Civil Rights

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
American Decades
From: American Decades(Vol. 5: 1940-1949. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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The March On Washington Movement

The modern civil rights movement has its origins in the early 1940s, as civil rights organizers used the Roosevelt administration's condemnation of the Nazis' racist ideology as an opportunity to accuse Roosevelt of being all too tolerant of racism in America. In January 1941, nearly a year before Pearl Harbor, A. Philip Randolph called for a massive 1 July March On Washington to shake up white America. As head of the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph was a powerful labor leader who could mobilize the black masses in ways that middle-class organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) could not. The NAACP stressed legal action; Randolph urged direct action. The NAACP welcomed whites, while the March On Washington Movement (MOWM) excluded them, though not for racist reasons. While separatist in structure, the MOWM had integration as its goal. According to Randolph, "Negroes are the only people who are the
Harlem residents stage an anti-Nazi parade.  Corbis-Bettmann. Harlem residents stage an anti-Nazi parade. © Corbis-Bettmann. victims of Jim Crow, and it is they who must…assume the responsibility to abolish it." If the administration wanted the support of blacks, said Randolph, it would have to offer blacks something other than maintenance of the status quo. The two principal demands put forward by the MOWM were withholding of defense contracts from industries that practiced discrimination and the desegregation of the armed forces and federal employment. On 25 June, facing political embarrassment as well as potential violence in the southern city of Washington, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which required that all government agencies, job-training programs, and defense contractors cease discrimination, while also creating a Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate violations. Although the MOWM did not achieve all its goals, Randolph called off the march but announced that the nationwide MOWM committees would continue to function. Integration of the armed forces would have to wait. Many white Americans considered black Americans inferior to whites, and it was widely believed that whites would not fight alongside fellow citizens with darker skins than theirs. Both Secretary of War Stimson and Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff, insisted that segregation had to remain in force for the sake of military morale. Nevertheless, a precedent had been established. The MOWM had proved that the threat of mass action, coupled with organizational unity, could get results. Most important, the success of the movement legitimized black leaders who insisted that the loyalty of black Americans rested on the nation's commitment to equality. Nothing less than the end of second-class citizenship would do. As one African American newspaper put it, "Only a fool would fight for continued enslavement, starvation, humiliation and lynching."

The Congress of Racial Equality

The NAACP was the oldest and best-known civil rights organization in the United States. Its methods centered on exposing problems, propagandizing about them, applying political pressure to elected officials, and using the courts. Many black organizers and their white allies felt these methods were too slow and ineffective. Emboldened by Randolph's direct-action approach, a group of pacifists founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1943. Hoping to promote acts of civil disobedience against discriminatory laws, they drew their inspiration from Mohandas Gandhi in India. Linking direct action to economic issues, CORE favored the tactic of the peaceful but disruptive sit-in, and in the 1940s it was able to desegregate theaters and restaurants in key northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit even though their demonstrations often promoted racial tension. CORE's philosophy and tactics would greatly influence Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Fair Employment Practices Committee

Critics adamantly denounced the FEPC, charging that it kowtowed to the "special interests" of blacks. In the overtly racist tone of the day, one Southern newspaper labeled it "dat cummittee fer de perteksun of Rastas and Sambo," while Sen. John Rankin of Mississippi said the FEPC heralded the beginning of a communist dictatorship. Major businesses refused to hire blacks or train them in skilled jobs. For example, the North American Aviation Corporation stated: "The Negro will be considered only as janitors and in other similar capacities.…Regardless of their training as aircraft workers we will not employ them." In the labor movement AFL unions continued to segregate black workers into the least-skilled jobs (when they could not exclude them from membership altogether). CIO leaders took up the cause of full job equality, but they had to overcome some rank-and-file opposition. Even FEPC Chairman Mark Ethridge stated that investigation of discrimination—not segregation per se—was the purpose of his committee. Thus, in the Deep South and in border cities such as Baltimore the committee accepted arrangements whereby blacks and whites remained at separate ends of plant facilities.

The Philadelphia Transit Strike

Yet, the FEPC scored a major victory for equal rights in dealing with the Philadelphia transit strike of 1944. In that city the Transport Workers Union had traditionally opposed training blacks as streetcar operators, but in March 1944—acting on instructions from the FEPC to cease discriminatory practices—new union leadership negotiated contracts that left out the usual discriminatory language. Many union members stated that a vote for the contract was "a vote to give your job to a nigger," and on 1 August they staged a walkout. The federal government sent the army to run the transit system, placing armed regular-army troops on the streetcars, while announcing that striking workers would either be drafted or denied unemployment benefits. The strike collapsed within forty-eight hours. A few blacks were trained almost immediately, and by mid August they were operating streetcars. Despite its moderation the FEPC made many political enemies. In summer 1945 Congress ordered the dissolution of the committee within the year, and President Truman failed in his efforts to make it a permanent federal commission.

Segregation and Prejudice Resurgent

The growing activism of black Americans alarmed both Southern Democrats, who opposed any concessions to blacks, and Northern liberals, who thought events were moving too quickly. Oswald Garrison Villard, one of the white founders of the NAACP, said: "I would not go too fast in enforcing social rights…age-long conditions of prejudice and of deliberate white supremacy cannot be cured by legislation or government fiat." The Memphis Cotton-Trade journal denied that any problems existed: "the Southern Negro is not mistreated. He has a care-free, child-like mentality, and looks to the white man to solve his problems and to take care of him." Rumors flew in the South, where it was believed that when white men were drafted, blacks would seize control of the region. In August 1942 Sen. John Bankhead of Alabama requested that blacks drafted from the North be trained only in northern army camps lest they infect Southern black soldiers with irreverent racial attitudes. Because Southerners played a central role in the Democratic coalition (as did blacks), one congressman reminded Roosevelt that the race issue could destroy the Democratic Party. In the midst of such acrimony race riots broke out in several northern cities during the war. The worst, in Detroit in 1943, was the outcome of a volatile mixture of Southern whites drawn to jobs in the automotive-defense industry and blacks recruited under directives from the FEPC.

Voting Rights

In the midst of this unrest the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1944 against all-white party primaries in the South. In eight Southern states such primaries had been designed to get around the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of voting rights. Earlier court decisions had maintained that political parties were private organizations, not subject to the amendment, but in Smith v. Allwright the court reversed itself (to severe denunciation in the South) and enfranchised about seventy-five thousand middle-class blacks below the Mason-Dixon Line. Many barriers to complete enfranchisement for blacks remained, however, including literacy tests and the poll tax, which effectively excluded impoverished blacks. Nevertheless, the wall of de jure segregation had been breached, however slightly.

The Segregated Armed Forces

Black Americans fought in all the nation's wars, though usually under segregated conditions. After World War I, however, a resurgence of Social Darwinism and Ku Klux Klan activity resulted in a virtually all-white military. Military authorities claimed that black troops had performed poorly in World War I, often justifying their conclusions by pointing to "the inherent psychology of the colored race and their need for leadership." Civil rights leaders countered that Jim Crow training facilities and discriminatory provisioning had left black soldiers at a deliberate disadvantage. In 1940 only ninety-seven thousand blacks were in uniform. Blacks were not allowed to join either the U.S. Army Air Corps or the U.S. Marine Corps. In the navy African Americans could serve only as mess men, while in the army segregated service units, called "plantation battalions" by black troops, were commanded by white officers. The handful of black officers were never assigned to white units. The army was a microcosm of the greater society, and calls for desegregation were decried by officials. As Secretary of War Stimson put matters: "What these foolish leaders of the colored race are seeking is at the bottom social equality."

The Impact of World War II on Race Relations

The greatest influence on the future of the civil rights movement was the service overseas of millions of black Americans. Although not expected to perform combat roles, most black army troops were given some infantry training, and the demand for manpower, coupled with the pressure of civil rights leaders, eventually led to the creation of all-black combat regiments. General Patton personally supervised the training of blacks in his tank corps. In the Battle of the Bulge, the critical winter campaign of 1944-1945 when the German counteroffensive almost stopped the American advance into Germany, black troops were called up en masse to plug the gaps. They played an important role during this battle, proving beyond any doubt that they were the equal of any other units. Black troops were also among the first to liberate some of the Nazi death camps. Yet despite these achievements, there was little effort made to recognize them. Indeed, segregation remained the rule even to the extent that blood plasma supplies were divided by race. White soldiers could not be transfused with "black blood" or vice versa, resulting in needless casualties. Nevertheless, African Americans returned to the United States infused with pride in their service. More important, they believed they were owed a debt. Having risked their lives for democracy, few would any longer accept second-class status and ride at the back of the bus. Around the country, black veterans organized local civil rights groups. A new generation of young blacks, tempered in the furnace of war, demanded that the Democratic Party make its promises of social justice meaningful to them.

Truman and Civil Rights

Though he came from Missouri, traditionally a segregationist state, President Truman was a Democrat who understood the importance of the black vote in the North. Black pluralities in major cities enabled him to carry key states in the election of 1948. He also understood that America's reputation on race did not carry well in the emerging states of Africa and Asia. In December 1946, after Congress refused to extend the FEPC as a permanent federal commission, he issued Executive Order 9809, setting up the President's Committee on Civil Rights, which called for an end to segregation in every aspect of American life. Unwilling to go that far, Truman nonetheless proposed major civil rights legislation in early 1948, asking Congress to pass federal laws protecting voting rights, punishing lynching severely, and abolishing the hated poll taxes, as well as creating a new FEPC and establishing a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department with wide latitude to enforce the new laws. The program was ultimately eviscerated by powerful Southern Democrats in Congress. Archsegregationists, known as Dixiecrats, controlled key committee chairmanships in both houses of Congress. Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi claimed that Truman's bill proved "that organized mongrel minorities control the government." Ultimately, Southerners offered compromises that Truman could not accept. Their measures would have given antilynching jurisdiction to the states. Dixiecrats also offered to put the issue of the poll taxes to a constitutional amendment, knowing that since three-quarters of the states would have to approve, the issue was dead before it got started. Truman found himself thwarted at every turn, but he was able to bypass Congress to some extent in July 1948, when he issued executive orders eliminating discrimination in federal hiring and ending segregation in the armed forces, though it would take the Korean War to force the army to cooperate. The U.S. Supreme Court also began to make a few inroads for racial justice, opening avenues taken even more frequently in the 1950s. In 1948 the court ruled by a vote of six to zero in favor of the NAACP contention that state courts could not uphold discrimination in housing. The stage was being set for a full-scale reversal of the legal bases of racial separation.


A. Russell Buchanan, Black Americans in World War II (Santa Barbara, Cal. & Oxford, U.K.: Clio, 1977);

Eric F. Goldman, A Rendezvous With Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform (New York: Knopf, 1952; revised and abridged edition, New York: Vintage, 1956);

Ulysses Lee, The Employment of Negro Troops, United States Army in World War II, Special Studies, no. 8 (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, 1966);

Howard Zinn, Postwar America, 1945-1971 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468301524