What Effect Did the WWII Fair Employment Practices Commission Have on the Civil Rights Movement?

Today’s post comes from Joel Walker, education specialist at the National Archives at Atlanta.

On December 31, 1942, the Counter Intelligence Section of the Seventh Naval District based in Jacksonville, Florida, distributed its monthly summary of subversive activities.  On page two of the summary, under the heading “Activities Concerning Negroes,” was printed a small paragraph credited to the FBI.  It read:

It has been reported that a movement known as the “March on Washington Movement” was active for about ninety days in Tampa, Florida, securing donations and enrolling negroes, the plan being to get enough people to march on Washington.  It was stated that such an action would be the only way to get results insofar as the advancement of the negro race was concerned. The Movement is said to be headed by Norman LACEY, Chairman, janitor at the Maas Brothers Office Building and Matthew GREGORY, Vice-Chairman, local representative of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ Union. The Movement, which is reported to be closely associated with the Tampa Union of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, is said to be dormant at the present time. . . Indications are, however, that the Movement is becoming active in Northern States.

The paragraph did not mention A. Philip Randolph, the national president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the driving forces behind the March on Washington Movement.

Nearly two years earlier, in January 1941, in frustration over the federal government’s lack of support for opportunities in the booming war industries and equality in the military, Randolph had begun to organize the March on Washington Movement (MOWM).  Calling for grass-roots action instead of political negotiation, MOWM gained traction and momentum within the Black population as the July 1, 1941, date for the event neared.

In reaction to the fear of tens of thousands—if not more—African Americans marching on the nation’s capitol, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 providing for “the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Executive Order 8802 in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt Prohibits Discrimination in the Defense Program
Executive Order 8802 of June 25, 1941, in which President Roosevelt Prohibited Discrimination in Defense (National Archives Identifier 300005

To investigate “complaints of discrimination in violation of the provisions of this order” it established the “Committee on Fair Employment Practice.”  In exchange for Executive Order 8802, signed on June 25th, Randolph called off the march.

The Committee on Fair Employment Practice, more commonly known as the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC), has been disregarded by most historians as a powerless and ineffectual agency, especially in the South.  The majority of records within the National Archives holdings seem to support this interpretation.

But a lone photograph in the holdings of the National Archives at Atlanta points to possible changes in at least some people’s thinking.  This thought provoking image was taken at the Gadsden (Alabama) Ordnance Plant some time in 1942. It depicts a White employee and a Black employee working together at a machine press while manufacturing artillery shells.  The photograph was found with the records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance (Record Group 156).

A white employee and a black employee work together at a machine press while manufacturing artillery shells.

Confronting Work Place Discrimination on the World War II Home Front—a new DocsTeach activity—challenges high school students to question the effects the Fair Employment Practices Commission had on the coming fight for Civil Rights in post-war America.

Joel Walker expands on this topic in his article “A. Philip Randolph’s Attempt at Equal Economic Opportunity: A Case Study,” in the current issue of Social Education, the Journal of the National Council for the Social Studies.

One thought on “What Effect Did the WWII Fair Employment Practices Commission Have on the Civil Rights Movement?

  1. You can find more background on this issue in the article “Finding Place for the Negro: Robert C. Weaver and the Groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement,” in the Spring 2005 issue of Prologue, the quarterly magazine of the National Archives. Walter B. Hill, Jr., late archivist and subject area specialist in Afro-American history at the National Archives, detailed how Weaver, as a mid-level federal official during World War II, helped to sow the seeds of the civil rights movement that would come in the post-war years through his work in fighting to get anti-discrimination provisions written into government contracts.

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