The modern civil rights movement began with President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, forbidding racial discrimination in wartime production work. But Roosevelt issued this order under duress. Asa Philip Randolph, the Chicago-based, African American labor leader who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened to march on Washington, D.C. with more than 150,000 protesters.
African-American soldiers in World War II fought in segregated units and veterans have shared painful memories of discrimination. German prisoners of war were treated with more dignity and privilege than black soldiers in U.S. uniform. These enemy prisoners were allowed to travel with more freedom and use a greater range of facilities than African Americans serving on segregated army bases. In an especially high-profile incident, World War II veteran Isaac Woodard was attacked and blinded by white policemen in South Carolina in 1946.
Learning of this, President Harry Truman created the President's Commission on Civil Rights to investigate incidents of racial violence. In 1947, the commission gave the president a long list of legislative proposals. On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the military.
As a result, the Korean War was a landmark for African American soldiers. By 1953, 95 % of all combat units were integrated. Elsewhere, America was still segregated by race. Byron Rumsford, the East Bay's first African American assemblyman, remembers racial discrimination in housing and employment. One soldier returning home from the Korean War in full uniform remembers walking into an all-white barbershop in San Francisco to ask for a haircut. He was refused.
At the same time, the accomplishments of America's African American population were impossible to ignore. In the early 1940s, physician Charles R. Drew developed techniques for preserving blood, and was invited by the British government to start the first English blood bank. Drew became head of the American Red Cross, but resigned when the U.S. army segregated blood plasma according to racial origins. Los Angeles has since honored his achievement, establishing the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in 1966, in the wake of the Watts Rebellion.
Ralph J. Bunche, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated in 1927 from UCLA, became the first African American to win a Nobel Prize in 1950. Although his competitors included Winston Churchill and George Marshall, the Nobel committee gave him the Peace Prize for his work as the United Nations mediator who concluded the 1948 armistice between warring Israelis and Palestinians at the end of British colonial rule.
The strategy of the civil rights movement in the early 1950s was characterized by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which sought to remedy racial discrimination in court. In the late 1950s, the chapter that followed would employ a strategy of sit-ins and nonviolent confrontation initially set forth by the Congress Organized for Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) in 1942. . The promise of rationally presented arguments for integration found its high-water mark in 1995, when NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall would successfully argue Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court. In a feat that has never been repeated, Earl Warren, chief justice of the Supreme Court and governor of California from 1942 to 1953, convinced all nine judges to render a unanimous decision to end segregation in the nation's school.
- Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights. (11.10.1)