Executive Order 8802: Prohibition of Discrimination and Its Impact

Black and white photo of a man speaking at a podium, with a "The Right to Work" banner behind him
Activist A. Phillip Randolph speaks at the FEPC Day Rally in 1946.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, Executive Order 8802 (EO 8802) prohibited discrimination in the defense industry based on race, creed, color, or national origin. The executive order directed all defense-related federal agencies, such as the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, to ensure that their employment and training programs are administered without discrimination. The order applied to all private-sector contractors working for the federal defense agencies. Often called the “Second Emancipation Proclamation,” EO 8802 was the first time since the Reconstruction Era that the federal government had acted to explicitly protect the rights of Black Americans.

Executive Order 8802

“All departments and agencies of the Government of the United States concerned with vocational and training programs for defense production shall take special measures appropriate to assure that such programs are administered without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Historical Setting

During 1940, with America’s involvement in World War II becoming more likely, President Franklin D. Roosevelt orchestrated a massive military buildup. To help implement Roosevelt’s goal of turning the United States into what he called an “arsenal of democracy,” the government created millions of new high-paying jobs in defense industries. However, Jim Crow Era laws and racial discrimination prevented most Black Americans from getting these jobs. More concerned with seeing that war preparations proceeded swiftly, Roosevelt had shown little interest in civil rights. He was also limited by a Congress controlled by politically powerful southern Democrats who opposed federal programs intended to benefit Black Americans.

In 1941, Black civil rights activist and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, A. Philip Randolph organized the March on Washington Movement (MOWM), a grassroots movement intended to force the federal government to provide equal employment opportunities for Black Americans and to end racial discrimination in the U.S. military. Randolph’s MOWM threatened to stage a series of potentially divisive mass marches on Washington, D.C. during the height of World War II when maintaining national unity was a top priority.

Roosevelt realized that having to diplomatically deal with 100,000 or more protesters on the streets of the nation’s capital would divert attention from the war effort. To appease Randolph and his fellow civil rights leaders, Roosevelt issued EO 8802 banning discrimination in the U.S. defense industry based on race, color, or national origin.

Executive Order 8802
Executive Order 8802. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain

Roosevelt specifically cited the war effort in his statement accompanying the order, noting that “the democratic way of life within the nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups.” He also cited reports of racial discrimination in the defense industry. “There is evidence available that needed workers have been barred from industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color or national origin, to the detriment of workers’ morale and of national unity,” he wrote.

Immediately following the issuance of EO 8802 on June 25, 1941, Randolph canceled the first march on Washington.

Enforcement

As the first official act of the federal government intended to advance equal opportunity in employment, EO 8802 was expected to immediately open the defense industry to minority job-seekers. In practice, however, it had little effect.

Fair Employment Practice Committee

The final provision of EO 8802 created a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate alleged violations and assess penalties for contractors proven guilty of violations. However, the FEPC functioned mainly as an investigative and advisory body only and lacked effective enforcement powers.

During its first two years of existence, the FEPC remained a small, obscure agency staffed mainly by a few part-time bureaucrats located entirely in Washington, D.C. Many defense contractors took advantage of this weakness in enforcement to simply ignore the order. Others complied by interviewing and hiring a few Black Americans, but only for janitorial and other menial, low-paying jobs. In the short-term, at least, EO 8802 did little to reduce racial discrimination in the American workforce.

While Roosevelt felt that he had been pressured to issue EO 8802 against his will, he was angered to see so many defense contractors ignoring or subverting it. In 1943, he significantly strengthened the FEPC by increasing its budget for investigation and enforcement and replacing its part-time Washington, D.C. staff with a full-time staff of highly-trained administrators disbursed nationwide.   

As a result of EO 8802 and the strengthened FEPC, Black employment in the defense industry had increased from 3% to 8% by the end of World War II. However, a large percentage of those new jobs continued to be in unskilled and entry-level positions.

Impact

As an executive order, rather than a traditional law passed by Congress, the nondiscrimination rules of Roosevelt’s EO 8802 were set to expire at the end of World War II. Though President Truman’s administration tried to convince Congress to make the rules permanent, the FEPC was disbanded in 1946.

President Harry S. Truman speaks during a television address from the Oval Office.
President Harry S. Truman speaks during a television address from the Oval Office. Bettmann/Getty Images

As president, Truman’s views on civil rights seemed to contradict his upbringing in rural Missouri, a Civil War border state where enslavement had been practiced and segregation remained common. In a speech in Sedalia, Missouri, he said, “I believe in the brotherhood of man, not merely the brotherhood of white men, but the brotherhood of all men before law.” After World War II, Truman was appalled by the treatment of Black veterans. “My stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten,” he said. “Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this.”

In late 1946, Truman established “The President’s Committee on Civil Rights.” Based on its findings, he lobbied Congress to pass a package of civil rights laws that included a permanent and effective FEPC. However, despite a growing level of bipartisan support for social reform, the conservative majority in Congress blocked the proposal. In 1950, the House of Representatives passed a bill creating a permanent FEPC. However, it died in the Senate after a lengthy filibuster by southern senators.

Despite these roadblocks, racial discrimination in employment slowly diminished. On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, prohibiting discrimination in the military because of race, color, religion, or national origin. An accompanying order mandated the same policy for other federal employees. In 1954, one year after the end of the Korean War, the last all-Black military unit was disbanded.

Ten years later, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a key part of which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, and national origin. A milestone in the history of the civil rights movement, the Act applies to all private-sector employers, labor unions, and employment agencies. The Act also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which today enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting all forms of unlawful employment discrimination.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Roosevelt, Franklin (July 25, 1941). “Executive Order 8802 - Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry.” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/todays-doc/?dod-date=625.
  • Jeffries, John W. “Wartime America: The World War II Home Front.” Ivan R. Dee (February 1, 1998), ISBN-10 : 156663119X.
  • “Editorial: History of job discrimination.” Greenfield Recorder, June 27, 2018, https://www.recorder.com/wedegartner-18133865.
  • Lewis, Catherine M. and Lewis, J. Richard. “Jim Crow America: A Documentary History.” University of Arkansas Press, March 1, 2009, ISBN-10 : 155728895X. 
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Longley, Robert. "Executive Order 8802: Prohibition of Discrimination and Its Impact." ThoughtCo, Aug. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/executive-order-8802-5115020. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 17). Executive Order 8802: Prohibition of Discrimination and Its Impact. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/executive-order-8802-5115020 Longley, Robert. "Executive Order 8802: Prohibition of Discrimination and Its Impact." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/executive-order-8802-5115020 (accessed September 20, 2021).