In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal raised the expectations of black working people. "We're gonna have a better day. That was the feeling," African-American sociologist Horace Cayton remembers. Through employment relief agencies such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), "you worked, you got a paycheck and you had some dignity."10 Emergency economic reforms, such as unemployment insurance, welfare for dependent mothers and children, and the minimum wage, became permanent institutions.
The New Deal, however, had its limitations; it did not eliminate poverty, nor did it bring any measure of economic aid to some of the most needy members of society. Sharecroppers, tenant farmers, domestic workers, and residents of American ghettos and barrios reaped few of the benefits of this grand experiment in government spending. Some New Deal programs condoned and encouraged racial discrimination in hiring, unequal wages for black and white employees, and the development of segregated neighborhoods. Despite President Roosevelt's bold efforts to rescue Americans from the depths of the Great Depression, blacks remained disproportionately unemployed, property-less, and disenfranchised.
Still, the New Deal did provide some aid to the poor, enforced the right of workers to bargain collectively, and, perhaps most importantly, it established the notion that the welfare of the American people should be a concern of the federal government. In these ways the Roosevelt administration accomplished more for African-Americans than any other government program since the Freedman's Bureau. But emerging black leaders such as A. Philip Randolph would attack the failures of President Roosevelt's administration by taking advantage of the restored relationship between government and the people.
When World War II began, racism remained the major obstacle to the full participation of blacks in American society. African-Americans were barred from nearly every job in the rapidly expanding war industry. Blacks did not share the same employment opportunities on assembly lines and in war plants that whites enjoyed. In addition, the Army accepted few black enlistees, the Navy allowed black members to serve only as waiters and cooks, and the Air Force and the Marines excluded black members altogether for much of the war. No wonder many African-Americans reflected some uncertainty about the war effort. Was this not a "white man's war"?
A. Philip Randolph refused to accept the exclusion of blacks from the "American Dream" of prosperity. African-Americans had waited far too long for the federal government to use its power to squash racial injustice. Too many promises had been made and then broken since Radical Reconstruction. Randolph decided that the black masses needed to act in order to raise the stakes of the fight. As a veteran protest leader and the founder of the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, he conceived of a grand strategy to enact change. Randolph mobilized 10,000 black men and women for a planned march on Washington D.C. in the spring of 1941 to demand the desegregation of the Armed Forces, an end to discrimination in hiring, and federal laws to persecute lynching. Through the use of non-violent civil disobedience he expected to capture the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and, hopefully, convince him to order immediate solutions.11
President Roosevelt did, in fact, take notice, and sought to prevent the planned march by inviting Randolph and several other black leaders to the White House. He desperately urged the group to cancel the march, reminding them that in a time of war, national unity must be preserved at all costs. A mass demonstration in Washington, he explained, could compromise the integrity of the United States government and embolden its enemies abroad. Randolph refused to be so easily deterred. Disappointed with the president's failure to meet their demands, he announced he would not cancel the march; instead he would rally not 10,000 but 100,000 angry, working-class blacks to protest.
The threat worked. On 25 June 1941, one week before the scheduled march, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which banned all discrimination in war industry employment, and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to oversee enforcement. This marked the first time since Radical Reconstruction that the United States federal government had intervened directly on behalf of black Americans. Significant numbers of blacks obtained a wide variety of jobs in the rapidly growing defense industries, especially in port cities in the Northeast and in the West. The Act sparked a massive wave of black migration westward to cities such as Oakland, San Francisco, Vallejo, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Between 1940 and 1960, in an unprecedented regional shift, 2 million African-Americans left their homes in rural regions in the South and the Midwest to relocate in urban towns and cities across the country.
Still, despite these economic reforms and the growing opportunities for black Americans to enjoy a slice of American prosperity, many barriers remained intact after the war. Conservative white citizens, political leaders, local officials, and organizations like the White Citizens' Council—deemed the "white-collar Klan" by black southerners—continued to use intimidation, violence, and economic reprisals to "make it difficult, it not impossible, for any Negro who advocates desegregation to find and hold a job, get credit, or renew a mortgage."12 Within this context, leaders such as A. Philip Randolph, Jo Ann Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, and thousands of regular black and white folks built upon the direct action strategies of the 1940s.