Genesis of Affirmative Action
September 1940, with war clouds on the horizon, A. Philip Randolph contemplated his meeting with the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the African American leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters entered the White House, Randolph was well aware of the power of his argument. In Europe, Nazi Germany had deemed itself the “master race” and was conducting a brutal war against its neighbors. In the Far East, Imperial Japan was maiming, raping, killing its way across China in its savage attempt to become the ruler of Asia.
Randolph held firm views on the war. As a Socialist he had opposed America's entrance in World War I, but by 1940 he had quit that party and criticized its neutral policy, aware of what he called the “fury and fire, death and destruction of Nazism.”
The president, of course, was well aware of the international threat, and in a fireside chat he discussed the dictatorships, declaring that their aims were to “enslave the human race, ” labeling them the “oldest and worst tyranny. In that there is no liberty, no religion, no hope.”
Thus, after the Third Reich overwhelmed and conquered France earlier in June, the commander in chief asked Congress to pass an act to increase troop strength. That autumn Congress established selective service—the first peacetime draft. Many volunteered, and during 1940 and the next year blacks comprised more than 16 percent of enlistments.
African American men changed from working clothes to army uniforms, but they were assigned to segregated units, usually as laborers. They were restricted from service schools, and in the Navy they were assigned to be messmen or officers' stewards. In 1940 blacks were not