It was just a month since the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. U.S. troops were arriving in Europe to join Allied forces in fighting Adolf Hitler’s invasions. The United States needed its people to help win World War II. And yet, in January 1942, the highest-ranking officer in the Marines, General Thomas Holcomb, expressed contempt for an effort to recruit more marines—Black marines—to the force.

Holcomb contended that African Americans seeking to enlist in the Marines were “trying to break into a club that doesn’t want them.” Holcomb was reiterating a complaint he had registered in April 1941, when he said, “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.”

Despite Holcomb’s words, the call was put out in June 1942 to enlist some 900 African American men between the ages of 19 and 29 to the U.S. Marine Corps. The recruitment was in compliance with Executive Order 8802, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed on June 25, 1941 to end discrimination in the American defense industry.

The order established the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which mandated “full participation in the defense program by all persons regardless of color, race, creed or national origin.” It also directed, “all departments of the government, including the Armed Forces,” to “lead the way in erasing discrimination over color or race.”

Order 8802: A 'Second Emancipation Proclamation'

Given its potential to equalize access to jobs, Executive Order 8802 has been dubbed a “second Emancipation Proclamation.” It came at a time when the country was wrestling with affirming anti-racist ideals at home, as it strengthened its commitment to fight the Axis powers in World War II.

Despite the hypocrisy of discrimination against Black Americans at home during a fight against a racist regime abroad, FDR had signed Executive Order 8802 only after A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights and labor movement leader, had applied pressure.

A. Philip Randolph's Push to End Discrimination

A. Philip Randolph, c. 1940s
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information
A. Philip Randolph.

Randolph, who founded the first Black workers’ union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, believed that progress for African Americans would require advances in both labor and civil rights. Towards these ends, in 1941, he began organizing a march on Washington to end employment discrimination in the defense industry. It gained steam, with reports suggesting that 50,000 to 100,000 people were expected to attend.

A large protest posed an image problem for the Roosevelt administration. “They know the March on Washington movement is real, because the FBI is telling them so,” Andrew Kersten, author of A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard, says. The FBI was confirming the numbers, Kersten says, by monitoring hotel, bus and train reservations.

Roosevelt “was concerned about the sort of public relations problem that racism in the United States posed to its foreign policy and diplomatic efforts during the war when confronted with an overtly a racist regime in Hitler's Nazi Germany,” explains Cornelius Bynum, author of A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights. “It seemed a difficult thing to argue for the United States' participation in opposition to Nazi race theory at the same moment that it discriminates against African Americans on such a universal scale.”

To avoid this conflict, Roosevelt met with Randolph ahead of the march to negotiate. Randolph agreed to call off the protest, and the president took a stand against labor discrimination in defense work. He signed Executive Order 8802, which affirms “that the democratic way of life within the Nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups within its borders.”

While there was no enforcement mechanism in the order, it was nonetheless significant, Bynum says, because it represented “the federal government's commitment to economic justice, and how that becomes a platform for continued civil rights action, with respect to jobs and freedom.”

First Black Marines Trained at Segregated Facility

New recruits of the 51st composite Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps, getting equipment in March 1943.

For thousands of African Americans, Executive Order 8802’s impact was more than just symbolic. In 1942, it led the first Black recruits to the Marines. In The Marine Corps' First Black Commissioned Officer: The Life and Legacy of Frederick C. Branch, Judson Jeffries describes Executive Order 8802 as “altering, in a meaningful way, the racial demographic of the U.S. military.”

The Marines established a new training facility for Black recruits at Montford Point Base, North Carolina, which was separate from—and inferior to—that of their white counterparts in Camp Lejeune some miles away. While Executive Order 8802 mandated that the Marines couldn’t discriminate against Black recruits, it didn’t end segregation.

In a 2006 interview, one of the groundbreaking new recruits, LaSalle Vaughn, described his shock at the segregation of and subpar conditions for Black trainees when he arrived at Montford Point. “I walked inside that gate, and all I could see was nothing but Black people,” he says. “Nothing but Black, nothing but tents. No mess hall, no theater, and all those things, that was supposed to be there.”

From 1942-49 about 20,000 African Americans began their careers as Marines at Montford Point. By the end of the decade, President Harry S. Truman had signed Executive Order 9981 to end segregation in the military, and Montford Point closed. Once again, it was Randolph who proved instrumental in pressuring the executive branch to get this edict, which intersected labor and civil rights, signed.

"Mr. President, the Negroes are in the mood not to bear arms for the country unless Jim Crow in the Armed Forces is abolished," Randolph told Harry Truman, according to a 1968 oral history housed by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

Truman, sympathetic to the cause, and aware of Randolph’s already storied reputation, asked in reply, "Well, what do you want done?"