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Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest, 1941-46

Author(s):Kersten, Andrew Edmund
Reviewer(s):Maloney, Thomas N.

Published by EH.NET (April 2000)

Andrew Edmund Kersten. Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest,

1941-46. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000. x + 210 pp.

$35.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-252-02563-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Thomas N. Maloney, Department of Economics, University

of Utah.

Most discussions of anti-discrimination policy begin with the important

developments of the mid-1960s: the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the

issuing of Executive Order 11246 regarding contract compliance rules. In

Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest, 1941-46, Andrew

Kersten (Assistant Professor of History, University of Wisconsin at Green Bay)

examines the activities of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, an earlier

federal effort to reduce labor market discrimination, which operated from 1941

to 1946. Kersten wants to describe the activities of the Committee in the

Midwest and to persuade us that the Committee had an important impact on the

employment of minorities in war-related work. He succeeds in providing a

lively, readable, and well-documented history of the FEPC in the Midwest,

though his evidence regarding the impact of the Committee is not entirely


There were really two federal FEPC’s. Kersten recounts the story of the

creation and demise of the first committee, and the rise of the second, in

chapters one through three. The first FEPC was created by President Roosevelt

through Executive Order 8802 in 1941. Executive Order 8802 was largely a

response to a threatened march on Washington scheduled for July of 1941. The

march was being organized by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping

Car Porters to protest discrimination in defense-related work. The first FEPC

produced an anti-discrimination publicity campaign and held a series of

hearings in late 1941 and early 1942. In the spring of 1942, Roosevelt denied

the Committee requested increases in resources and then gave the War Manpower

Commission (WMC) authority over the further operations of the FEPC. The head

of the WMC, Paul V. McNutt, was not sympathetic to the goals of the FEPC and

began to limit its activities, according to Kersten. As a result, a number of

FEPC officials resigned, and Randolph revived his March on Washington Movement

to protest these developments. Randolph’s efforts were again successful, as

Executive Order 9346 (issued in May 1943) disbanded the existing FEPC, created

a new committee, and placed it in the Office of Emergency Management. This

new Committee had greater independence and greater (though still very limited)

resources, including twelve new regional offices. It also faced substantial

challenges, as tensions around racial discrimination in defense work were

growing more pronounced. By 1943, labor shortages were apparent in a number of

cities, yet some employers continued to pass over available, local black labor

and hired white workers from a distance.

In chapters four through eight, Kersten describes the activities of the new

Committee in the Midwest. His coverage of the region is comprehensive, though

he devotes particular attention to developments in Chicago, Cleveland,

Cincinnati, Detroit, and St. Louis. As Kersten recounts a litany of hearings

and meetings, a few prominent themes emerge. One is that, at least according

to employers, the hiring and promoting of African Americans was greatly

constrained by the attitudes of white workers. Employers’ concerns on this

issue were certainly well founded in many cases, as theentry of black workers

into an all-white plant (whether prompted by FEPC activity or not) quite often

resulted in walkouts by the white work force. One of the most important

activities of the FEPC was helping to negotiate settlements in these cases (in

an appendix, Kersten provides a list of hate strikes in the Midwest that were

settled with the aid of the FEPC). More generally, Kersten says that the FEPC

provided advice and aid to employers who were seeking ways to integrate their

plants, in the hope of avoiding such walkouts.

A second major theme is that there was little the FEPC could do alone. Success

in promoting greater labor market equality was dependent on support from local

government, federal government offices in the city, and local activist

organizations. For example, in explaining why FEPC hearings in East Alton,

Illinois had no effect on the hiring practices of Western Cartridge, a large

munitions manufacturer in that city, Kersten says that “[u]nlike Chicago,

where the FEPC made measurable progress, East Alton lacked a strong civil

rights tradition, liberal employers, radical labor unions, and a local

government willing to help the committee complete its work” (p. 58). In

Detroit, success arose from close cooperation between the FEPC and the local

office of the WMC. In Cincinnati, the local offices of the US Employment

Service and the WMC supported segregation, according to Kersten, and the FEPC

had no substantial impact.

Given the importance of broad cooperation and unified effort, it is, of

course, very difficult to identify the specific effects of the FEPC itself.

Still, greater efforts in this direction by Kersten would have been helpful.

As it is, he provides very little that would allow us to tie particular

employment gains to particular actions by the FEPC. For example, consider the

FEPC’s activities in Springfield, Illinois. Kersten reports that the FEPC

investigated complaints about defense contractors in Springfield in early 1942

and found black workers practically locked out of these jobs. In June 1944,

one FEPC official, Virgil Williams, returned to Springfield to check on the

situation. Williams found substantial progress in black employment in

Springfield, not only at defense plants but in a wide variety of

establishments. Kersten concludes that “cooperation among employers, civil

rights organizations, labor unions, and the FEPC made this [progress]

possible” (p. 55). All we know from Kersten’s account, though, is that the

FEPC investigated, came away discouraged, and later investigated again. In the

case of Detroit, Kersten tells us that the WMC and FEPC jointly “broke the

color barriers at Republic Aircraft, Briggs, and Central Broiler” (p. 109),

but he does not provide any detail regarding the interaction of WMC and FEPC

agents with these firms. On the other hand, Kersten describes in substantial

detail the completely fruitless negotiations between the FEPC and Jimmy

Hoffa’s Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit.

My point is not that the FEPC had no effect. I simply do not feel that Kersten

has provided much persuasive evidence on this issue, though such evidence may

exist. Indeed, without wanting to give special privilege to quantitative work,

I would suggest that William J. Collins’ recent study of the correlation

across cities of black employment gains and FEPC activity establishes more

concrete and specific results concerning the impact of the FEPC. Collins also

makes an effort to separate FEPC effects from those of local NAACP chapters

and local labor market conditions (“Race, Roosevelt, and Wartime Production:

Fair Employment in World War II Labor Markets,” American Economic

Review 91:1 (March 2001), pp. 272-286.)

In his final chapter, Kersten describes the quick dissolution of the FEPC

following the end of World War II. The Committee had never been very popular

in Congress. Despite initial indications of support, President Truman quickly

moved to limit the activities and discretion of the FEPC, and the Committee

was shut down in 1946. Kersten argues that, despite its brief life, theFEPC

had a substantial impact on the shape of subsequent state fair employment laws

and on the federal policies of the mid-1960s (though here again more specific

documentation would have been useful). He also argues that the employment

gains the FEPC helped to generate largely persisted through the 1940s (and

Collins’ evidence corroborates this).

It is encouraging that the progress of the early 1940s was not lost later.

Still, it is worth noting that the pace of improvement in black labor market

status slowed substantially by the 1950s. It is striking that the

breakthroughs of the war era had so little momentum. Employers no doubt

learned a great deal about black workers’ abilities and about how to combine

black and white workers on the shop floor during the war. This new knowledge,

however, did not produce much in the way of measurable, ongoing progress at

the national level in subsequent years. Such broad improvement apparently

requires both the persistence of tight labor markets and continual vigilance

in policy enforcement. Kersten’s book, while not without its weaknesses, does

the valuable service of describing how these forces came together to generate

black progress long before the better-known events of the 1960s.

Thomas N. Maloney is Associate Professor of Economics, University of Utah.

His research focuses on racial inequality in the US in the early twentieth

century. His publications include “Migration and Economic Opportunity in the

1910s: New Evidence on African American Occupational Mobility in the North,”

Explorations in Economic History 38:1 (January 2001), and “Personnel

Policy, Costs of Experimentation, and Racial Inequality in the Pre-World War

II North,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 30:2 (Autumn 1999).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII