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Executive Order 8802

Executive Order 8808
National Archives & Records Administration

As the war in Europe escalated in 19401 and the United States turned to a policy of arming its British ally against the Nazi regime, war industries thrived. African Americans recognized burgeoning war production as an opportunity for social and economic advancement, particularly in industries that had previously excluded them.

Many African Americans soon found employment as skilled workers in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Indianapolis. However, they were frequently met with violence, segregation, and unfair employment practices in factories and shipyards. Production at one Ford plant, for example, was interrupted by violent labor strikes in which the tensions between African American and other workers were ruthlessly exploited by management enforcers.2

In an effort to address these injustices, African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph3 met with President Roosevelt in 1940, urging him to promote opportunity and equality for African Americans in the defense industries, and to desegregate the armed forces. The president was reluctant to pursue these policies, preferring to avoid racial issues unless he knew he had the majority of the American people securely behind him and the necessary votes in Congress. In order to pass legislation, Roosevelt was also dependent upon a block of Southern Democrats in the Senate—who would resist any attempt to dismantle segregation or pass anti-lynching legislation. Roosevelt regarded these senators as critical allies as he prepared the United States for the war on the horizon.  

Having failed to come to an agreement with the president, Randolph took his cause public. With fellow African American leaders Bayard Rustin and A.J. Muste, he proposed a March on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the war industries, call for passage of an anti-lynching law, and demand the desegregation of the armed forces. The proposed march garnered the support of tens of thousands of African Americans across the country who formed chapters of the March on Washington Movement4 to organize participants and publicize issues locally.

In the weeks  preceding the March, Roosevelt met again with Randolph to urge him to call it off.5 The only way he would stop the March, Randolph maintained, was if the president were to use his powers to intervene on behalf of African American workers. In response, on June 25, 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, featured here, prohibiting discrimination in the defense industry and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee to monitor and enforce the Order’s implementation. Randolph soon canceled the march.

Lacking public and Congressional support, the order did not, however, address either anti-lynching measures or desegregation of the military. Racial discrimination in the armed forces would continue as official policy through the end of World War II and be abolished by President Harry S. Truman only in 1948.6 

World War II began in Europe in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Over the next year, most of Western, Northern, and large swaths of Eastern Europe fell under Nazi occupation. Nazi Germany attacked Great Britain by air in advance of an expected invasion that was never mounted. For more on Americans' attitudes and responses to the Nazi threat, see the online exhibition Americans and the Holocaust.

A.J. Baime, The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 115-121.

Socialist, activist, and labor leader A. Philip Randolph was co-founder of The Messenger, a radical monthly magazine that campaigned against lynching, opposed US participation in World War I, urged African Americans to resist the draft, supported unions, and fought against segregation. Randolph organized African American dockworkers, elevator operators, and train porters throughout the 1910s and 1920s. In 1936, Randolph was elected president of the National Negro Congress (NNC) that planned to build a mass movement working with and through trade unions and such organizations as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). When communist influence in the NNC increased, Randolph, a committed Socialist, resigned. For more, see: Cornelius L. Bynum, A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

On the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) and origins of organizing to end discrimination, see Richard M. Dalfiume, "The 'Forgotten Years' of the Negro Revolution," The Journal of American History, Vol. 55, No. 1 (June 1968): 90-106. MOWM and the plans for the 1941 March would later be revived by the same group of organizers under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph for the  March on Washington in 1963, at which Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his, "I Have A Dream" speech. The Civil Rights Act, passed less than a year following the march, officially outlawed discrimination based on race.

African American leaders also appealed to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to intercede with her husband. On June 10, 1941, she wrote to Randolph that she had discussed the matter with the president and that although they were sympathetic with the cause, "I feel very strongly that your group is making a very grave mistake … to allow this march to take place. I am afraid it will set back the progress which has been made …and will create in Congress even more solid opposition." For more detail, see correspondence between A. Philip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt concerning the March. 

Executive Order 9981, issued July 26, 1948, established the President’s Committee on Equality and Opportunity in the Armed Services, committing the government to integrating the segregated military. See the related item "Should I Sacrifice to Live 'Half-American'?"

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
National Archives & Records Administration
External Website National Archives & Records Administration
Date Created
June 25, 1941
Author / Creator
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Washington, DC, USA
Document Type Legislation
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