Birth of the Civil Rights Movement, 1941-1954

World War II accelerated social change. Service in the armed forces and work in wartime industries, combined with the ideals of democracy, gave birth to a new civil rights agenda in the U.S. Black migration to the North encouraged the Democratic and Republican Parties to broaden their appeal and include African American supporters. Changes in public policy at the federal level signaled the end for racial segregation, and civil rights became a national issue for the first time since the Reconstruction era.  

During the war, men and women from all across the country served in the armed forces although minorities were confined to racially segregated commands or occupations. The defense industry created jobs that helped bring about social and legislative reform. Employers encouraged millions of women to work outside the home for the first time. Approximately 65,000 American Indians left their reservations to serve in the U.S. military or work in wartime industries. African Americans threatened a "March on Washington" in 1941, in their demand for a fair share of jobs and an end to segregation in government and the armed forces. President Roosevelt responded by banning discrimination in defense industries. To ensure compliance, he formed the Federal Employment Practices Committee (FEPC); its hearings exposed racial discrimination practices in American industries. The formation of the FEPC also led to the first legal case centered on civil rights issues regarding equal employment for Hispanics.   

The war's Double V campaign (Democracy Abroad, Democracy at Home) also inspired gays and lesbians to civil rights activism when they encountered varying degrees of toleration and persecution in the armed forces. Although they were banned from military service, gays and lesbians still enlisted or were conscripted. Immediately after the war, gay and lesbian veterans briefly fought dishonorable discharges for sexual orientation, setting the stage for the emerging homophile movement.   

Even though minorities served in the military, those at home still faced racial discrimination from federal and local governments. Under Executive Order 9066, nearly 110,000 persons of Japanese descent from Oregon, Washington, and California were removed to internment camps. In the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, white servicemen in Los Angeles attacked Hispanic teenagers, who received no police protection. Chinese Americans struggled against America's deeply rooted and institutionalized anti-Chinese racism. Six states denied American Indians access to voting, basing their decision on illiteracy, residency, nontaxation, and wardship status.   

President Harry S Truman continued President Roosevelt's use of executive powers outside of Congress to advance black civil rights. In 1946, Truman commissioned a study of racial inequities that called for an end to segregation in America and in 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, mandating "equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense . . . without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."   

World War II also spurred a new militancy among African Americans. The NAACP—emboldened by the record of black servicemen in the war, a new corps of brilliant young lawyers, and steady financial support from white philanthropists—initiated major attacks against discrimination and segregation. Legal challenges to the "separate but equal" doctrine dominated civil rights activities during the postwar era, culminating with the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.