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