For people and groups who feel an aching need for basic civil rights protections, legal action on these matters takes an excruciating, frustrating long time. Civil rights, specifically fair employment practices, are still wedge issues in today’s political debate.
From the perspective of modern society, a person might think that this matter should have been put to rest at the end of the American Civil War. Shouldn’t there have been full emancipation and equality of personhood as a legal and real fact in 1865?
Unfortunately, racial bias continued to hold sway over the entire nation and even became worse in many areas, North and South, after the cessation of the “hot” war. Powerful members of the dominant culture almost immediately created legal loopholes through the sparce anti-bias laws and rulings of the day. Active subjugation of racial minorities happened on a large scale with barely a sidewards glance by federal authorities.
Jim Crow laws were enacted throughout the states of the former Confederacy, and overt segregation and other unfair treatment of racial minorities occurred in the rest of the Union. The conditions proved the fact that when matters of social justice need correction, the dominant culture does not lead, it must be led.
Social attitudes change at a snail’s pace and usually only by continual prodding by officialdom. Even if well-intended laws are already on the books, there must be an effective way to actively enforce them. Frequently, in the United States, equality has had to arrive by way of official Executive action from the White House. Society has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into equitable behavior. Sometimes Presidents must be spurred into action because of dire circumstances.
A perfect storm for the furtherment of civil rights was gathering steam just as the United States was gearing up for the Second World War. Black leaders hoped that the rapidly ballooning defense industry would provide equitable employment opportunities. The president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters met with President Franklin Roosevelt in September of 1940. A. Philip Randolph urged FDR to promote equal employment opportunities and to desegregate the country’s military forces.
FDR assured Randolph that the matter was being studied, but no concrete agreement was made. Due to frustration with the lack of official support, Randolph decided to demonstrate his cause by planning a march on Washington. Tens of thousands of African-Americans rallied to the cause and prepared for a mass march on the Capital City.
Roosevelt worried about how a march might impact the nation’s wartime morale. He called Randolph two weeks ahead of the scheduled march to urge cancellation of the demonstration. In reply, Randolph said the only way the march could be peacefully called off would be if Roosevelt would issue an executive order regarding employment practices.
FDR promised that he and a committee would not only study the problem, but he would formulate a procedure and recommend strategies to end employment bias in war industries. On June 25, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Act. Roosevelt’s order prohibited racial discrimination by all federal agencies, unions, and contracted companies engaged in war-related work. The order had teeth, because it also established the Fair Employment Practices Commission, FEPC, to oversee and enforce the executive order.
Not only were discriminatory practices banned in war industries, Executive Order 8802 set a major precedent for civil rights. Unfortunately, the armed forces remained segregated throughout the duration of the war.
At war’s end, the new President, Harry Truman, phased out the FEPC and replaced it with a Commission in Civil Rights, and several new civil rights reforms were enacted. Desegregation of the military took a bit longer. The armed forces were mostly integrated by the time the US ended its involvement in the Korean War in the 1950s.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes what former Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey said regarding this problem. “There are those who say to you–we are rushing this issue of civil rights. I say we are 172 years late.”