Fair Employment Practice Committee

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Fair Employment Practice Committee

United States 1941

Synopsis

On 25 June 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning employers, unions, and government agencies involved in defense work from discriminating against workers based on race, religion, and national origin. The order established the Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC) to "receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in violation of the provisions" of the order and to "take appropriate steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid." During its five-year existence, the FEPC worked to end hiring discrimination and unequal working conditions in the defense industry. The FEPC investigated individual complaints, held public and private hearings, sought allies in other government agencies, and cooperated with civil rights groups to achieve compliance with the executive order. Despite these efforts, the FEPC had a limited impact. A small budget, no enforcement powers, employer and union resistance, and conservative political opposition weakened the committee. The FEPC, however, legitimized wartime protest by African Americans, established work as a civil right, and laid the groundwork for government intervention to ensure equal employment opportunity.

Timeline

  • 1921: Washington Disarmament Conference limits the tonnage of world navies.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1941: German troops march into the Balkans, conquering Yugoslavia and Greece. (Bulgaria and Romania, along with Hungary, are aligned with the Nazis.)
  • 1941: In a move that takes Stalin by surprise, Hitler sends his troops into the Soviet Union on 22 June. Like his hero Napoleon, Hitler believes that by stunning Russia with a lightning series of brilliant maneuvers, it is possible to gain a quick and relatively painless victory. Early successes seem to prove him right, and he is so confident of victory that he refuses to equip his soldiers with winter clothing.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1941: The United States initiates the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb and signs the Lend-Lease Act, whereby it provides aid to Great Britain and, later, the Soviet Union.
  • 1941: Great films of the year include The Maltese Falcon, Sullivan's Travels, Meet John Doe, How Green Was My Valley, and a work often cited as one of the greatest films of all time: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1951: Color television is introduced.
  • 1956: First aerial testing of the hydrogen bomb occurs at Bikini Atoll. The blast is so powerful—the equivalent of 10 million tons of TNT—that it actually results in the infusion of protons to atomic nuclei to create two new elements, einsteinium and fermium, which have atomic numbers of 99 and 100 respectively.

Event and Its Context

Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 to address primarily the discrimination African Americans faced in the defense industry. African Americans were largely excluded from the millions of new industry jobs being created in the United States mobilization for war from 1940 to 1941. Many employers with defense contracts refused to hire blacks, often advertising new employment opportunities with "Help Wanted, White" signs. Most employers who hired African Americans segregated them into low-paid, unskilled work. White unionists in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) often reinforced racial discrimination. Some unions denied blacks access to jobs and promotions by excluding them from membership, by negotiating discriminatory contracts, and by setting up segregated auxiliary locals. Racial bias also pervaded the government agencies responsible for mobilizing the wartime workforce. Agencies that trained workers for skilled defense jobs often excluded African Americans, and the United States Employment Service (USES) accepted race-specific work orders from employers.

Hope for a Fair Workplace

African Americans organized protests against employment discrimination as part of a broader national equal rights campaign that became known as "Double V for Victory," a victory over fascism abroad and against second-class citizenship at home. Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, and the National Negro Congress sent telegrams, petitions, and delegations to government officials, demanding an end to discrimination in the defense industry. In early 1941 A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), issued a call for African Americans to march on Washington, D.C., to demand equality in employment and in the armed forces. Led primarily by Pullman porters in the BSCP, black communities across the country mobilized for the march under the auspices of the March on Washington Committee (MOWC). Activists arranged transportation, raised money, and publicized the march. The committee's exclusion of whites and its emphasis on collective and direct action revealed a militant shift in black protest politics during the war. By June the MOWC had chapters in numerous cities, gained the support of leaders in the NAACP and Urban League, and appeared ready to fulfill its promise to bring 100,000 African Americans to the nation's capitol.

Initially, government officials either ignored black protests or responded with token action. Nevertheless, the threat of the MOWC convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to use his authority to eliminate discrimination in the defense industry. After meeting with Randolph and NAACP head Walter White at the White House, Roosevelt agreed to issue an executive order banning discrimination in the defense industry. On 25 June, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which declared it the "duty of employers and of labor organization … to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin." The order directed government agencies to ensure equal access to training programs for defense production, required defense contracts to include a nondiscrimination provision, and it established the committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC) to receive and investigate complaints and redress grievances. During its first year, Roosevelt placed the FEPC in the Office of Production Management's (OPM) Labor Division, and then in the War Production Board (WPB) after he dismantled the OPM in early 1942. Although denied full administrative autonomy, the committee retained some independence in selecting personnel and setting its budget priorities and policies.

African Americans were cautiously optimistic about the order and the creation of the FEPC. The Chicago Defender declared that the order was "one of the most significant pronouncements that has been made in the interest of the Negro for more than a century." The order satisfied Randolph and he canceled the march, but he transformed the MOWC into the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) to ensure the FEPC pursued its mandate vigorously. The order, however, contained limitations that concerned black leaders. It did not cover segregation in the armed forces or employment outside the defense industry. Roosevelt even framed the order narrowly as a measure to "encourage full participation in the national defense program," not as a broad commitment to equal opportunity in all work. The FEPC had no enforcement power. It could not issue subpoenas, its directives had no sanctions, and national defense priorities and legal constraints made government officials unwilling to cancel contracts that were in violation of the order. The FEPC also had to function on a meager budget and a small staff during its first year.

Despite these limitations, in its first year the FEPC developed an administrative infrastructure to address discrimination in defense work. By mid-July, Roosevelt had appointed the FEPC's six board members. The committee included two African Americans, BSCP vice president Milton Webster and Chicago alderman Earl Dickerson; two white trade unionists, AFL and CIO presidents William Green and Philip Murray; and two white employers, David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and Mark Ethridge, the Louisville Courier-Journal editor and the committee's chair. Later, John Brophy of the CIO and Frank Fenton of the AFL replaced Murray and Green, and Boris Shishkin from the AFL eventually replaced Fenton. In early 1942 the committee gained an additional member when Malcolm MacLean, Hampton Institute's white president, replaced Ethridge as chair. Ethridge resigned largely because of professional demands in Louisville. The white former governor of the Virgin Islands, Lawrence Cramer, became FEPC executive secretary, and the black dean of the Howard Law School, Howard M. Johnson, became assistant executive secretary. By early 1942 the FEPC had hired a biracial part-time staff of eleven, who had backgrounds in labor, civil rights, academia, law, and the press. The OPM's Labor Division assisted the FEPC in its investigations.

During its first year, the FEPC employed a variety of tactics to break down discrimination in the defense industry. The FEPC publicized the existence of the executive order by distributing thousands of posters to employers and government agencies. The committee also sought to gain the assistance of government agencies with enforcement power. Cramer convinced the War Department, Navy Department, and the Maritime Commission to cooperate with the FEPC. These procurement agencies, which handled most war contracts, agreed to insert nondiscrimination clauses into contracts, supply employment statistics to the FEPC, and treat the committee as a board of appeals by informing the FEPC of discrimination complaints. The FEPC also convinced the USES to notify employers about the government's nondiscrimination policy and inform the FEPC about discriminatory employers. It was not until 1943, however, that the USES issued a policy against discriminatory employment requests. Despite the early promise of cooperation, national defense priorities and racial prejudices made interagency cooperation difficult. Many officials refused to enforce the order, because they worried that FEPC directives would lead to racial conflict in the workplace and disrupt war production. Government agencies often remained hostile to racial change. Some USES officials, particularly in the South, sympathized with discriminatory employers and continued to accept race-specific work requests.

The FEPC took independent action to end discrimination in defense work. In its first year, the committee held a series of public hearings to publicize its existence, focus public attention on discrimination, and put pressure on discriminatory employers and unions. In the fall of 1941 and spring of 1942, the committee held hearings in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Birmingham. In each city, the committee heard evidence of employment discrimination, gathered by its investigators and civil rights groups. Its members also questioned employers and union leaders who agreed to testify about their industry's employment practices. At its Chicago hearing the committee began to issue directives, which included orders to "cease and desist" discriminatory practices. Some employers and unions responded to the public pressure generated by the hearings and abided by the directives. Most ignored them, however, claiming that FEPC directives lacked legal authority and threatened to create racial chaos and disrupt war production. Although the hearings did not significantly alter employment practices, they generated important documentation of discrimination against African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, ethnic Europeans, Jews, and Catholics.

The Battle for Control of the FEPC

Toward the end of the first year of the FEPC, Roosevelt faced growing political pressure from both proponents and opponents of the committee. FEPC members and their supporters called for a new executive order to expand the committee's size, jurisdiction, and enforcement power. They wanted independent status in the White House's Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the ability to subpoena witnesses, and a larger budget to hire more staff and set up regional offices. At the same time, opposition to the FEPC intensified, particularly after the Birmingham hearings. The sight of black FEPC members questioning white witnesses, and black workers testifying against white employers and unionists had outraged white southerners, whose votes Roosevelt coveted. Several administration officials, including War Manpower Commission (WMC) director Paul McNutt and budget director Howard D. Smith, also sought to weaken the committee. McNutt believed that, since the FEPC dealt with labor issues, it should be under his authority, and Smith warned Roosevelt about the disruptive effects of an expanded FEPC on war production.

On 30 July, Roosevelt rejected the expansion proposals and transferred the FEPC to McNutt in the WMC. The move shocked FEPC members, who claimed that the president had expressed support for their proposals. Several committee members and many black leaders feared that, under McNutt the agency would lose its independence. Their concerns proved justified. Under McNutt's authority, which lasted until May 1943, the FEPC's budget was reduced, and the much-anticipated hearings on discrimination in the railroad industry were postponed indefinitely. McNutt curtailed the committee's autonomy, requiring his approval before it held any public hearings. The FEPC, however, successfully resisted McNutt's attempt to control the appointment of FEPC field personnel. Dickerson thought the power of appointment was particularly important for black FEPC members, since it was a privilege previously denied black government officials. McNutt's actions triggered the resignations of MacLean, Ethridge, Sarnoff, Cramer, and three lawyers hired for the railroad cases. Civil rights, labor, and liberal groups sent delegations, telegrams, and letters to Washington, D.C., protesting the FEPC's fate, while Randolph's MOWM held "Save FEPC" rallies.

Roosevelt responded to the protests by reorganizing and, in some ways, strengthening the committee. On 27 May 1943 he issued Executive Order 9346, which set up a new FEPC with independent status in the OEM, a fulltime chair and six members, authorization to hold public hearings, and a budget of $500,000, which could be used to set up regional offices. In an agreement with the WMC in the summer, the FEPC assumed primary responsibility for handling discrimination complaints. The WMC was required to assist FEPC investigations and had ten days to resolve complaints it received before sending it to the FEPC. The new FEPC still had weaknesses. Roosevelt rejected the advice of his attorney general, Francis Biddle, and denied the new FEPC enforcement power, and the committee's chair and executive secretary positions continued to be reserved for whites. The White House also sought to ensure the new FEPC took a cautious approach that appeased African Americans, without provoking white workers or political conservatives. The White House refused to reappoint Earl Dickerson, who had earned a reputation as an "extremist," and presidential aide Marvin McIntyre ordered the new chair, Monsignor Francis J. Haas, to avoid "contentious open hearings." Malcolm Ross, a former National Labor Relations Board member, replaced Haas as chair in October, after Haas resigned to become the bishop of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Webster, Shishkin, and Brophy were joined by two new white members, Sara Southhall of International Harvester and Samuel Zemurray of the United Fruit Company, and by Plummer Bernard Young, a black man who edited the Norfolk Journal and Guide.

The End of FEPC

The second FEPC remained active for the next three years and proved more expansive than the first committee. It set up twelve regional offices that over the next three years handled thousands of complaints. In its first year and a half, the second FEPC docketed close to 6,000 discrimination complaints (those that FEPC investigators decided had merit) and resolved nearly 40 percent satisfactorily. The committee heard 12,000 cases, with 40 percent resolved satisfactorily. Public hearings remained a central feature of the committee, which held fifteen from August 1944 to August 1945 and continued to issue directives to employers and companies. A growing number of citizens' groups assisted the second FEPC. In 1942 and 1943, civil rights activists in a number of cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, organized Metropolitan Fair Employment Councils. Often in cooperation with the FEPC, these councils handled complaints of unfair employment practices and pressured employers to hire and upgrade black workers. Two CIO unions—the United Electrical Workers and the United Auto Workers—reached agreements to cooperate with the FEPC. Lawsuits filed by black workers provided leverage to the committee, and, after black workers won a lawsuit against the boil-ermakers' segregated auxiliary units that denied blacks full union membership, California shipyard companies and the AFL boilermakers union obeyed FEPC directives.

The second committee, with its augmented powers, faced more opposition than its first incarnation. Opponents of the FEPC, primarily southerners, claimed that the committee was communist, caused racial conflict, and would lead to social equality among the races. In late 1943 conservative southern Democrats, in alliance with some Republicans, launched an anti-FEPC campaign that led to the committee's destruction by mid-1946. In December southern congressman John Rankin called for the FEPC to be abolished and referred to its members as a "bunch of crackpots."

In early 1944 the conservative congressional representative Howard W. Smith from Virginia began hearings to determine whether, in several instances, the FEPC had acted illegally in issuing directives. Meanwhile, the Georgia senator Richard Russell attached a successful amendment to a House appropriations bill, designed to destroy the FEPC. The amendment required the elimination of government agencies that had existed for more than a year without congressional funding, a definition that covered the FEPC. Roosevelt had funded the FEPC through the President's Emergency Fund. The FEPC survived the Russell amendment when Congress passed the War Agencies Appropriations Bill, which provided the FEPC with half a million dollars. The next year, Congress slashed the FEPC budget to $250,000. The FEPC could afford only three of its regional offices and made drastic staff cuts. President Harry Truman further weakened the FEPC when he issued Executive Order 9664, which denied the committee the right to issue directives. At the end of June, the FEPC folded when appropriations ended and liberal Congressmen failed to pass a bill making the FEPC a permanent agency.

Key Players

Bethune, Mary McLeod (1875-1955): One of several black New Dealers, Bethune used her close ties to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt to gain political support for an FEPC. In her capacity as president of the National Council of Negro Women, she backed the March on Washington Committee.

Ethridge, Mark (1896-1981): Ethridge, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, was the FEPC's first chair. Etheridge's cautious approach occasionally clashed with other committee members, in particular Earl Dickerson, who fought for a more activist FEPC.

Haas, Francis J. (1889-1953): Haas became the first chair of the second FEPC, created by Roosevelt in May 1943 through Executive Order 9346. Haas resigned in October 1943 to become bishop in Grand Rapids Michigan.

MacClean, Malcolm (1894-1977): MacClean replaced Etheridge as FEPC chair in early 1942. He resigned at the start of 1943 to enter the navy.

Randolph, A. Philip (1889-1979): As president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph organized the March on Washington Committee in 1941, which pressed Roosevelt to act against racial discrimination in employment and the armed forces.

Rauh, Joseph (1911-1992): Rauh was the attorney who drafted Executive Order 8802. He became a well known civil rights and labor activist.

Roosevelt, Eleanor (1884-1962): As first lady, Roosevelt became a champion of civil rights for African Americans. Although she tried to convince A. Philip Randolph to cancel his proposed march on Washington, D.C., she supported the goals of the March on Washington Committee.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882-1945): As U.S. president (1933-1945), Roosevelt gained the political allegiance of many African Americans by supporting civil rights and New Deal programs. In 1941 he issued Executive Order 8802, establishing the Committee on Fair Employment Practice.

Ross, Malcolm (1895-1965): Ross replaced Haas as chair in the fall of 1943. He served as FEPC chair until the committee was dismantled in 1946.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Congress of Industrial Organizations; March on Washington Movement.

Bibliography

Books

Anderson, Jervis. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986.

Bates, Beth Tompkins. Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Daniel, Cletus. Chicano Workers and the Politics of Fairness: The FEPC in the Southwest, 1941-1945. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Garfinkel, Herbert. When Negroes March: The March on Washington Movement in the Organizational Politics for FEPC. Reprint with a new preface by Lewis M. Killian. New York: Atheneum, 1969.

Hill, Herbert. Black Labor and the American Legal System: Race, Work, and the Law. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Kersten, Andrew Edmund. Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest, 1941-1946. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Kesselman, Louis. The Social Politics of FEPC. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1948.

Moreno, Paul D. From Direct Action to Affirmative Action: Fair Employment Law and Policy in America, 1933-1972. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

Pfeffer, Paula F. A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Reed, Merl Elwyn. Seedtime for the Modern Civil Rights Movement: The President's Committee on Fair Employment Practice, 1941-1946. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

Ruchames, Louis. Race, Jobs, and Politics: The Story of FEPC. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953.

Periodicals

Boris, Eileen. "'You Wouldn't Want One of 'Em Dancing With Your Wife': Racialized Bodies on the Job in World War II." American Quarterly 50, no. 1 (1998): 77-108.

Harris, William H. "Federal Intervention in Union Discrimination: FEPC and West Coast Shipyards During World War II." Labor History 22, no. 3 (1981): 325-347.

Henderson, Alexa B. "FEPC and the Southern Railway Case: An Investigation into the Discriminatory Practices of Railroads During World War II." Journal of Negro History 61, no. 2 (1976): 173-187.

Reed, Merl Elwyn. "The FBI, MOWM, and CORE,1941-1946." Journal of Black Studies 21, no. 4 (1991): 465-479.

——. "FEPC and the Federal Agencies in the South."Journal of Negro History 65, no. 1 (1980): 43-56.

Additional Resources

"Records of the Committee on Fair Employment Practice."United States National Archives and Records Administration [accessed 25 November 2002]. <http://www.archives.gov/>.

—David M. Lewis-Colman