On June 25th of 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which barred defense companies, both governmentally run and private, from discriminating against potential employees based on matters of race, creed, color, or national origin. This order was the first in a line of bills and executive orders that eventually lead to the Civil Rights Act of the 1960’s and came in response to dissent within the African American community, as well as the need for additional laborers to support the defense industries. Executive Order 8802 was an absolutely necessary step forward for race relations and the war effort in the United States of America because it expanded the work options for African-Americans, built unity within the nation during a time of great upheaval, showed solidarity with the members of the African-American community who were actively pursuing changes in federal policy regarding worker’s rights, and left all sides involved affected positively.
Executive Order 8802 made it illegal for an employer in the defense industry to avoid hiring an individual based on the color of their skin. This move allowed many African-Americans who were previously unable to obtain employment to enter the work force, while at the same time allowed those individuals interested in getting involved with the war effort an opportunity to assist the United States without having to go to the front lines. This had an impact on the war effort, although not immediately as the United States had not yet officially entered World War II, providing the country with additional men and women to work in vital industries necessary for a success campaign abroad.
A. Phillip Randolph was in support of the integration of the armed forces and defense industries during the war, and used his influence to organize a march on Washington, D.C. that aimed to sway the United States government to do away with segregation in the defense industries. In a pamphlet circulated in 1941, Randolph is quoted as saying; “Winning Democracy for the Negro is Winning the War for Democracy.” This sentiment underscores the overwhelming feeling of the period, as reflected in the Double V campaign, that is, a victory abroad was not enough. Racial harmony must be achieved on domestically as well.
Randolph had previously gathered large groups of the African-American community, some 15,000 in Saint Louis, Missouri and even larger sums of 20,000 and 23,500 in Chicago and New York City, respectively. With strong numbers and a clear set of goals, it was plain to see that there was a want and desire for change present in the individuals that participated in rallies organized by Randolph. The fact that this group had such clearly defined goals, “To mobilize five million Negroes into one militant mass for pressure,” and “To assemble in Chicago the last week in May, 1941 for the celebration of “We Are Americans – Too” week, and to ponder the question of non-violent civil disobedience and non-cooperation, and a Mass March on Washington,” placed enough pressure on the executive branch to warrant this executive order. The reasoning behind the passage of Executive Order 8802 by the United States government can be seen in the text of the order itself, and in the pamphlet distributed by Randolph.
At the time that Executive Order 8802 was issued, the United States was well aware of the World War raging overseas, and the threat that this war posed to the free world. In a time like this it would seem like a wise decision to begin preparing for involvement in the war, and a conflict on the global level calls for all of the participation that can be gathered. Roosevelt cites this as a motivation in issuing Executive Order 8802 within the text of document stating, “There is evidence that available and needed workers have been barred from employment in 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.” Nowhere in the Order itself do we find mention of the proposed march on Washington, however the reasoning behind the march and intended outcome of the march is hinted at in the last line of the previously quoted passage. Roosevelt is aware that the current landscape of racial segregation and persecution is lowering the morale of his citizens, and contributing to a disunity of the populace. By showing signs of solidarity with the struggle, and issuing a mandate on the federal level, Roosevelt is saying that he knows the problem exists, and as such is willing to take measures to prevent further bias in hiring.
Executive Order 8802 can certainly be viewed as a positive move for all those involved. Members of the African-American community were granted a previously unattained right of citizenship, giving them a new venue with which to display their patriotism during times of war and times of peace. Roosevelt was able to leave a lasting mark and set the stage for improvements to be made at a later date in the race relations in the United States. The country itself benefited from the rise is workers in the particular sector, and from the avoidance of a massive, organized public display of unrest that would surely have gotten the attention of the world press, giving the United States some time in the spotlight that it did not necessarily want given the circumstances on the world stage. Those who benefited most from the passage of Executive Order 8802 were the millions of American citizens who found it necessary to put their differences aside for the common goal of world peace and the strong sense of unification that was necessary if the United States wished to reach a point in it’s history where racial discrimination, which was a major driving force in the war itself, was a thing of the past.
Randolph, A. Phillip. Why Should We March? 1941. 19 May 2008 <http://memory.loc.gov/mss/mssmisc/ody/ody0808/0808001v.jpg>.
Office of the President. Executive Branch, United States Government. Executive Order 8802: Reaffirming Policy Of Full Participation In The Defense Program By All Persons, Regardless Of Race, Creed, Color, Or National Origin, And Directing Certain Action In Furtherance Of Said Policy. By Franklin D. Roosevelt. Washington, D.C., 1941. Teaching American History dot Org. 2006. 19 May 2008 <http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=547>.