstruction, the order supported efforts to achieve greater economic equality by providing African American workers fair access to the growing wartime industrial economy. Although it fell short of civil rights activists' hopes of fully integrating the US military, the order served as a milestone achievement in the civil rights movement, spurred a major internal migration, and encouraged the rise of more organized and widespread efforts to resist racial discrimination.

Defining Moment

In 1940 and 1941, the United States was increasing its involvement in World War II despite maintaining a position of official neutrality. The cash-and-carry and, later, lend-lease policies allowed US manufacturers to produce and sell war goods to the United Kingdom with relatively few limitations, and demand for weapons, ammunition, tanks, ships, and aircraft began to lift the US economy out of the lasting doldrums of the Great Depression. Factories added millions of jobs, and Americans rushed to urban industrial centers to train for these skilled positions.

African American workers, however, failed to share in the emerging economic boom. Numerous industrial companies around the country refused to hire black workers, and those that did often confined them to such poorly paid, unskilled jobs as janitors. Labor unions broadly denied African Americans membership. Inadequate schools in segregated areas meant that few black students attended high school or even achieved full literacy. The US military maintained a formal policy of segregation and generally accepted African American recruits only for support roles such as cooking or camp maintenance; some branches declined to accept black servicemen altogether. Combined with institutionalized discrimination, these policies left the vast majority of black families desperately poor and presented few prospects for improvement.

Chief among the civil rights activists fighting discriminatory policies was A. Philip Randolph, a labor organizer who was best known for successfully overcoming intense opposition to unionize black porters on the Pullman rail line into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph wished to gain the right for African Americans to serve their country in an integrated military, and for black workers to receive fair hiring and employment treatment in the growing defense sector. With the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Randolph and other civil rights activists began lobbying President Roosevelt for changes in federal policies. Roosevelt met resistance from military and business leaders, however, and before long had let the matter drop.

Frustrated, Randolph decided to organize a massive march on Washington to protest federal inaction in early July of 1941. He spent months mobilizing supporters, and the anticipated number of participants came to surpass Randolph's initial call for ten thousand African American marchers. The potential arrival of some one hundred thousand or more black protestors in the nation's capital alarmed the president. He persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt to meet with Randolph and ask him to call off the protest, but Randolph refused; he and the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Walter White, affirmed the plan to march. President Roosevelt balked at the possible implications of such an event, worrying that protestors and bystanders could be hurt and that the march would tarnish the United States' reputation abroad. Although he refused to desegregate the military, Roosevelt agreed to issue an order barring discrimination in defense industries—and Randolph agreed to call off the march.

Author Biography

Franklin D. Roosevelt served as president of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. His tenure came during a time of widespread, institutionalized racial discrimination protected by laws in numerous states and supported by the US Supreme Court. In contrast, civil rights organizations and select influential leaders, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, supported expanded civil rights.

Political and social forces, therefore, complicated Roosevelt's actions on the main civil rights issues of the day. The president declined to endorse efforts to pass federal antilynching legislation in the late 1930s, citing the certain political opposition he would receive from southern members of the US Congress on any initiatives he wished to pass afterward. At the same time, he invited African Americans to join his administration and developed an advisory board on racial affairs known as the “Black Cabinet.” Historians continue to debate Roosevelt's civil rights legacy.

Historical Document

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

June 25, 1941

WHEREAS it is the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, in 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; and

WHEREAS there is evidence that available and needed workers have been barred from employment in industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color, or national origin, to the detriment of workers' morale and of national unity:

NOW, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the statutes, and as a prerequisite to the successful conduct of our national defense production effort, I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin, and I do hereby declare that it is the duty of employers and of labor organizations, in furtherance of said policy and of this order, to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin;

And it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. All departments and agencies of the Government of the United States concerned with vocational and training programs for defense production shall take special measures appropriate to assure that such programs are administered without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin;

2. All contracting agencies of the Government of the United States shall include in all defense contracts hereafter negotiated by them a provision obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin;

3. There is established in the Office of Production Management a Committee on Fair Employment Practice, which shall consist of a chairman and four other members to be appointed by the President. The Chairman and members of the Committee shall serve as such without compensation but shall be entitled to actual and necessary transportation, subsistence and other expenses incidental to performance of their duties. The Committee shall receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in violation of the provisions of this order and shall take appropriate steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid. The Committee shall also recommend to the several departments and agencies of the Government of the United States and to the President all measures which may be deemed by it necessary or proper to effectuate the provisions of this order.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

The White House,

June 25, 1941.

Glossary

effectuate: to bring about; effect

redress: to set right what was wrong; relief from wrong or injury

vocational: of, relating to, or noting instruction or guidance in an occupation or career

Document Analysis

Executive Order 8802 clearly and definitively bars hiring and employment discrimination on the basis of “race, creed, color, or national origin” by employers in the defense industry manufacturing goods for the federal government and others associated with defense industry training and labor organization. Developed with the input and approval of Randolph, the order uses strong language to oppose discriminatory practices and, by extension, to support economic opportunity for African Americans.

The order begins by explaining two key causes for its issuance. First, it makes a moral claim that “the help and support of all groups” in the United States is necessary to uphold a democratic society. Second, it accurately asserts that workers have been denied jobs for which they were qualified because of their race, religion, or immigrant status. The order rejects both of these situations as being contrary to the national interests, thus linking integrationist practices with a successful national defense and with long-standing US democratic ideals. Furthermore, the order avers that supporting nondiscriminatory hiring and employment practices is a “duty of employers and labor organizations” rather than simply a privilege of selected workers.

Executive Order 8802 works to solve the problems of employment discrimination through two methods. One method bars the federal government from refusing entry on the basis of race to special worker training programs that funnel employees into the defense sector, a practice that had prevented black workers from gaining the skills needed to fill defense industry jobs. The second orders companies engaged in business with the federal government to establish an internal policy barring employment discrimination. The combination of these would theoretically give African American workers equal opportunity with white workers to seek and to find well-paid industrial jobs.

To oversee the provisions of the mandate, the order creates a special Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC) under the authority of the White House. Roosevelt gave the committee little direct authority to enforce the order, but the committee was tasked with investigating complains of violations and with making recommendations to other federal bodies about ways to ensure that the order is fully carried out.

Essential Themes

The issuance of Executive Order 8802 was an unquestionable success for the civil rights movement. Federal action in support of civil rights had been noticeably absent for decades, despite the efforts of the NAACP and other activists to win the passage of measures such as a national law banning lynching. Roosevelt's support for civil rights—albeit reluctant—therefore marked a turning point in the federal government's involvement in the struggle for civil rights. Executive Order 9346, issued in May 1943, expanded the provisions of Executive Order 8802 to include more employers and strengthen the FEPC's ability to act when discrimination in hiring practices was found.

Not all employers welcomed the order to integrate their work forces, and some resisted hiring black workers for nonmenial jobs. Nevertheless, the promise of federal civil rights protections in the workplace encouraged the flow of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. This “Great Migration” had begun during World War I when relatively well-paid industrial jobs lured impoverished black workers northward. The revival of the war economy combined with Roosevelt's order made these prospects even more appealing than in the past and a massive redistribution of the US population took place over the next few years.

Furthermore, Randolph's pressure on Roosevelt over the planned march on Washington, which had directly led to the president's decision to release the order, showed the power of mass action to enact broad political and social change. After the United States entered World War II, civil rights activists formed the “Double V” campaign to call for victory over enemies abroad and victory over discrimination at home. In the postwar era, civil rights leaders adapted Randolph's tactics by organizing marches, sit-ins, and large public demonstrations that called for elimination of discriminatory laws and expansion of federal protections for African American rights. A major march on Washington organized in part by Randolph to draw attention to racism and economic discrimination took place in 1963.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
  • Miller, Jason. “Executive Order 8802.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
  • Pfeffer, Paula F. A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996. Print.
  • Reed, Merl E. Seedtime for the Modern Civil Rights Movement: The President's Committee on Fair Employment Practice, 1941–1946. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991. Print.
Categories: History Content