Confronting the Roadblock
CONGRESS, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND WORLD WAR II
Julian E. Zelizer
In certain respects, World War II had a transformative effect on the United States. The wartime mobilization vastly expanded the scale and scope of the federal government in ways that were sometimes greater than the expansion achieved by the New Deal. As the nation squared off against fascism in Germany, Japan, and Italy, more Americans found themselves paying income taxes, consuming within a system of rationing and price regulations, and working in factories that produced the weapons needed for war. When millions of Americans left their homes to join the army, old social norms were challenged. Soldiers were forced to live and serve with people who were very different from those in their hometown communities. As the government tried to maintain domestic tranquillity, officials extended federal efforts to calm racial and labor tensions, sometimes creating the expectation of new rights among citizens. When African Americans returned from the war, many insisted that the government should provide them with the same rights that they had been fighting for abroad.
The U.S. Congress, however, was difficult to change. More than almost any other part of the political system, Congress demonstrated how resilient political institutions could be, even during periods of national crisis and social change. The procedures and folkways of the House and Senate were deeply entrenched. The major political coalitions on Capitol Hill were dug into their trenches. The conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans that had emerged in Congress in the 1930s—a bipartisan coalition that targeted civil rights and unionization—maintained tight control over the committee system and was determined to ward off pressures from the executive branch and social activists to liberalize policies related to race.1
World War II tested the resiliency of the congressional committee system and the political strength of those who were demanding a new era of civil rights. The result was a contentious struggle in Congress between 1941 and 1945 about race relations and the role of the federal government in achieving equality. This