Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Jobs and Justice: Detroit, Fair Employment, and Federal Activism during the Second World War

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Jobs and Justice: Detroit, Fair Employment, and Federal Activism during the Second World War

Article excerpt

In the history of the American home front during the Second World War, Detroit holds a special place, as the Motor City was at the heart of major wartime transformations. The conversion to war production resuscitated the city's industries, and Detroit became a main production center for the arsenal of democracy. At the same time, the city was a microcosm for social changes wrought by the war. As many scholars have shown, Detroit presents an illustrative case study not only of strained relations between whites and blacks but also of the new relationship between minority workers and the federal government. (1)

This essay carries that analysis a step further by investigating the quest to create equal job opportunities in the defense industries through the struggles, triumphs, and failures of a federal agency, the President's Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC), which sought to eliminate job bias. Although the FEPC did not come even close to eradicating discrimination, it had a more beneficial influence than historians have previously recognized. This article argues that African-American and other minority workers made advances in industrial employment during the war both because of tight labor markets and because of the combined activities of the FEPC, civil rights organizations, and some labor unions. There were limits on this advancement, however. In general, despite the FEPC's belated efforts on behalf of black women late in the war, black male workers fared better than black female workers. As historian Eileen Boris has pointed out, employment discrimination against African Americans is not merely a matter of racism but also of "racialized gender," that is racial notions of manhood and womanhood that have kept black women from industrial work. Minority job gains were also curtailed because many union officials and rank-and-file members actively opposed equal employment opportunity. These unionists often maintained the color line by using hate strikes, which the FEPC sought to prevent and quickly end. Nevertheless, despite the limitations and setbacks for minority workers during the Second World War, local and federal activism helped to open unprecedented opportunities for employment and justice in the tight labor markets of the American home front. (2)

The interpretation presented here relies heavily on the FEPC's records and draws on the work of several historians. What makes it novel is its recognition that the FEPC was an important ally in the fight for equal employment opportunities for both minority men and women. The movement for fair employment in the 1940s had the endorsement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the federal government established the ground rules and added legitimacy to the struggles to create equal job opportunities. Yet the Fair Employment Practice Committee did not act unilaterally; it had the assistance of local labor and civil rights groups. Thus the history of the FEPC in Detroit highlights the interactions between local organizations and national agencies and forms part of the "new" civil rights history with its particular attention to the interface between community politics and federal activism. (3)

The parameters of the struggle for fair employment during the Second World War were largely set on 25 June 1941 when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 banning employment discrimination because of "race, creed, color, or national origin" for defense contractors and civil agencies of the federal government. To enforce the edict FDR created the Fair Employment Practice Committee. Roosevelt had not wanted to make this policy statement on minority employment but was forced by the March on Washington movement whose leader, A. Philip Randolph, threatened to parade 100,000 black workers down Pennsylvania Avenue if Roosevelt did not issue the executive order. Although he had created the FEPC rather begrudgingly, during the war FDR became one of its greatest supporters. …

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