Before the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the US played an important role as a supplier of war materials to the United Kingdom. War industries in the US thrived as the war in Europe escalated in 1940.1 Black Americans recognized that war production was an opportunity for social and economic advancement, particularly in industries that had previously excluded them.
Many Black Americans soon found jobs as skilled workers in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Indianapolis. But they often experienced racist violence, segregation, and unfair employment practices in factories and shipyards.2 In an effort to address these injustices, Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph3 met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. Randolph urged him to promote opportunity and equality for Black workers 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 Black 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 gained support from tens of thousands of Black people across the country who helped organize participants and publicize issues locally.4
In the weeks leading up to the march, Roosevelt met with Randolph again and urged him to call it off.5 Randolph offered to stop the march if the president would use his powers to intervene on behalf of Black workers. In response, on June 25, 1941, the president issued the featured executive order. It prohibits discrimination in the defense industry and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee in order to monitor and enforce the order’s implementation. Randolph soon canceled the march.
Roosevelt's order still did not 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 it was only abolished by President Harry S. Truman in 1948.6