In the spring of 1941, hundreds of thousands of whites were employed in industries mobilizing for the possible entry of the United States into World War II. Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph threatened a mass march on Washington unless blacks were hired equally for those jobs, stating: “It is time to wake up Washington as it has never been shocked before.” To prevent the march, which many feared would result in race riots and international embarrassment, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that banned discrimination in defense industries. His Executive Order 8802, June 25, 1941, established the Committee on Fair Employment Practices (known as FEPC) to receive and investigate discrimination complaints and take appropriate steps to redress valid grievances.

The fight against fascism during World War II brought to the forefront the contradictions between America’s ideals of democracy and equality and its treatment of racial minorities. Throughout the war, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations worked to end discrimination in the armed forces. During this time African Americans became more assertive in their demands for equality in civilian life as well. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organization founded to seek change through nonviolent means, conducted the first sit-ins to challenge the South’s Jim Crow laws.

After the war, and with the onset of the Cold War, segregation and inequality within the U.S. were brought into sharp focus on the world stage, prompting federal and judicial action. President Harry Truman appointed a special committee to investigate racial conditions that detailed a civil rights agenda in its report, To Secure These Rights. Truman later issued an executive order that abolished racial discrimination in the military. The NAACP won important Supreme Court victories and mobilized a mass lobby of organizations to press Congress to pass civil rights legislation. African Americans achieved notable firsts—Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, and civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and George Houser led black and white riders on a “Journey of Reconciliation” to challenge racial segregation on interstate buses.

See timeline for this period

A Mass Protest March

In this letter, labor leader A. Philip Randolph suggests to Walter White “a mass March on Washington” by thousands of African Americans to protest discrimination in defense industries and the armed forces. On June 18, 1941, A. Philip Randolph and Walter White met at the White House with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of War Robert Paterson, and other government officials. On June 25, the threat of the march prompted President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in defense industries receiving government contracts. The Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) was established to investigate and monitor hiring.

A. Philip Randolph to NAACP Secretary Walter White, March 18, 1941. Facsimile. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (050.01.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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A. Philip Randolph Challenges President Franklin Roosevelt

Civil rights leader and labor activist A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) relates an Oval Office encounter in 1941 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that resulted in Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in government and defense industry employment. The excerpt was included in A. Philip Randolph’s 50th Anniversary, a satellite news feed produced by the Labor Institute of Public Affairs (AFL-CIO), ca. 1991.

Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Courtesy of American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization

Executive Order 8802

As a lawyer in the Roosevelt administration, Joseph Rauh worked with A. Philip Randolph in drafting Executive Order 8802, the first presidential directive on civil rights since Reconstruction. This advertisement cites the section of the order banning discrimination. Rauh added the words “national origin” to include ethnicity in the list of attributes. It was the first time the concept appeared in American public law. While engaged in private practice, Rauh extensively volunteered his service in drafting civil rights bills.

National Refugee Service, Inc., Employment Division. Executive Order 8802. Advertisement, 1941. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (051.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

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Japanese American Kenje Ogata Fighting during War World II

Kenje Ogata (1919−2012) felt called to serve his country after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and enlisted in the Army the very next day. Despite being a trained pilot, he was denied entry into the Army Air Corps because he was Japanese American. After two years of fighting for a chance to join the corps, Ogata finally gained a spot on a flight crew—not as a pilot, but as a turret gunner. His Library of Congress Veterans History Project collection includes this poignant letter to his wife describing his passion for service as well as his love for her.

“I don’t know if you can fully appreciate how I feel after 2 years of fighting to get an even break, trying to get an equal chance—without being judged purely from looks. A flood of memories come whirling back—to the time when I enlisted, when I thought of going to fight for my country—being turned down for the Air Corps because of my racial origin—that awful nauseated feeling in my whole soul at the impact of that refusal.”

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  • Lt. Col. Knapp awarding Air Medal to Kenje Ogata. Photograph, ca. 1944. Kenje Ogata Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (052.01.00)

  • Kenje Ogata to Wilma Ogata, February 25, 1944. Holograph letter. Kenje Ogata Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (052.02.00)

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NAACP Washington Bureau Opens

The NAACP opened a Washington Bureau in 1942 to serve as a legislative arm and national policy office. Walter White was the bureau’s first director. The NAACP Washington Bureau assumed responsibility for tracking and influencing federal legislation, monitoring government agencies administering federal regulations and programs, testifying before Congress, and working with other organizations with similar objectives.

Purpose of the NAACP Washington Bureau. Memorandum, 1942. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (053.00.00)

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James Farmer Founder of the Congress of Racial Equality

James L. Farmer (1920–1999), civil rights activist and educator, grew up in Texas. His father was one of the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. and his mother was a teacher. He graduated from Wiley College at the age of eighteen and studied for the ministry at Howard University. While at Howard, he became a part-time secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). In 1942, Farmer cofounded the FOR-affiliated Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and, in 1943, used nonviolent direct action tactics to integrate a Chicago restaurant.

Farmer later worked in a drive to organize Southern unions for FOR and as the NAACP’s program director under Roy Wilkins. In 1961, Farmer became CORE’s first national director and initiated Freedom Rides into the Deep South. As director, he organized new branches and led voter registration projects and desegregation protests throughout the country. Farmer left CORE in 1966 to direct a national adult literacy project.

Walter Albertin. James Farmer. Photograph, 1963. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (055.00.00)

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The Congress of Racial Equality

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was organized by a group of students on the campus of the University of Chicago in 1942. Many of the students were members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a Christian pacifist organization. CORE experimented with nonviolent direct action methods to tackle racial problems. In 1943, CORE conducted a sit-in at a Chicago restaurant and, in 1947, launched the first Freedom Ride into the South. From 1949 to 1953, CORE members successfully used picket lines and sit-ins to break segregation at lunch counters in St. Louis. In 1961, CORE again set out on Freedom Rides. After launching the Voter Education Project (VEP) in 1962, CORE’s focus shifted to voter registration.

Congress of Racial Equality. CORE Action Discipline, n.d. Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (054.00.00)

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The Fair Employment Practices Committee

The Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) was authorized to investigate complaints of job discrimination based on race, color, creed, or national origin in defense industries receiving government contracts and to require antidiscrimination clauses in defense contracts. The FEPC held hearings but lacked punitive powers. In 1943 President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9346 establishing a new FEPC in the Office of Emergency Management. The 1943 FEPC’s jurisdiction included all government contractors. Its authority was expected to encompass discrimination in labor union membership and employment. The FEPC expired in 1946.

The Committee on Fair Employment Practices. FEPC: How It Operates. The Committee on Fair Employment Practices, 1944. Pamphlet. Washington D.C.: A. Philip Randolph Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (056.00.00)

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National Council for a Permanent FEPC

Anna Arnold Hedgeman was the executive secretary of the National Council for a Permanent FEPC, established by A. Philip Randolph in 1943. With the end of the war, a conference was called to plan a nationwide strategy for bringing a permanent FEPC bill to the floor of Congress quickly. The Senate, dominated by Southern Democrats, successfully filibustered the bill in 1946. Subsequent bills to establish the FEPC as a permanent federal agency were blocked by the Senate in 1950 and 1952. In altered form, the idea of an FEPC evolved into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

National Council for a Permanent FEPC. Digest of Findings from a Working Conference of Local Councils held September 12 and 13, 1945, in Washington, D.C., by the National Council for a Permanent FEPC. Page 2. Anna Arnold Hedgeman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (058.00.00)

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“Saving the Race”

The Texas Democratic Party contended that a political party was a private association that could freely select its membership. This strategy was upheld by the Supreme Court in Grovey v. Townsend (1935). In United States v. Classic (1941), however, the court conversely held that a primary was an integral part of the electoral process, not a private activity. Inspired by this decision, Thurgood Marshall decided to launch a new attack on the white primary. His client, Lonnie E. Smith, was a black dentist from Houston who had been denied the right to vote in the 1940 primary by Judge S. E. Allwright. On April 3, 1944, in Smith v. Allwright, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Smith declaring the white primary void as a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Thurgood Marshall’s “Saving the Race” Memorandum to the NAACP legal staff, November 17, 1941. Memorandum. Page 2. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (059.00.00)

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African American Ellis Ross Fighting during World War II

Serving with the Quartermaster Corps in the European and North African Theaters in World War II, Master Sergeant Ellis Ross (1910−1996) used his camera to document the sights and sounds of his military experience. His Library of Congress Veterans History Project collection contains 278 original photographs; here, he poses with comrades in various locations in Austria, Italy, and France.

Ellis Ross. Snapshot photographs, ca. 1944−1945. Ellis Ross Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (061.01.00, 061.02.00, 061.03.00)

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Tuskegee Airman Lee Archer Interviewed by Camille O. Cosby in 2002

Tuskegee Airman Lee Archer (1919–2010) recalls an army study that tried to prove African Americans could not be pilots during World War II in an interview conducted by Camille O. Cosby (b. 1945) for the National Visionary Leadership Project in 2002.

National Visionary Leadership Collection (AFC 2004/007), American Folklife Center

U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) Interviewed by Renee Poussaint in 2001

U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (1919–2015) (R-MA) explains the segregation he faced in the army during World War II in an interview conducted by Renee Poussaint for the National Visionary Leadership Project in 2001.

National Visionary Leadership Collection (AFC 2004/007), American Folklife Center

Jackie Robinson Breaking the “Color Line”

When Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) began his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he became the first African American to play major league baseball in the twentieth century, breaking down the “color line” in effect since 1876. In this letter to Ralph Norton, a fellow alumnus of Pasadena Junior College, Robinson reports on his historic debut, the appointment of the Dodgers’ manager, and the welfare of his wife and infant son.

“Well Ralph outside of baseball everything is O.K. My wife and baby are fine and we now have an apartment even though we have to share it with the owner. Our new manager is really a contrast to Leo Durocher. He doesn’t have much to say but he knows baseball. Well Ralph I hope to see you for a while in St. Louis. It’s pretty tough getting away from the mobs at the park but I hope to see you soon. Sincerely, Jack Robinson”

Jackie Robinson to Ralph Norton, May 5, 1947. Autograph letter. Page 2. Jackie Robinson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (063.00.00)

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Jackie Robinson’s First Year in Major League Baseball

In 1947, Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) became the first African American to play baseball on a major league team in the modern era. After the season ended, he answered reporters' questions in this interview from the Library’s Bob Wolff Collection.

Courtesy of Bob Wolff Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division

“Major Leaguer: Jackie Robinson of the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers”

The Harlem-based New York Amsterdam News was an influential African American newspaper that provided some of the best coverage of civil rights after World War II. Jackie Robinson’s career was widely covered by the newspaper. On April 15, 1947, he debuted as the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers and as major league baseball’s first modern-era African American player. The landmark event was captured in this exuberant front page photograph.

New York Amsterdam News, National Edition, April 19, 1947. Newspaper Section, Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (064.00.00)

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“Rookie of the Year”

The Harlem-based New York Amsterdam News was an influential African American newspaper that provided some of the best coverage of civil rights after World War II. Jackie Robinson’s career was widely covered by the newspaper. September 23, 1947 was Jackie Robinson Day, celebrating his selection as Rookie of the Year by Major League Baseball.

New York Amsterdam News, National Edition, September 27, 1947. Page 2. Newspaper Section, Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (64.01.00)

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Lawyer and U.S. Assistant Attorney General Roger Wilkins Interviewed by Renee Poussaint in 2007

Lawyer and U.S. Assistant Attorney General Roger Wilkins (b. 1932) describes his hero, Jackie Robinson, in an interview conducted by Renee Poussaint for the National Visionary Leadership Project in 2007.

National Visionary Leadership Collection (AFC 2004/007), American Folklife Center

Morgan v. Virginia, 1946

On July 16, 1944, Irene Morgan refused to surrender her seat to white passengers and move to the back of a Greyhound bus while traveling from Gloucester County, Virginia, to Baltimore, Maryland. She was arrested and convicted in the Virginia courts for violating a state statute requiring racial segregation on all public vehicles. The NAACP appealed her case to the Supreme Court. On June 3, 1946, by a 6-to-1 decision, the court ruled that the Virginia statute was unconstitutional when applied to passengers on interstate motor vehicles because it put an undue burden on interstate commerce.

NAACP Secretary Walter White soliciting funds to support the litigation of Morgan v. Virginia, May 20, 1946. Typed letter. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (062.00.00)

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Activist and Organizer Bayard Rustin

Born into a Quaker family in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Bayard Rustin served as race relations secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1941 to 1953. During that same period he was a youth organizer for A. Philip Randolph’s proposed 1941 March on Washington and became the first field secretary of CORE. He planned and participated in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, the first Freedom Ride into the South. Rustin was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and an organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He also organized the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage, the 1958 and 1959 Youth Marches for Integrated Schools, and the 1963 March on Washington.

Bayard Rustin (1912–1987). Photograph, ca. 1950. Bayard Rustin Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (066.00.00) Courtesy of Walter Naegle

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The Journey of Reconciliation

To test the Supreme Court’s decision in Morgan v. Virginia banning segregation in interstate travel, Bayard Rustin of FOR and George Houser of CORE planned and participated in the Journey of Reconciliation. Sixteen black and white men left Washington, D.C., on a bus and train trip through the upper South. In North Carolina, three people, including Rustin, were arrested and sentenced to serve on a prison chain gang. Rustin wrote an article about his experience for the New York Post, which led to the abolition of chain gangs in North Carolina. The Journey of Reconciliation served as a model for the Montgomery bus boycott and the Freedom Rides of 1961.

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To Secure These Rights

On December 5, 1946, President Truman signed Executive Order 9808 creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The fifteen-member committee’s task was to determine how current law enforcement and federal, state, and local governments could be “improved to safeguard the civil rights of people.” The committee released its report, To Secure These Rights, on October 29, 1947. Among the recommendations were an antilynching law, the abolition of the poll tax, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), the desegregation of the military, and laws to enforce fair housing, education, health care, and employment.

To Secure These Rights: A Brief Summary of the Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1947. Pamphlet. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (284.00.00)

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Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948

For more than twenty years the NAACP initiated lawsuits to nullify restrictive covenants with little success. In 1945, J. D. Shelley, a black man, purchased a home in St. Louis covered by a restrictive covenant. Louis Kraemer, a white neighbor, obtained an injunction in the Missouri Supreme Court to bar occupancy. The NAACP appealed Shelley v. Kraemer along with similar cases from Detroit and Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 3, 1948, the court affirmed in Shelley v. Kraemer the right of individuals to make restrictive covenants, but held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause prohibited state courts from enforcing the contracts.

George L. Vaughn to Thurgood Marshall concerning Shelley v. Kraemer, January 13, 1947. Typed letter. Page 2. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (070.00.00)

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Democratic Platform, 1948

Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978) urged the Democratic Party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights” in a speech before the 1948 Democratic National Convention. He joined Joseph Rauh in drafting a civil rights plank for the party platform. When President Truman inserted the plank, Southern delegates walked out and formed the States’ Rights or “Dixiecrat” Party with Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its candidate. In November Truman carried seventy-seven percent of the black vote, helping him to win reelection.

Democratic Platform, 1948. Pamphlet. Joseph Rauh Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (071.00.00)

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Executive Orders 9980 and 9981

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued two executive orders. Executive Order 9980 instituted fair employment practices in the civilian agencies of the federal government. Executive Order 9981 directed the armed forces to provide “equality of treatment and opportunity for all personnel without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin” and established a presidential committee chaired by former Solicitor General Charles Fahy to monitor compliance.

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Korean War Veteran Samuel Tucker Interviewed by Bill Tressler in 2007

Korean War veteran Samuel Tucker (b. 1932) describes fighting for freedom overseas and being denied those same rights at home in an interview conducted by Bill Tressler for the Veterans History Project in 2007.

Veterans History Project Collection (AFC 2001/001), American Folklife Center

Korean War Veteran Bill Saunders Interviewed by Kieran Walsh Taylor in 2011

Korean War veteran Bill Saunders (b. 1935) discusses the blatant racial prejudice he and other comrades faced while serving the country in the armed forces in the Korean War in an interview conducted by Kieran Walsh Taylor for the Civil Rights History Project in 2011.

Civil Rights History Project Collection (AFC2010/039), American Folklife Center

Joseph L. Rauh Civil Rights Lawyer

Joseph L. Rauh (1911–1992), the son of a factory owner, grew up in Cincinnati. He graduated from Harvard College and was first in his class from Harvard Law School. From 1935 to 1942, he clerked for Supreme Court Justices Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter, his former professor, and also worked as counsel to several New Deal agencies. In 1947 he opened a law office and helped found the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).

Walter Reuther hired Rauh as Washington counsel for the United Automobile Workers in 1948. By the mid-1950s, he was a leading civil rights attorney and political advisor. Rauh served as an NAACP board member, general counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and chairman of the ADA. He was a delegate to all the Democratic National Conventions from 1948 to 1972, and remained active in politics until his death.

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Civil Rights Map of America, 1949

This 1949 map divides the states into three major categories: states with “discrimination for race or color forbidden by law;” states with “segregation of white and colored enforced by law (or permitted);” and states with “no legislation” related to civil rights. The map further describes the types of discrimination allowed in each state: “travel, hotels, resorts, theaters, public schools, state and private colleges, private and public employment, civil service, health and welfare facilities, insurance,” and “public or state-aided housing.”

The Civil Rights Map of America. Printed map. New York: Oceana Publications, 1949. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (076.00.00)

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The Founding of Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

In October 1949 the NAACP’s National Emergency Rights Committee invited sixty advocacy organizations to unite in a National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization that would organize a conference and mass lobby for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and other civil rights proposals. For three days (January 15–17, 1950), more than 4,000 delegates representing the NAACP, labor, religious, and civil liberties groups descended on Congress to urge passage of the bills. They also agreed to form a Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition to lobby for civil rights laws and monitor their compliance.

NAACP Acting Secretary Roy Wilkins to Officers of Branches, State Conferences, Youth Councils and College Chapters, October 21, 1949. Memorandum. Page 2. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (075.00.00)

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