On June 25, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). The order banned racial discrimination in any defense industry receiving federal contracts by declaring “there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” The order also empowered the FEPC to investigate complaints and take action against alleged employment discrimination.

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters President A. Philip Randolph, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, and NYA Minority Affairs Director Mary McLeod Bethune forced FDR to address the issue. Randolph, working with other civil rights activists, organized the 1941 March on Washington Movement to protest racial discrimination in the defense industry and the military and threatened to bring 250,000 African Americans to Washington to demonstrate against congressional resistance to fair employment. FDR sent ER and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to negotiate with March on Washington leaders. ER returned, telling FDR that their plans were firm, that only an antidiscrimination ordinance would prevent what promised to be the largest demonstration in our capital’s history. ER urged FDR to act for both moral and political reasons. FDR agreed, but would only go so far. He agreed to have th FEPC prohibit discrimination in defense plants, but he refused to address the issue of segregation in the military, which had been Randolph’s original concern.

The lure of defense industry jobs and promise of the FEPC triggered an enormous migration of African Americans from the South to defense plants. However, most African Americans were hired for menial jobs. A reluctant defense industry refused to comply with the order, arguing that if African Americans were hired as janitors, employers would be forced to integrate their workforce. In 1943, FDR decided to strengthen the FEPC after learning about how some employers were violating the spirit of the new order. As a result, he increased the FEPC budget to nearly half a million dollars and replaced the part-time Washington, D.C., staff with a professional full-time staff distributed throughout the country. By war’s end the number of jobs held by African Americans was at an all-time high: African American civilians accounted for eight percent of defense-industry jobs, whereas before the war they only held three percent, and 200,000 were employed by the government, more than triple the number before the war. A majority of those employed, however, still held menial jobs.

FDR’s sudden death and the war’s end left the FEPC in limbo. Congress, receiving mixed messages from the Truman administration, split over how best to address the issue and debated whether to extend the FEPC for a few years, make it a permanent commission, or not renew its charter. ER lent very active support to the bill creating a permanent FEPC. The Senate disagreed and let the FEPC die in1946. However, FEPC congressional supporters refused to yield and twice introduced bills calling for a permanent FEPC. Both bills failed. In 1948 Truman, after reading the recommendations of his Commission on Civil Rights, sent a civil rights package to Congress calling for a permanent FEPC, antilynching legislation, and the abolishment of the poll tax. The conservative coalition in Congress blocked Truman’s request. In 1950, the House approved a permanent FEPC bill but southern senators filibustered and killed the bill. Truman increasingly focused on the growing Korean War and foreign policy replaced the Fair Deal as his major concern.