The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941-1972

The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941-1972

The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941-1972

The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941-1972


Where did affirmative action in employment come from? The conventional wisdom is that it was instituted during the Johnson and Nixon years through the backroom machinations of federal bureaucrats and judges. The Fifth Freedom presents a new perspective, tracing the roots of the policy to partisan conflicts over fair employment practices (FEP) legislation from the 1940s to the 1970s. Drawing on untapped sources, Anthony Chen chronicles the ironic, forgotten role played by American conservatives in the development of affirmative action.

Decades before affirmative action began making headlines, millions of Americans across the country debated whether government could and should regulate job discrimination. On one side was an interfaith and interracial bloc of liberals, who demanded FEP legislation that would establish a centralized system for enforcing equal treatment in the labor market. On the other side was a bloc of business-friendly, small-government conservatives, who felt that it was unwise to "legislate tolerance" and who made common cause with the conservative wing of the Republican party. Conservatives ultimately prevailed, but their obstruction of FEP legislation unintentionally facilitated the rise of affirmative action, a policy their ideological heirs would find even more abhorrent.

Broadly interdisciplinary, The Fifth Freedom sheds new light on the role of parties, elites, and institutions in the policymaking process; the impact of racial politics on electoral realignment; the history of civil rights; the decline of New Deal liberalism; and the rise of the New Right.


The years after the Second World War were a time of optimism and confidence for most Americans. Before the breakout of armed hostilities, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had characterized America's growing involvement in the conflict overseas as a valiant defense of “four essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech and freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want. Now the war had come and gone, and the Allies had prevailed. Democracy had triumphed over fascism, freedom over fear. To be sure, success had come at a terrible cost. Over a million military personnel died or sustained injury during the war. Many more sacrifices remained quietly untold, never making it into the official record. But the country had rallied together as never before, and it finally pulled through the darkness. Better days were ahead. Millions of servicemen were returning home from their assignments abroad, ready to resume their lives as civilians with the generous assistance of the G.I. Bill. Old couples reunited. New romances began. There was a baby boom. a steady flow of defense dollars had righted the once-listing economy, and jobs were growing plentiful. For men without a college degree, some of the best jobs belonged to workers at big companies in the manufacturing and industrial sector—companies like General Motors and U.S. Steel. There, strong unions won collective bargaining agreements that meant steady employment, high wages, and generous fringe benefits such as retirement pensions and private health care insurance. Hundreds of thousands of Americans suddenly had the financial wherewithal to become homeowners for the first time, often with the help of federally backed mortgage guarantees. Flush with cash and credit, they went on a buying spree to fill their new homes with washers and dryers, couches and sofas, television sets and every other conceivable sort of household and consumer good. Shiny new cars practically rolled off assembly lines in Detroit and right into the driveways and garages of new homeowners. Life was good, and there was a widespread sense that it would only get better. As the historian James T. Patterson would later write, many Americans were developing “grand expectations” about the road ahead.

Everyone understood that jobs were the key to unlocking America's newfound prosperity. “Never underestimate the value of a job,” wrote . . .

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