Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 banned racial discrimination in defense-industry employment. The order, as well as the March on Washington Movement that led to it, was a landmark in U.S. civil rights history.

Summary of Event

In one sense, the 1930’s marked the nadir of the plight of African Americans in the postemancipation era. Cotton overproduction and the New Deal programs to reduce acreage resulted in thousands of African American sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the South being driven from the land. Equally bleak was the situation in urban areas. Typically the last hired and first fired, black workers were probably the group hardest hit by the Great Depression. The defense buildup beginning in 1939 resulted in only minimal gains for blacks. In 1940, for example, there were only 240 African American aircraft workers out of a total of 100,000, and those 240 were mostly janitors. For the most part, whites received the higher-paying new jobs in the defense industries, while blacks filled the lower-paying, less desirable service jobs whites vacated. Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans
Defense industry (U.S.), employment practices of
Executive Order 8802[Executive Order 08802]
Labor;racial discrimination
Civil rights;United States
African Americans;employment
[kw]Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment (June 25, 1941)
[kw]Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment, Roosevelt Bans (June 25, 1941)
[kw]Defense-Industry Employment, Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in (June 25, 1941)[Defense Industry Employment, Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in]
[kw]Employment, Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry (June 25, 1941)
Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans
Defense industry (U.S.), employment practices of
Executive Order 8802[Executive Order 08802]
Labor;racial discrimination
Civil rights;United States
African Americans;employment
[g]North America;June 25, 1941: Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment[00290]
[g]United States;June 25, 1941: Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment[00290]
[c]Government and politics;June 25, 1941: Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment[00290]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;June 25, 1941: Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment[00290]
[c]Business and labor;June 25, 1941: Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment[00290]
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;civil rights
Randolph, A. Philip
Roosevelt, Eleanor
White, Walter
La Guardia, Fiorello Henry
Rauh, Joseph L.,

McNutt, Paul V.

There were also, by the late 1930’s, signs of growing support for black rights. Agitation by far-left political groups, the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the intellectual attack upon racism by social scientists, pro-civil rights Supreme Court decisions, and the increasing black vote in northern cities all indicated support for the cause. Perhaps most important was the increased militancy found among the nation’s blacks. A. Philip Randolph sought to channel this militancy by launching the March on Washington Movement March on Washington Movement (MOWM) to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt into outlawing racial discrimination by defense industries. Randolph had taken the lead in unionizing the black workers on the Pullman cars of the nation’s railroads. In 1937, his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
Pullman porters’ strike (1937) , an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor, had succeeded in gaining recognition from the Pullman Company and winning impressive benefits for its members.

On January 15, 1941, Randolph first publicly called for a march by blacks upon Washington, D.C., to demand an end to racial discrimination in defense employment and in the military services. In March, his new March on Washington Committee issued a formal call for the march to take place on July 1, 1941. He believed that such a protest, by publicizing the gap between America’s professed ideals and its practice, would force Roosevelt to act. “The administration leaders in Washington,” Randolph proclaimed, “will never give the Negro justice until they see masses—ten, twenty, fifty thousand Negroes—on the White House lawn!”

All but one of Randolph’s demands could be met by executive orders: withholding defense contracts from manufacturers guilty of discrimination; authorizing government seizure of recalcitrant plants; abolishing “discrimination and segregation” in the armed forces and federal government departments; ending discrimination in federally funded vocational training programs; and requiring the United States Employment Service to make nondiscriminatory job referrals. The only demand that would require congressional action was amendment of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to deny collective bargaining rights to unions that excluded blacks.

The organization’s goals did not differentiate the MOWM Civil Rights movement;organizations from other civil rights groups. However, many black leaders, such as Walter White, the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), were disturbed by, and even suspicious of, the MOWM’s organizational structure and tactics. The MOWM consciously aimed to mobilize the black masses and did not rely for its support upon the black middle class. It sought to force concessions through direct action instead of behind-the-scenes negotiations. The MOWM also excluded whites from all participation. Randolph feared the danger of communist infiltration if whites were allowed to participate, and he was convinced that it was time for African Americans to take the lead in efforts in their own behalf. Since “no one will fight as hard to remove and relieve pain as he who suffers from it,” Randolph took the position that “Negroes are the only people who are the victims of Jim Crow, and it is they who must take the initiative and assume the responsibility to abolish it.”

Randolph’s threat to lead a march of 50,000-100,000 African Americans on Washington, D.C., on July 1, 1941, put the Roosevelt administration in a quandary. Roosevelt’s fear was that the march would result in serious violence, which would not only damage the image of the United States abroad but also impair the nation’s unity at home at a time when war appeared imminent. His response was a mix of concessions and arm-twisting to induce Randolph to call off the march.

The Office of Production Management (OPM) stepped up its efforts to persuade defense contractors to hire more blacks; Roosevelt himself in mid-June issued a public statement along the same lines. To pressure Randolph, Roosevelt announced that he could “imagine nothing that [would] stir up race hatred and slow up progress more than a march of that kind.” He even had his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose championship of black rights had won for her the warm affection of the black community, intercede with Randolph and warn that the march would be a “very grave mistake” that might result in a dangerous “incident” and thus “set back the progress which [was] being made.”

Randolph’s intransigence forced Roosevelt to make further concessions. On June 18, Roosevelt named Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia of New York City, a man known for his sympathy for black aspirations, to head a committee to work out a plan that Randolph would accept. The task of drafting an executive order formalizing the government’s concessions was assigned to a young lawyer in the Office of Emergency Management, Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., who would later become one of the country’s leading civil liberties and civil rights lawyers. Negotiations with Randolph finally resulted in a bargain.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

(Library of Congress)

On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, forbidding government agencies and defense contractors from discrimination in hiring on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate complaints and “take appropriate steps to redress grievances.” In return, Randolph called off the march. Randolph had not gained all he had asked for, as Roosevelt balked at ending segregation in the armed forces, but he had won what he regarded as his “main objective.” The threatened march was mostly bluff, since Randolph privately had grave doubts whether he could carry out the plan.

World War II resulted in substantial employment gains for blacks. The resulting improvement in black economic status laid the foundation for black advances in other areas. There is a question as to how much of those gains resulted from Executive Order 8802 and the Fair Employment Practices Committee and how much resulted from the worsening labor shortage resulting from the war. The FEPC’s chairs—Mark Ethridge, the publisher of the Louisville Courier Journal; Malcolm S. MacLean, the president of Hampton Institute; Catholic educator Monsignor Francis J. Haas; and former newspaperman Malcolm Ross—were staunch Roosevelt loyalists who shied from politically embarrassing the president. The situation was aggravated, moreover, by the FEPC’s placement under the control of agencies with different priorities.

The FEPC was located first in the Office of Production Management Office of Production Management, U.S. and then in the War Production Board. At the end of July, 1942, Roosevelt placed the FEPC under the new War Manpower Commission, whose chair was former Indiana governor Paul V. McNutt. McNutt’s hostility to the FEPC resulted in the agency’s near strangulation. After several FEPC members resigned in protest, Roosevelt intervened. On May 23, 1943, he issued Executive Order 9346 Executive Order 9346[Executive Order 09346] , reaffirming the ban against discrimination in government contracts on the basis of race, color, creed, or national origin, reorganizing and strengthening the FEPC, and making the FEPC an independent agency—subject only to the authority of the president—within the Office of Production Management.

Although this new setup gave the agency more autonomy than before, the FEPC continued to be of limited effectiveness. The FEPC lacked the funds or personnel to do much and could act only upon a formal complaint. Even if its investigation found a complaint justified, the FEPC, lacking statutory authority, could not require compliance with its orders. It had to rely upon moral pressure and the backing of other government war agencies. Its ultimate sanction, cancellation of a war contract, was an empty threat given the administration’s commitment to avoiding interference with war production. Only one-third of the eight thousand complaints filed with the FEPC were resolved successfully, and only one-fifth of those from the South. Compliance orders were ignored by thirty-five of the forty-five affected companies and unions. The FEPC faced continuous sniping from southern Democrats in Congress. In the summer of 1945, the FEPC’s opponents in Congress succeeded in cutting its appropriation in half and ordering its termination by June 30, 1946.


Randolph attempted to maintain the MOWM as an active organization, but his calls for mass demonstrations and civil disobedience to challenge Jim Crow were too militant for most black leaders. Although the NAACP’s Walter White had cooperated with the MOWM up to the issuance of Roosevelt’s executive order, a widening schism developed between Randolph and the NAACP leadership by mid-1942. As the MOWM lost its momentum, direction of the battle for civil rights was resumed by more traditional organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League. The late 1950’s, however, would see the rise of a new black mass movement modeled upon the MOWM.

The termination of the FEPC involved no more than a temporary setback for the supporters of equal opportunity in employment. New York, in 1945, became the first state to adopt laws against employment discrimination. President Harry S. Truman established a Fair Employment Board within the United States Civil Service Commission in 1946 and a Government Contract Compliance Committee in 1951. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order in 1955 barring discrimination in federal employment. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, prohibiting discrimination in government contracts and government employment and requiring government contractors to take affirmative action to prevent discrimination.

Finally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in private employment against any person on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had the power to investigate and reconcile complaints. The Equal Employment Act of 1972 authorized the EEOC to enforce Title VII by filing suit in the federal courts. Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans
Defense industry (U.S.), employment practices of
Executive Order 8802[Executive Order 08802]
Labor;racial discrimination
Civil rights;United States
African Americans;employment

Further Reading

  • Burstein, Paul. Discrimination, Jobs, and Politics: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity in the United States Since the New Deal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. A perceptive analysis covering the forces responsible for congressional legislation against discrimination in employment. Coverage begins in the early 1940’s.
  • Dalfiume, Richard M. Journal of American History 55 (June, 1968): 90-106. A landmark article showing how World War II was a watershed in the struggle for black rights.
  • Garfinkel, Herbert. When Negroes March: The March on Washington Movement in the Organizational Politics for FEPC. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1959. A detailed organizational history of the March on Washington Movement. Based on the files of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (including the records of the MOWM and the National Council for a Permanent FEPC), extensive research in the black press, and a large number of personal interviews.
  • Kersten, Andrew Edmund. Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest, 1941-1946. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Study of the effects of Roosevelt’s executive order and the FEPC in the Midwest. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Moreno, Paul D. Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. History of African American employment and the relations between black workers and labor unions. Includes a chapter on the New Deal and World War II. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Pfeffer, Paula F. A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. A thoroughly researched and documented study that focuses upon Randolph’s activities in the area of civil rights rather than upon his work as a union leader. Illuminating on how Randolph’s strategies provided the blueprint for the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
  • Polenberg, Richard. War and Society: The United States, 1941-1945. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1972. The best overall treatment of the American home front during World War II. Includes a brief but illuminating examination of the impact of the conflict upon black status and rights.
  • Ruchames, Louis. Race, Jobs, and Politics: The Story of FEPC. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953. Although based upon the then-available public record this work remains the fullest account of the wartime FEPC—its organizational structure, activities, and troubles with Congress.

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