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Seedtime for the Modern Civil Rights Movement: The President's Committee on Fair Employment Practice, 1941-1946.

The ground-breaking, work of the World War II President's Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC) was obscured by the charismatic leaders and dramatic confrontations of the later civil rights movement. Merl E. Reed has now provided a comprehensive history of the FEPC. With masterly control over a vast quantity of archival material, Reed describes the internal operations of the FEPC and its interaction with other government agencies. He traces the sad story of its relationship with the White House, and its successes and failures with industry and labor. His clear writing style deftly escorts the reader through the many twists and turns in the FEPC story.

War mobilization provided economic opportunities for minority workers, but they soon found that the wave of patriotism that swept the nation did not end discrimination by industry, labol unions, and government agencies. Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph and Walter White, blacks took control of their own destiny by threatening mass demonstrations if President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not act to protect minority rights. FDR did just enough to keep the lid on. In mid-1941 he issued Executive Order 8802 to create the FEPC to investigate complaints of discrimination in war industries and government agencies.

Roosevelt never placed minority rights high on his retorm agenda and gave the FEPC only half-hearted support. He relied tor advice on Southern white "liberals," who believed that they were experts on racial relations and knew better than blacks what was "good" for them. The FEPC suffered from inadequate funding and ambiguous authority. It faced nagging turf battles with other government agencies, harassment from Southern congressmen, indifference from most of the public, stonewalling from important unions whose members benefited from discrimination, and resistance from many industrial leaders who ignored questions of fairness as long as the product rolled out the front gates. Against all this, the FEPC carried on a heroic struggle.

Politics required that the FEPC chairs (Mark Ethridge, Malcolm MacLean, Francis K. Haas, and Malcolm Ross) be white, but the committee included black members like Milton Webster, Earl Dickerson, and Charles H. Houston, and it had a racially balanced staff, headed by Howard University Law School Dean George M. Johnson.

The FEPC worked successfully to persuade the defense bureaucracy to place nondiscrimination clauses in contracts, to provide the FEPC with information on patterns of discrimination, and to have itself recognized as the board of appeals in discrimination cases. The FEPC achieved such cooperation by plodding, behind-the-scenes negotiations, often overshadowed by more spectacular failures, like its inability to end segregation in some government facilities.

The White House wanted quiet, unpublicized work, but while behind-the-scenes negotiations continued, the FEPC staff began to prepare for public hearings. Dickerson, Webster, and other blacks understood personally the humiliation and economic costs of discrimination. They insisted on bringing racist practices into the open.

In late 1941 and early 1942 the FEPC held hearings in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The committee brought before it representatives of many of the nation's largest defense industries. It found widespread racial and religious discrimination in hiring, training, and promotion/pay practices. Revelation of such racism usually placed Northern firms on the defensive and often led to improved conditions.

Then came hearings in Birmingham, Alabama, which challenged Southern racial practices and caused anger and fear in much of the white community. Southern firms usually did not attempt to conceal discrimination in hiring and promotion practices, and segregation was established in almost all defense plants. The FEPC celebrated when it was able to persuade a ship building yard to hire blacks in skilled jobs at the cost of having them work in segregated units. It comes as it shock to remember that segregation in itself was not classed as discrimination.

The public hearings opened opportunities for negotiations to change discriminatory practices, and the FEPC ended the hearings with high morale and a clear agenda for the future. The black community was stunned when FDR, concerned about the coming elections, destroyed the FEPC's independence by submerging it in a larger, manpower bureaucracy. After the 1942 elections, Roosevelt rebuilt the FEPC as a new committee, with much the same personnel, except Dickerson, who was perceived as being the most confrontational of the black members.

The new committee continued to negotiate, issue directives, and hold hearings. Most of its cases involved blacks, but the committee found that Americans of Hispanic and Asian origin faced job discrimination, especially in the West. It also found discrimination against Roman Catholics, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others. Staff members often faced insults and harassment and in some places found it too dangerous to travel alone. Sometimes they were accused of being Nazi tools or, more often, Reds. They also found union leaders to be more intractable than businessmen, although industrialists sometimes used union opposition to cover their own racist views.

As the war ended, conversion to peacetime production forced tens of thousands of minority people out of good jobs. The FEPC did what it could to protect them, but it lacked clear jurisdiction over industries leaving war production. It was an orphan agency, ignored by Roosevelt in reconversion planning and abandoned by President Harry Truman. Attempts to give it permanent status through legislation failed and on June 26, 1946, it closed, after being crippled for over a year by lack of funds.

The FEPC changed some discriminatory practices, educated many people and prepared them to support future reform efforts, and moved the black community toward a more activist role within the political system. Merl Reed balances FEPC accomplishments and failure in this excellent study and provides a model approach to the study of a government agency.
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Author:Pemberton, William E.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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