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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The 1941 March on Washington

In 1941, Germany's war against America's allies in Europe continued in the west even as Adolph Hitler sent his forces east into the Soviet Union. As the war spread across the Old World, President Roosevelt was rapidly moving the United States into position to support its allies. This meant increased industrial production of weapons and other goods needed for the war in Europe, as well as rationing, cutbacks in other activities, and an increased draft in the United States.

Even before American entry into the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the President was rallying citizens for the cause. On May 27, 1941, he declared in a radio address that "an unlimited national emergency exists," a step that took the Nation as close as it could come to war with declaring war. The country, he said, would "take any steps necessary" to deliver goods to England and to ensure the ultimate defeat of the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. With France under German control, he said, "The delivery of needed supplies to Britain is imperative. This can be done; it must be done; it will be done." For this purpose, the country would fight to keep the seas open, while taking every step to block any efforts Hitler might make to move forces into the Western Hemisphere.

His formal proclamation of the emergency called on "all loyal citizens engaged in production for defense to give precedence to the needs of the nation to the end that a system of government that makes private enterprise possible may survive." He called on labor and management to settle their differences to unify for the battle:

I call upon all loyal citizens to place the nation's needs first in mind and in action to the end that we may mobilize and have ready for instant defensive use all of the physical powers, all of the moral strength and all of the material resources of this nation.

The call for unity and the setting aside of old disputes sounded different to African-Americans than it did to whites. As Packard put it, African-Americans who had served in the segregated army of World War I recalled their return to second class civilian status:

Most of those soldiers and sailors went back to their Southern homes and to the same torment of Jim Crow that had always been their lot. A few had returned to or resettled in the North, but there, too, employers and unions denied them jobs, real estate agents and politicians confined them to ghettoes, and vast numbers of whites treated them with deep-rooted racial antagonism and generally did their utmost to keep them from the riches that America had given to so many others. Hoping for the goodwill of white America after serving in a war that had changed much of the world, instead black Americans got the back of its hand. [American Nightmare , p. 176]

As President Roosevelt shifted the country to a war footing in 1941, the NAACP promoted its "Double-V" campaign of victory over the Axis and racism. This campaign aimed to eliminate segregation in the military as well as open access to the thousands of jobs in war-related industries around the country:

Indeed many blacks believed at the beginning of World War II that the homefront battle against racism was fully as important, if not more so, than that against the Axis, a stance pointedly challenging the overwhelming white endorsement of segregation in both civilian and military life. Though African-Americans as a whole remained a long way from the cohesiveness that would in another generation play a critical role in civil rights gains, determined men and women, civilian and military, black and white (especially judges in this latter group), had by Pearl Harbor begun to dislodge Jim Crow from its position of unassailability. [American Nightmare , p. 177]

Efforts to secure President Roosevelt's support for these changes in racial relations met with little success. With the Nation increasing its mobilization, the U.S. Army had 230,000 soldiers, but fewer than 5,000 African-Americans and only a dozen African-American officers. [Rising , p. 206]

On September 27, 1940, A. Philip Randolph met with the President, along with Walter White of the NAACP and Mary LcLeod Bethune, an African-American leader, to emphasize the need to include African-Americans in the war effort. As a result of this meeting, the War Department issued a "Policy in Regard to Negroes" on October 9, 1940. The policy announced plans to establish "Negro organizations . . . in each major branch of the service, combatant as well as noncombatant." This did not mean racial groups would be combined:

The policy of the War Department is not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regimental organization. This policy has proven satisfactory over a long period of years and to make changes would produce situations destructive to morale and detrimental to the preparations for national defense . . . . It is the opinion of the War Department that no experiments should be tried with the organizational setup of these units at this critical time.

The NAACP denounced the policy in a telegram to the President. "We are inexpressibly shocked that a president of the United States at a time of national peril should surrender so completely to enemies of democracy who would destroy national unity by advocating segregation." The policy, the telegram stated, was " a blow at the patriotism of twelve million Negro citizens." Nevertheless, the policy remained in effect throughout the war. [Twichell, Heath, Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway , St. Martin's Press, 1992, p. 138]

Around New Year's, Randolph left by train for a southern tour of Brotherhood offices. He was still frustrated by the President's response. Talking with an aide, he came up with an idea, as the aide recalled:

"I think we ought to get ten thousand Negroes and march down Pennsylvania Avenue, and protest. What do you think about it?" I said, "I think it's all right. Where are you going to get the ten thousand Negroes?" he said, "I believe we can get them."

Randolph began talking about the March on Washington in speeches during the southern tour, coming up with the slogan:

We loyal Negro American citizens demand the right to work and fight for our country.

He set up the March on Washington Committee in Harlem, established branches in 18 cities, and brought the NAACP into the plan. As the idea was gaining interest in African-American communities, he announced in March 1941 that he planned on bringing 100,000 African-American marchers to the Nation's capital. The campaign hired buses and chartered trains to take African-Americans to Washington for the march on July 1, 1941. [Rising , p. 207-208]

President Roosevelt opposed the march at a time when he was trying to rally Americans to work together in the national emergency. The Administration asked the President's wife Eleanor, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York City, and other representatives of the President to meet with Randolph and the NAACP but they could not reach an agreement that would cancel the march.

In late June, Randolph and other march leaders were called to Washington, where they asked the President to end discrimination in defense industries. As Tye put it, Roosevelt planned to use "the one tried-and-true tactic left: his capacity to enchant." Randolph saw through the attempt to charm him into giving up the march. He got right to the point:

Mr. President, time is running on. You are quite busy, I know. But what we want to talk with you about is the problem of jobs for Negroes in defense industries. Our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can't live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?

The President refused to issue an order barring discrimination, while Randolph would accept nothing less. Finally, Randolph agreed to work with White House staffers on a compromise. [Rising , p. 208]

In return for Randolph's pledge to call off the march, President Roosevelt approved Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, titled:

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.

The Nation's policy was "to encourage full participation in the national defense program" by all citizens," but "needed workers have been barred from employment . . . solely because of consideration of race, creed, color, or national origin, to the detriment of workers' morale and of national unity." Therefore, he reaffirmed the policy that "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government." Although the order did not desegregate the armed forces, President Roosevelt ordered all Federal Agencies involved in vocational and training activities to ensure that discrimination did not hinder participation. The order continued:

All contracting agencies of the Government of the United States shall include in all defense contracts hereafter negotiated by them a provision obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin.

He established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate complaints of discrimination in violation of the Executive order and recommend measures government officials could take to implement the order.

Randolph had to endure criticism for calling off the March on Washington and for not securing desegregation of the armed forces. However, as Tye explained:

Order 8802 generally was recognized as a milestone in racial reconciliation, maybe even the second Emancipation Proclamation that Randolph and his associates claimed. He had pried open the lucrative defense industries to admit black workers and pushed the U.S. government to its most decisive civil rights stance since Reconstruction. He had gone eyeball-to-eyeball with the most charismatic, powerful American president of that era, or any, and made him blink . . . .

So successful was the Washington march, or rather the threat of one, that Randolph kept alive both the march and the movement around it. Even as he went on national radio to cancel the July 1 demonstration, he made clear that it was his aim "to broaden and strengthen the Negro March-on-Washington committees all over the United States, to serve as watchdogs on the application of the President's executive order." [Rising , p. 209-210]

Although the Fair Employment Practices Committee did not have an enforcement mechanism, it proved effective in using the threat of unfavorable publicity to open jobs for minorities.

(President Roosevelt amended Executive Order 8802 on May 26, 1943. Executive Order 9346 restated the concerns and directives of the earlier order, but established a new Committee on Fair Employment Practice with a broader role in accomplishing the order's objectives.)

The Executive order applied to Federal contracts. Because the bulk of the Federal-aid highway program involved contracts awarded by State highway agencies, the order initially had limited impact on the Public Roads Administration (PRA, as BPR was known in the 1940s). On December 6, 1941, Commissioner of Public Roads Thomas H. MacDonald issued General Administrative Memorandum No. 140 on "Nondiscrimination in Defense Contracts." He reprinted the order and concluded:

To give effect to the foregoing Executive Order, the special provisions for all defense contracts hereafter negotiated shall contain the following clause:

In the performance of this contract, the contractor shall not discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin

This application limited the provision to contracts awarded for defense highway and defense-related access projects.

However, on March 4, 1942, MacDonald issued two General Administrative Memoranda, Nos. 152 and 153. In both, he reported that the Secretary of Labor had issued regulations covering a range of topics that applied to contractors and subcontractors on public works projects financed in whole or part by loans or grants from the United States. In view of the regulatory change, PRA had modified Pamphlet G (No. 152), which covered PRA contracts citing FP-41 (Specifications for Construction of Roads and Bridges in National Forests and Parks ). PRA also amended Required Special Provisions (No. 153) for contracts awarded for all regular Federal-aid, grade crossing, and secondary highway projects, as well as projects developed under the Defense Highway Act of 1941.

MacDonald noted in both memoranda that a clause had been added to Pamphlet G and Required Special Provisions pursuant to Executive Order 8802 prohibiting discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin. Under these two memoranda, therefore, PRA expanded Executive Order 8802 to all its projects, including those under State contracting authority.

Packard described the President as signing the 1941 Executive order "unenthusiastically." He did so to prevent a divisive March on Washington, but the President did not view the practical considerations as extending to the military. The President's first duty, as Packard put it, was "to win the war rather than to try to correct the nation's social ills." While calling this distinction tragic, Packard explained that Roosevelt, like Wilson, faced a basic problem:

In fairness to Roosevelt, partisan politics largely shaped the president's options on racial affairs. The president believed that in this area his hands were effectively tied by the South's senators and representatives; if he were to press a social agenda that thwarted their regional interests, legislators from the old Confederacy, men perfectly ready to put their white supremacism ahead of the critical interests of a nation planning and preparing for world war, could and would block the White House's most urgent defense needs. [American Nightmare , p. 177-178]

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000