FDR and Civil Rights

From the establishment of the US Constitution till 1920’s and 1930’s a steady progress in the practice of democracy has been made. Throughout this process civil and political rights have been gradually refined and expanded. However, full implications of the guarantee of freedom of speech were not evoked until the famous Supreme Court decisions of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The use of the Fourteenth Amendment in protecting individuals against arbitrary or unfair procedures in the state courts has been a development dating almost entirely from the late 1920’s, a period during which most of the judicial recognition of the rights of the Negro against discriminatory treatment has taken place. These and other developments reached their peak under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration. With the Great Depression driving national unemployment rates to nearly 25 percent and food riots occurring in the streets.

Something had to be done. In response President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the New Deal. Beyond pressing for the establishment of a social welfare state, he offered little that directly addressed the discrimination and violence plaguing blacks in both the North and the South at the time. Negroes assisted these developments with escalating protests against discrimination, anchored by the foremost civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

During the 1930s the “N—Double A—CP” launched a concerted attack on school segregation that slowly stripped the judicial fences around Jim Crow. The association’s source of legal inspiration, known to insiders as the Margold Bible, built on a single proverb by the attorney Nathan Margold: that the reform climate of the New Deal favored appeals to equal opportunity but not demands for integration. The NAACP therefore challenged the 1896 Plessy decision by indirection, claiming that inferior facilities mocked the claim of “separate but equal.

” In this way it desegregated graduate and law schools in Maryland, Missouri, and other states unable to persuade federal courts of an equal commitment to black and white students. The President and Congress also received relentless tutoring from black leaders on the need for stronger commitment to human rights. Lobbyists armed with graphic pamphlets helped the NAACP expose a surge of racially motivated, unpunished, and uninvestigated lynchings in Southern states.

Federal antilynching bills twice passed the House of Representatives in the 1930s, though they failed to surmount the obstructive oratory of Southern senators and the timorous silence of President Roosevelt. The stalemate on civil rights legislation nonetheless accompanied a growing openness in national politics about the long-forbidden subject of federal responsibility for racial justice. However, real civil rights reforms were not forthcoming until blacks began to rebel with violence in such cities as New York and Detroit.

During the early 1940s civil rights activism rose amid a military buildup that increased white employment but left blacks angrily stirring over exclusion from defense plants. As late as May 1941 the president of the North American Aviation Company explained that despite the firm’s “complete sympathy with the Negro, it is against company policy to employ them as aircraft workers or mechanics … regardless of their training” (Walton, 9). He pledged “some jobs as janitors for Negroes” (Walton, 9).

That summer the Negro union leader A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, warned President Roosevelt that over fifty thousand black men would rally at the capital against Jim Crow in the armed forces and war-production industries. Randolph’s prediction was more a desperate gambit than an informed estimate, given the paucity of Negro activism outside the Northern ghettos. But in a time of approaching war Roosevelt chose not to test this rippling of black political muscle.

He created an advisory committee to promote fair employment in munitions factories, in exchange for Randolph’s agreement to call off the march. Roosevelt appointed a number of blacks to advisory positions in various federal departments, who made up what came to be called his Negro Cabinet. He also issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting racial discrimination in defense-related industries and in government. Roosevelt’s order banned “social and religious discrimination in defense industries and government training programs” (Whitaker, 49).

On July 19, 1941, less than a month after the order was issued, the President selected the five unsalaried members of the Committee on Fair Employment Practice, or the FEPC as it was popularly known, and put it under the Office of Production Management. It was later transferred to the War Manpower Commission. However, on May 27, 1943, by Executive Order 9346, the FEPC was reconstituted, enlarged from five to seven members, and established as an independent regulatory agency in the Executive Office of the President (Whitaker, 50).