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Shortly before 5 p.m. on April 11, 1968, several congressional and African-American leaders gathered in the East Room of the White House to witness the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (commonly known as the Fair Housing Act). Before signing the measure, President Lyndon B. Johnson took the stage and delivered brief remarks to commemorate the occasion. Among his comments, he recounted the bill’s long, arduous journey that began two years prior with a meeting of African-American leaders in the West Wing’s Cabinet Room. Johnson noted the act, now realized, channeled the “voice of justice,” a tenor also heard in two major pieces of legislation signed earlier in his presidency.1 The roots for the 1968 legislation stretched much further back than President Johnson realized, and much like the Fair Housing Act, began with candid conversations between the president and African-American leaders in the White House.

Americans have long visited the Executive Mansion to advocate for justice and equality. African Americans, in particular, frequently called upon the White House in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with the hope of generating lasting change. In the nineteenth century, it was Frederick Douglass who engaged with several presidents on issues of importance. In the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington, an African-American educator, dined with President Theodore Roosevelt, the first occasion in which an African American was formally entertained for dinner in the White House. The dinner elicited sharp dissent, indicative of the racial strife that gripped much of the country at that time. Despite the backlash, African Americans continued to seek out the president.

In the early twentieth century, the White House continued to welcome African-American delegations but the groups were often not publicly announced and the meetings were largely unsuccessful. For example, in 1934, Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) met President Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the president’s mother-in-law, Sara Roosevelt, for tea at the White House over which they discussed a proposed anti-lynching bill. Although, the president expressed his “abhorrence of the evil” he demurred when asked to support the effort.2 Again, in 1938, President Roosevelt met with a “small delegation of middle-class members of the African American elite” to discuss another anti-lynching measure. Although the president demonstrated empathy, he declined to take direct action and the proposed legislation failed to pass in Congress.3 However, subsequent conversations in the White House during the following decade were a catalyst for the transformation of how Americans have worked, traveled, lived, and participated in American democracy.

In this letter, A. Philip Randolph, president and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters suggests to Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, “a mass March on Washington” by thousands of African Americans to protest discrimination in defense industries and the armed forces.

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In June 1941, concerned that African Americans were facing hiring discrimination in the rapidly expanding defense industries during the lead up to World War II, A. Philip Randolph—president and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—and Walter White of the NAACP sought to spur Congress to action with a mass march through Washington, D.C. The Brotherhood, NAACP, and other supporting organizations envisioned some 100,000 African Americans in the nation’s capital for a march culminating at the Lincoln Memorial. In the months before the march, President Franklin D. Roosevelt largely disregarded the organizers’ concerns. However, as the date for the march approached, he hastily dispatched First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others for a meeting with Randolph and White in the office of New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. The meeting proved unproductive, and a few days later, on June 18, the two sides reconvened at the White House.4

A. Philip Randolph

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Joining in the second meeting were union organizer Frank Crosswaithe and Layla Lane, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, in addition to President Roosevelt, the heads of the Office of Production Management, and the war and naval secretaries.5 Worried about an influx of people in the city and the threat of violence, President Roosevelt came prepared to compromise. Randolph, too, sought middle ground between the two sides. After a tense, heated discussion, Roosevelt dispatched his aides to the Cabinet Room to draft a solution.6 On June 25, 1941, the president issued Executive Order 8802 which declared “that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin…”7 Randolph acquiesced and cancelled the protest. The order required government employment and training programs to not discriminate, mandated that all future defense contracts have nondiscrimination clauses, and created the Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC). The executive order and subsequent committee opened up significant economic doors for African-American workers and is considered the first major federal action to prohibit discrimination and promote equal opportunity in the United States since the decade following the Civil War.8 After the death of President Roosevelt, as well as the end of World War II and shuttering of many defense industries, the FEPC expired without Congressional support in June 1946.

In the years following the creation of the FEPC, Randolph, White, and the nation’s African-American leadership continued to publicly condemn the segregation, discrimination, and violence facing African Americans and called for action by the White House. In September 1946, after widespread racial violence occurred in the South—including the lynching of two African-American couples and the severe beating and blinding of an African-American service member—several leaders called upon President Harry S. Truman at the White House for protections against lynching and racial violence. The group, the National Emergency Committee Against Mob Violence, was an umbrella organization comprised of several groups including the NAACP, National Urban League, Federal Council of Churches, and the American Federation of Labor. In the Oval Office, the committee, and chief spokesperson Walter White, handed the president a petition which urged him to call a special session of Congress to "rouse the American people by radio, press and other media to oppose actively every form of violence."9 Years later, Walter White recounts the president as exclaiming in the meeting, “"My God! I had no idea that it was as terrible as that! We have to do something.”10 The next day, Truman addressed the matter in a letter to United States Attorney General Tom Clark, noting that he was “very much alarmed” about the violence.11

A few days later, President Truman welcomed the National Negro Congress, the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, the National Council of Negro Women, and several other organizations in Washington D.C. as part of a national campaign against lynching, to the White House.12 This group, too, pressed the president for action. The president, now cantankerous in face of mounting pressure, rebuffed the group. However, both meetings pushed the chief executive toward more concerted action. As early as his first meeting with the emergency committee, Truman and his officials revisited an idea that had been proposed and stymied during the Roosevelt administration—a national committee “to analyze the situation and have a remedy to present to Congress.”13 Writing to one of his administrative assistants, Truman said he was “very much in earnest on this thing and I’d like very much to have you push it with everything you have.”14

In December of that year, the president issued Executive Order 9808, which created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR).15 The committee, composed of 15 prominent leaders from the realms of business, education, and labor were to identify what could be done to “safeguard the civil rights of the people.” The creation of the committee marked a significant change in how the government addressed violations of citizen rights. The group’s name itself and subsequent terminology, specifically the use of “civil rights,” marked a departure from “race relations” and similar descriptions and would have lasting effects. “Civil rights” suggested all Americans, including African Americans, held the same inalienable rights. In October 1947, several months after its creation, the committee released a report, To Secure These Rights. The groundbreaking, 176-page publication recounted injustices across the country, identified the federal government as the guardian of Americans’ civil liberties, and urged the government to ameliorate conditions. Specifically, among its proposals were anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws, a permanent FEPC, and strengthening the civil rights section of the Department of Justice.

President Truman highlighted the committee and its report in his State of the Union address in January 1948.16 In February, a few weeks later, he followed the speech with a special message to Congress in which he requested legislators act on the issues listed in the report. The president outlined ten requests, the first of which was the establishment of a permanent civil rights commission, civil rights congressional committee, and civil rights division in the Justice Department. Despite the president’s ardent, direct appeal to Congress, it failed to enact meaningful legislation that year.

In a heated debate during a civil rights commission meeting in September 1947, committee-member Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. presciently predicted the amount of time it would take the committee’s recommendations to take effect, noting, “the interesting thing is that 20 years from now probably [committee members] Mrs. Tilly and Dr. Graham will have led this very fight the way this report reads, and 20 years from now they will accomplish it…”

In fact, it would take nearly 17 years before the recommendations first suggested by the committee in the report came to fruition during President Johnson’s administration with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (commonly known as the Voting Rights Act), and finally the 1968 Fair Housing Act.17 Direct-action protests during the nation’s Civil Rights years were critical in awakening the conscious of the nation and nudging the country toward positive change. Yet, the roots for President Johnson’s success were firmly planted a generation before and nurtured by subsequent appeals and discussions in the White House among presidents, their staff, and African-American leaders.

This article was originally published July 24, 2018

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks Upon Signing the Civil Rights Act,” (speech, Washington DC, April 11, 1965), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu...
  2. James R. McGovern, The Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1982), 117.
  3. Roger Daniels, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 117.
  4. Roger Daniels, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945, 333-335.
  5. John H. Bracy Jr and August Meier, "Allies or Adversaries?: The NAACP, A. Philip Randolph and the 1941 March on Washington," The Georgia Historical Quarterly 75, no. 1, 1-17; Roger Daniels, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945, 333.
  6. Roger Daniels, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945, 334.
  7. Exec, Order. No. 8802 (June 25, 1941), 6 Fed. Reg. 3109, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/d...
  8. William J. Collins, "Race, Roosevelt, and Wartime Production: Fair Employment in World War II Labor Markets," The American Economic Review 91, no. 1 (March 2001): 272-86.; Edith S.Riehm, "Forging The Civil Rights Frontier: How Truman’s Committee Set The Liberal Agenda For Reform 1947-1965," (PhD diss., Georgia State University, 2012), 37.
  9. William C. Berman, The Politics of Civil Rights in the Truman Administration, (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1970), 50.
  10. Walter Francis White, A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White, (Athens: The University of Georgia Press), 331.
  11. "Letter to Attorney General Tom Clark," President Harry S. Truman to Attorney General Tom Clark, September 20, 1946
  12. Edith S.Riehm, "Forging The Civil Rights Frontier," 56.; Willard Edwards, "Robeson's Talk of Lynch Action Angers Truman," Chicago Daily Tribune, September 24, 1946.
  13. "Letter to Attorney General Tom Clark," President Harry S. Truman to Attorney General Tom Clark, September 20, 1946; Edith S. Riehm, "Forging The Civil Rights Frontier,” 55.
  14. Tammy Williams, “Executive Order 9981: Equality in the Military,” National Archives: Pieces of History (blog), September 24, 2013, https://prologue.blogs.archive...
  15. Exec. Order. 9808, 11 Fed. Reg. 13943, (December 4, 1946), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu...
  16. President Harry S. Truman, “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union,” (speech, Washington, DC, January 7, 1948), The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu...
  17. Edith S. Riehm, "Forging The Civil Rights Frontier,” 269.

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