African Americans, Labor Unions, and the Struggle for Fair Employment in the Aircraft Manufacturing Industry of Texas, 1941-1945

Article excerpt

DON ELLINGER WAS A FRUSTRATED MAN IN THE SUMMER OF 1944. LEAD examiner for the Region X office of the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) in Dallas, Texas, Ellinger and a small staff of investigators had spent the last two years working to obtain entry for African Americans into the all-white training facilities at a bomber factory owned by Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair) in nearby Fort Worth. Neither conferences, surveys, nor appeals to management had worked; if anything, Ellinger complained, since he began his investigations Convair's discriminatory practices had grown worse, expanding into such areas as hiring, upgrades, and discharge. "The attitude of the company, which from the first has been negative, is now openly hostile," he lamented, and the only means of reaching a resolution appeared to be through costly public hearings. Despite this negative assessment, Ellinger admitted that there was at least one small bright spot in the situation. Although African Americans were prohibited from joining the International Association of Machinists (IAM), J. D. Smith, the white president of IAM District Lodge 776, had offered his union's cooperation to the FEPC, in effect challenging the racial practices of the local aircraft industry and setting himself apart from the vast majority of southern labor activists. Even more heartening to Ellinger was the length to which Smith seemed willing to go to fulfill this pledge: in a gesture that would have been considered progressive within most American unions at the time, let alone one operating in the segregated South, Smith threatened to initiate arbitration proceedings against Convair management for unjustly firing an African American janitor, a tactic that gained the man's reinstatement. Having faced similar forms of managerial intransigence himself, Ellinger was pleased to

be able to report back to his superiors in Washington, D.C., that Smith and District 776 "took a strong stand and fully represented the [black] worker as if he were a member of the IAM." (1)

This brief glimpse into the inner workings of Fort Worth's largest aircraft manufacturing facility both confirms and challenges a number of interrelated historical arguments surrounding the struggle for fair employment in the South during World War II. To begin with, Ellinger's tense exchanges with Convair and his feeble recommendation for public hearings will no doubt be recognizable to those who have examined the short-lived FEPC. Since the 1970s, numerous studies have laid bare the effects of outside opposition and organizational weakness on the ability of the committee to carry out its important work. In his examination of the FEPC's administrative history, Merl E. Reed paints a picture of an embattled committee that encouraged fair employment through investigations and public hearings yet lacked the authority to issue sanctions or demand full compliance. Although he acknowledges the courage and tenacity of the FEPC's integrated staff, Reed concludes that this innately weak federal agency was barely able to dent the surface of the South's caste-bound racial system, let alone overturn it, in the face of employer opposition. In a more recent study examining the impact of wartime manpower policy on the region, historian Charles D. Chamberlain agrees with Reed's assessment and presents the FEPC as generally ineffectual in removing the barriers placed before black southern workers. (2) Local accounts of the FEPC's investigations in the southern shipbuilding, oil refining, and railroad industries have all reached similar conclusions concerning managerial resistance, the committee's institutional weaknesses, and their combined effect on job prospects for black workers. (3)

As shown by Ellinger's protracted efforts to secure even minimal compliance from Convair, the heretofore neglected Fort Worth aircraft industry fits within the historiographical consensus surrounding the FEPC's shortcomings. …