Birth of the Civil Rights Movement, 1941-1954

World War II accelerated social change. Work in wartime industry and service in the armed forces, combined with the ideals of democracy, and spawned a new civil rights agenda at home that forever transformed American life. Black migration to the North, where the right to vote was available, encouraged the Democratic and Republican Parties to solicit African American supporters. Changes in public policy at the federal level augured the end of racial segregation, and civil rights became a national issue for the first time since the Reconstruction era.

The armed forces blended soldiers and sailors from across the nation into military units, although minorities were confined to racially segregated commands or occupations. The defense industry created jobs that eventually brought about social and legislative reform. Employers encouraged millions of married women and mothers to work outside the home for the first time, a move that for some women led to postwar employment. Approximately 65,000 Indians left their reservations to work in the wartime industries and serve in the armed forces. 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 departments and the armed forces. President Roosevelt responded by taking action to ban discrimination in defense industries. To assure compliance, he formed the Federal Employment Practices Committee (FEPC);its hearings exposed racial discrimination practices and helped migrants in the North get work. The formation of the FEPC also led to the first legal case centered on civil rights issues regarding equal employment for Hispanics, whose leaders appeared before the FEPC and protested the exclusion of Hispanics from many war industries because employers considered them "aliens" despite their American citizenship.

Even as people of color served in the military, those at home still faced racial discrimination from federal and local governments. Nearly 110,000 persons of Japanese descent from Oregon, Washington, and California were removed to internment camps pursuant to Executive Order 9066, which authorized the clearing of civilians from "military areas" but were only applied to Japanese Americans. In the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, white servicemen in Los Angeles attacked Hispanic teenagers, who received no police protection. Chinese Americans, emboldened in part by the role of China as an American ally in the war, struggled against America's deeply rooted and institutionalized anti-Chinese racism, thereby inching closer to abolishing racist ideology in immigration policies. Six states denied American Indians access to the ballot, basing their decision on illiteracy, residency, nontaxation, and wardship status.

World War II 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, even in the Jim Crow South.

Social pressure to end segregation also increased during and after the war. In 1944, the publication of Gunnar Myrdal's classic study of race relations, An American Dilemma, "offered an uncompromising account of the long history of racial injustice and a candid analysis of the economics of inequality."4 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.

Completed in 1947, To Secure These Rights as well as legal victories in Supreme Court cases paved the way for the Second Reconstruction. 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." Legal challenges to thePlessydoctrine dominated civil rights activities during the postwar era, culminating with the Supreme Court's 1954 decision inBrown v. Board of Education, which many scholars consider the birth of the modern civil rights movement.

Pivotal Moments in the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement

Last updated: April 7, 2016


  • Site Index