Sunday, April 24, 2016

Homefront: How WWII and the US Military Provided the First Spark for the Civil Rights Movement 1 / 2

by Nomad

When it came to the civil rights movement, the US military played a surprisingly important and largely under-recognized role. And it began much earlier in the story than a lot of people realize.  

War is hell on Earth. You'd think that people would have had enough of it. Yet, there's always somebody somewhere declaring war on somebody else, expending vast sums of money, and terrorizing and killing thousands of innocent people and wrecking the otherwise pleasant planet we live on.

On very rare occasions, we can look back and (with a great deal of hesitation) , say that something not all that bad resulted from the war. Scientific advancements, like the mass production and use of antibiotics, are usually cited.
Sometimes, there are more subtle unexpected effects that take years to mature.

In the Name of National Defense

In the spring of 1941, months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a blue-collar employment boom, particularly in urban areas. Preparation for the US entry in World War II required re-tooling not only of American industry but of the profile of the American workers that serviced that industry.

A significant number of African-Americans had moved to the cities in the north and west and were at that time applying for work. However, when it came to jobs in the defense industry, many African Americans were met with discrimination and sometimes violence. The trickle-down theory- even in these circumstances- seemed to stop at the feet of the black American. 

Enter one of the Civil Rights largely forgotten warriors, the ideological father for future civil rights leaders a generation later. His name was Asa Philip Randolph.

For almost twenty years, Randolph's reputation had grown but not without some ups and downs.
As president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) since 1925, he had been an outspoken fighter against this labor inequality. 

At a time of widespread racial discrimination, many African Americans found work in passenger railroad companies like Pullman. While there was plenty of jobs to be found in the trade, it was also non-unionized labor. In real terms, this meant most of the employees faced poor working conditions and, in comparison to employment dominated by white Americans- were underpaid.   

Pullman was not at all pleased by Randolph's attempt to form a union and responded with violence and immediate firings. In 1928, the Railway Labor Act was supposed to sort things out, however, the arrangement fell through when Pullman threatened mass firings and to replace BSCP members. As a result, the union effort crumbled and, by 1933. when Roosevelt took office, BSCP had a less than 700 members.  
However, things changed dramatically in 1934 when amendments to the Railway Labor Act granted porters rights and protections under federal law. Under this protection, companies had to tread carefully at the risk of raising the ire of the authorities.

Bayard Rustin, and A. J. MusteMembership in the Brotherhood jumped to more than 7,000. After years of bitter struggle, the Pullman Company finally began to negotiate with the Brotherhood in 1935 and agreed to a contract with them in 1937.
In total, employees gained $2,000,000 in pay increases, a shorter workweek, and overtime pay. For many employees, who were little better than wage slaves, it was a revolution.

By any measure, it was a triumph for Randolph and the cause of workplace equality. Destiny and determination were to make Randolph the most powerful leader of a Negro trade union and one of the most visible spokespeople for African-American civil rights.

By 1941, the threat of war- which at the time seemed unavoidable- had pushed the struggle to a whole new level. In that year, Randolph, along with Bayard Rustin, and A. J. Muste, proposed a protest march on Washington to demand an end to "racial discrimination in war industries, an end to segregation, access to defense employment, the proposal of an anti-lynching law and of the desegregation of the American Armed forces." 

It was a masterstroke since the possibility of labor unrest at a time when every worker- black, white male or female- would be required was something that Washington could not ignore.

Civil Rights' Secret Weapon

In response, In June 1941, Randolph and other black leaders were invited to meet not with the president but with Eleanor Roosevelt and members of the President’s cabinet. 

Superficially this might look as a dismissal by the White House but in fact, the First Lady had long been known as a civil rights activist in her own right. (Without Eleanor Roosevelt, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might never have come to pass.)

African-American had a friend in the White House who was committed to their cause. For instance, Eleanor lobbied behind the scenes for the 1934 Costigan-Wagner Bill to make lynching a federal crime.
(As a federal crime, states could no longer turn a blind eye to the mob crimes nor refuse to prosecute those who instigated them.) 

In that effort, she arranged a meeting between Franklin and National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) president Walter Francis White
Fearing he would lose the votes of Southern congressional delegations for his legislative agenda, however, President Franklin refused to publicly support the bill. At any rate, the bill proved unable to pass the Senate.

Eleanor Roosevelt was also not afraid to cross swords with influential organizations that chose to discriminate against African Americans. 
In 1939, The First Lady resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution  when the black singer Marian Anderson was denied the use of Washington's Constitution Hall.

On another occasion, Roosevelt played a key role in the appointment of African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune

On a personal level, the two women had struck up a friendship. Yet, society wasn't ready for a black woman and the president's wife to b e too chummy. To avoid problems with the staff when Bethune would visit the White House, Eleanor reportedly would meet her at the gate, embrace her, and walk in with her arm-in-arm.

Mary McLeod Bethune Eleanor RooseveltIn addition to her influence with the president and his cabinet, Mrs. Roosevelt also had a long-running syndicated newspaper column which appeared two or three times a week. With it, she reached thousand of Americans, especially women, and offered an inside look at that what was happening at the Roosevelt home.

Among the notes about day-to-day life and meetings with ladies groups, (typical First lady activities) she also delicately dropped in her opinions on political issues too. (And that was even more obvious after her husband's death.)

During this time, Bethune's name was first mentioned -as far as I could tell- in 1939 and again in the years that followed. Mrs. Roosevelt always wrote of Bethune with the utmost respect for the work with black education.
In a small but important way, Mrs. Roosevelt provided a voice for black Americans.

We can detect some behind the scenes activity in the timing of this particular column. On 18 June 1941, her column, "My Day" mentions this:
You know and I know how bitterly the Negro people are disturbed over their inability to participate in national defense, or to obtain employment in defense industries. Here again, there are many difficulties and complications. But there is just one little item into which I think all of us could look in our respective communities.
In that post, Roosevelt cites the racial discrimination in New York City when it came to young black female workers in the defense industry. 
She pointed out that nearly half of the Negro youth workers on National Youth Administration were girls and that demographic composed 5.6 percent of the program in New York City. 
There is no discrimination in training and it is open to all girls. It has been found that the Negro girls are fitted to take training in as many different fields as the white girls, but in New York City and the State, the greatest number of employment opportunities for Negro girls are in domestic service.
What could account for that, except discrimination in hiring?
The next employment opportunities lie in the operation of power sewing machines, because the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union allows no race discrimination. In all the other fields of training, employment opportunities for Negro girls as against white girls, are extremely limited.
In closing, she adds with a slightly sarcastic tone:
This living in a democracy is a problem, isn't it?
Eleanor Roosevelt became one of the few voices in the Roosevelt White House, insisting that benefits be equally extended to Americans of all races. For this reason, a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt was by no means a put-down.
It was actually sound strategy.

A March on Washington

In that same time- June 1941,  Randolph pressed home his point to the White House in his meeting with the First Lady and members of the cabinet. He was adamant that these grievances regarding the civil rights of African Americans be taken seriously. He warned that unless action wasn't taken on an executive level there would be repercussions.

Bonus March As mentioned earlier, he and other leaders in the fledgling movement had conceived of a march on Washington.
The idea of a mass demonstration was not new but it was a plan that must have sent shivers up the spine of the administration.

The March of the Bonus Army had been one of the deciding factors that had put FDR in office.
In 1932, angry veterans from WWI had marched into Washington from across the country to camp out and demonstrate. Hoover's austerity had reduced the nation to despair and vets demanded that promises of compensation made earlier be kept.

The protest eventually erupted into violence when federal troops were called in to clear out the tent city.

Even though past presidents had called out federal troops before to suppress civil unrest, but this was the first time a president had moved against veterans. The Bonus Army marchers with their wives and children were driven out and their makeshift shelters were burned to the ground. .Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded the infantry and cavalry supported by six tanks.
In the melee, two Bonus Army veterans  had been slain. The idea that veterans who had fought in Europe, risking their lives for democracy should die at the hands of the federal troops... on orders of the president was too much for a lot of Americans to overlook.
Depression-fatigued voters had had enough. Enough of Hoover and the Republican's lack of empathy for the desperate out of work and hungry.

In the end, the march played a major part in Hoover's failed bid for re-election. In stark contrast to the actions taken by the Hoover administration, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Bonus Army in their encampment after it had been driven out of Washington.
(The Bonus march and the battle that broke out would also lead indirectly to the 1944 G.I. Bill, just before the end of WWII and was signed into law by President Roosevelt.)

The threat of a new march on Washington- less than a decade after the Bonus march- was something that the president took very seriously.

On top of that, absolutely nobody in Washington wanted a race riot in on the steps of the capitol building. Many politicians were old enough to recall the infamous 1917 East St. Louis Riots. Such a demonstration (and a possible riot) with the American participation in the European war now inevitable was unthinkable.

June 1941- A Breakthrough

Apparently, whether by the threat of a march, by the influence of his wife or the call of his conscience, President Roosevelt was convinced.
Immediately following the meeting, on 25 June 1941,  President Roosevelt issued  Executive Order 8802, or the Fair Employment Act (FEA).  The executive order stated, "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of racecreed, color, or national origin." 
In a public statement, Roosevelt said that "the democratic way of life within the nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups,"

There was, the president said, evidence that "needed workers have been barred from industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color or national origin, to the detriment of workers' morale and of national unity."
That would now come to an end.

The executive order also established  a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to guarantee compliance.

The EO also required Federal vocational and training programs to be administered without discrimination. This was presumably calculated to prevent black workers from being denied training they needed to qualify for higher paying work. 

While the FEA is generally considered an important early civil rights victory, some activists, including Rustin, felt betrayed at the time. They pointed out that Roosevelt's order applied only to banning discrimination within war industries and not the armed forces. 
Legally, the president alone had no authority to prohibit all hiring discrimination. 

All this could have been dismissed as lip service to minorities, yet Roosevelt would soon prove that he meant business. In 1942, when the FEPC's budget was slashed, he issued a new executive act, effective the following year. 

This order was aimed at protecting the independent status of the FEPC to keep it from being starved of funding, Congress' usual first step to elimination.

Inevitable Backlash

Racial DiscriminationAnd the movement continued to gain momentum. In June 1942, somewhere around 18,000 blacks gathered at Madison Square Garden to hear Randolph kick off a campaign against discrimination in the military, in war industries, in government agencies, and in labor unions.

The president's declaration by no means brought an end to discrimination. Throughout the war years, there were race riots, some quite serious. 

For example, in Detriot, Michigan, the auto industry had recently converted to the war effort and the competition for jobs and housing by workers of different backgrounds and races was barely kept under control. On June 20, 1943, things reached a breaking point.
Over 6,000 federal troops were ordered in to restore peace after fighting erupted on the street. More than 30 people died and 25 of those were African American. An estimated 430 people were wounded, 75 percent of them black; and property valued at $2 million ($27.5 million in 2015 US dollars) was destroyed. 

In all, it took 30 hours for calm to return to the city. That was only one example. There were also racial riots in Los Angeles, Mobile, Alabama; and Beaumont, Texas. 
The common denominator? 
In each city, there were growing defense industry and black and white workers under intense competitive stress. 

Meanwhile, Eleanor Roosevelt continued speaking through her column, subtly affecting a change of attitudes.
In January 1944, she addressed the problem of discrimination in housing in the Washington area. 
Her white audience had inquired why she was so interested in the problems of blacks when whites had similar difficulties when it came to finding decent housing. 
Her answer was blunt: there are more people to speak for white tenants than there are for black tenants.

Aside from that, practical concerns too had to be considered. For one thing, slums are a threat to public health and that threat wasn't limited to one race. 
Overcrowding will affect the moral conditions for young people as well as old and make the city less safe for all its inhabitants. More police will be needed and the institutions such as prisons, hospitals, etc., will be overcrowded. A heavier tax burden will pile up on the citizens of the community.
She concludes:
This proposal to herd our citizens according to race and religion has many serious disadvantages and should be fought, I believe, by all people interested in the future peace and unity of our nation.
On 22 January 1944
However, whatever happens, this is a democracy. These are our citizens, and their right to live decently at the same costs and under similar conditions as other citizens I think must be accepted by all.

The Test of Commitment

In the wake of the passage of the FEA, implementation of fair hiring proved in some cases problematic. Sooner or later, there would have to be a showdown. a test of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).
Roosevelt was more than ready for it.

PTC strike 1944
In Philadelphia, August 1944, transit workers, primarily white workers, objected to Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) decision to hire black employees as streetcar motormen. That decision had come only after prolonged pressure by the federal government.

In response transit workers, against their union's anti-discrimination policy, began a massive sickout strike, which paralyzed the entire city for six days.
The public opinion and the media in the city were overwhelmingly against the strikers. All the city's newspapers ran editorials denouncing the strike, which was perceived as unpatriotic and harmful to the war effort; a number of editorials also decried the racial nature of the strike.
Negotiations between management, unions and workers proved fruitless. Roosevelt was forced to take action, or risk seeing his authority- indeed the federal authority- undermined. Indeed, it seemed on the brink of spreading to other industries. 

The president, away on a war tour, authorized the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to take control of the Philadelphia Transportation Company, in effect, federalizing the PTC.
When this failed to bring the workers back to their jobs, 5,000 army troops were ordered to operate all idle PTC vehicles and ride as guards on active vehicles. 

Striking workers were given an ultimatum. Return to work by midnight August 7 or lose their jobs. In addition, many workers would also lose their military deferments.
The strike was officially over by the next day. 
(Later, Reagan would imitate FDR by firing PATCO workers in much the same way. However, in that case, it not for the sake of racial equality, but simply to crush a defiant union.) 

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin;s book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War
Some of the newspapers in the South also blamed the incident on the Roosevelt administration and even on First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with Savannah News claiming that the episode was caused by "Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt's persistent efforts to force social equality on the American people".
If that claim bothered her,The First Lady handled it pretty well.

Despite these ongoing problems, there was cause for some hope. Randolph had demonstrated that the authority of the government coupled with sustained public pressure could have a direct impact on social equality. 

Was it 100% effective? Not by a long shot. At the very least, it was a foundation to build upon.

The end-result of these efforts at opening the defense industry could be seen in real terms. It made a difference in the lives of working men and women of color. 
Analysis of the incomes of blacks who gained entree into the defense industries, compared to men outside, showed that they benefited from the higher wages and generally retained their jobs in the early postwar years through 1950.
According to Encyclopedia of African American History,
Randolph deplored racial injustice in the military and found Jim Crow regulations in the armed forces most appalling. To Randolph, the integration of America's military was a moral, political and social imperative and was essential to the black struggle for equality.
Opening the defense industry had been only one small step for the black American. There would be many more steps on the march to Washington.
And Randolph had already found his next target: the desegregation of the US military.


In Part Two, we will take a look at how Randolph would continue his mission with a new president, Harry S. Truman. And under this new administration, he would be even more successful than many thought possible.