Volume 3 (1946-1950): Synopsis

volume3, 1946-1954

Following the death of the war-time Fair Employment Practice Committee in June 1946, Clarence Mitchell joined the staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as labor secretary, working out of its Washington Bureau. The FEPC symbolized the unprecedented mobilization of African American political and organizational strength into a concerted struggle for the fulfillment of America’s founding promise of equality, which was the modern civil rights movement. The defining feature of the movement was the unrelenting demand for presidential leadership, which began with this wartime social and political mobilization. Mitchell’s NAACP reports show how he consolidated and expanded the FEPC’s  mission by incorporating the agency’s contributions into the political phases of the Association’s work in Washington as the twin flank to its legal program that was being developed under the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.

Recognizing the political and financial strengths of labor unions as well as the enormous potential they held for opening up job opportunities for African Americans, Mitchell launched his NAACP mission by establishing a close alliance with organized labor even while relentlessly fighting the rampant discrimination they were practicing. The unsuccessful efforts to block passage of the anti-labor 1947 National Labor-Management Relations Act (Taft-Hartley Act), and later to repeal or modify it, symbolized this alliance.

In 1947 President Truman, building on President Roosevelt’s example, confirmed the signal importance of executive leadership by declaring at the 38th Annual NAACP Conference in Washington that: “. . . we can no longer afford the luxury of a leisurely attack upon prejudice and discrimination. There is much that state and local governments can do in providing positive safeguards for civil rights. But we cannot, any longer, await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state or the most backward community. Our national government must show the way.

That year, at Mitchell’s request, the Atomic Energy Commission established a nondiscriminatory policy in its facilities. In 1947 and again in 1949 he cracked bans by the U.S. Weather Bureau to the employment of African American meteorological aides and by the U.S. Public Health Service to the employment of African American engineers.

Thanks to the filibuster, Congress did not pass any civil rights bill in this period. Nevertheless, the NAACP preserved the FEPC idea by getting President Truman in 1947 to issue Executive Order 9980 forbidding discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin in the federal service and creating the Fair Employment Board to administer the order. On December 3, 1951, Truman issued Executive Order 10308, creating the Committee on Government Contract Compliance to supervise the enforcement of non-discrimination clauses in federal contracts. Mitchell next got President Eisenhower in 1953 to issue EO 10479, creating the Committee on Government Contracts as another step to continue and strengthen Truman’s FEP initiatives.

Mitchell helped to lead the successful fight to include domestic and agricultural workers under the Social Security Act and to increase the minimum wage. In 1951 he led the successful struggle for passage of an amendment to the Railway Labor Act that barred both unions and railroads from dismissing workers who refused to join Jim Crow locals. The first cases settled successfully were against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Baltimore and the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, and the Washington Terminal and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen.

An important part of the NAACP Washington Bureau’s activities included opposing hostile legislation. This Mitchell did in 1948 when he blocked passage of an attempt (S.J. Res. 191) to create segregated colleges and universities in the South to defeat the NAACP’s school desegregation program. In 1950 and again in 1951 his opposition caused the defeats of amendments in the Senate and House to require the armed services to give enlistees and draftees the choice of serving in segregated or non-segregated units and to establish segregation in Veterans Administration hospitals. In at least five sessions of Congress he helped save the public housing program from complete emasculation. He further successfully opposed a proposal by Sen. Burnet R. Maybank that would have given Senate approval to segregated housing. He similarly led the struggle in Congress to establish the policy of prohibiting federal assistance to any form of segregated housing, whether public, private, or created under urban renewal. 

Mitchell contended that racial segregation in schools on military posts was a policy question, not a legal one. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, therefore, he got the secretary of Defense to issue an order ending segregation  in schools on all military posts. Similarly, the Veterans Administration ended segregation in its hospitals and in all domiciliary facilities, including Soldiers’ Homes.

In 1954, President Eisenhower ended segregation in the Army, thus completing the program that Truman had begun. By declaring in Brown that segregation was discrimination, and thus unconstitutional, the Supreme Court affirmed the foundation of the modern civil rights movement, which had begun in 1941 with the creation of the FEPC and President Roosevelt’s program to end discrimination in the defense industry.