This Day In History: June 25

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On June 25, 1941, with World War II heating up in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 8802 prohibiting ethnic and racial discrimination in the country’s growing defense industry. The order, issued after adamant protest by African American leaders, marked the U.S. government’s first move to ban employment discrimination and promote equal opportunity—and its first presidential directive on race since the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Three years into the war in Europe, U.S. factories making military aircraft, munitions, uniforms and other supplies for the Allied powers were starting to lift the country out of the Great Depression. In this time of segregation and harsh Jim Crow laws, many of these factories and defense contractors refused to hire African Americans, many of whom had left the southern states during the Great Migration and headed north, looking for work. 

Longtime civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, head of the country’s largest Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, formed a March on Washington movement to bring thousands of African Americans to the Lincoln Memorial to protest discrimination. Other African American organizations joined the effort and planned to bring 100,000 people to the march set for July 1, 1941. 

Intense efforts by the Roosevelt administration to get the leaders to call off the march failed as Randolph and the other early civil rights leaders stood firm in their demands that Roosevelt issue an executive order to end employment discrimination in the defense industry and in government. Roosevelt ultimately acquiesced and signed the order a week before the march was to take place. It was just five months before Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. officially entered the war

Making the case to end discrimination, the order’s preamble states 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.” 

The order established the Fair Employment Practice Committee to educate the industry on anti-discrimination requirements and investigate alleged violations. But Randolph and other critics said its small size and budget left it a proverbial David fighting the Goliath of the massive defense-contracting bureaucracy. He threatened, again, to march on Washington. 

To fix this, in May 1943, Roosevelt strengthened the FEPC in Executive Order 9346 by making it more independent, authorizing 12 regional offices and staff, expanding its jurisdiction to all federal government departments and agencies, and requiring that all government contracts have a mandatory non-discrimination clause. Hundreds of discrimination complaints were filed with the newly expanded agency in defense industry hubs like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco.  

The FEPC did not end racial discrimination in employment during World War II, but it opened more doors for African Americans to enter occupations and industries previously closed to them, some promising better-paying jobs after the war. It doubled the number of workers in the defense industry from 3 to 8 percent and tripled the number of Black workers in the federal workforce.  

Despite efforts by President Harry Truman and others to establish a permanent FEPC, Congress cut off its funding in July 1945; the agency formally dissolved in 1946.  

Truman ended segregation in the armed forces with Executive Order 9981 in 1948. The government would move to prohibit employment discrimination again years later with the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act