FDR's Black Problem

An Uncivil Rights Meeting

By John Strausbaugh

On September 20 1940, two of the most influential civil rights leaders in the country sat across the desk from President Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Asa Philip Randolph was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union to have successfully negotiated a contract with a major corporation. Walter White was the executive secretary of the NAACP. Randolph was a commanding presence, a great orator and a forceful leader. White's surname was oddly apt. Though he had only the slightest trace of "Negro" ancestry, with blond hair, blue eyes and pink skin, he had chosen early in life to identify as black rather than white. He was the more moderate of the two, a man liberal whites felt comfortable dealing with. 

Born with silver spoons in every orifice and raised in princely isolation, Franklin Roosevelt could often express the WASP patrician's unthinking condescension towards blacks, Jews, the Irish, Italians. To him, blacks were "coloreds," Fiorello La Guardia was "the little wop," and so on. But he was a (cautious) progressive, had many non-WASPs in his administration, and -- not least because of constant educating and prodding by the more enlightened Eleanor -- was doing more for black Americans than any president since Grant. In 1935, he had pushed through an executive order forbidding discrimination in New Deal hiring, and he had appointed a number of black men and women to positions of some authority in his administration.

Now Randolph and White had come to ask him to end segregation in the armed forces. The Marine Corps and Army Air Corps were all white. There were only two black officers in the entire military. Blacks who were in the military were almost all in bottom-rung service positions -- working in the mess hall, cleaning toilets, polishing brass.

This was an issue for civil rights leaders in September 1940 because the world was at war and FDR was gradually gearing Americans up to get engaged in it. Hitler's blitzkrieg had just roared through Western Europe that spring and summer, and the Luftwaffe was now pounding England to soften it up for a planned invasion. In the Pacific the Japanese were tearing through China and Indochina. Roosevelt had spent the year gingerly coaxing Congress and the American people into sending military aid to Britain, while massively increasing America's defense spending. Congress had just passed America's first peacetime draft on September 16, after fierce debate that included screaming matches and one fistfight. If America was going to war, black Americans wanted the right to do their part.

But it was also an election year. The Republican Wendell Willkie was very popular and giving Roosevelt a surprisingly tough fight in his unprecedented bid for a third term. Desegregating the military was just about the last thing FDR wanted to take on in September 1940. He did not want to alienate Southern voters, or the Southern Democrat bloc in Congress, who a few years earlier had demonstrated how much they cared about civil rights by killing an anti-lynching bill that Walter White had lobbied hard for. Roosevelt didn't want to antagonize the military either, where a large number of officers were Southerners.

To blunt Republican opposition to increased military spending and conscription, Roosevelt had cannily brought two of them into his cabinet that summer: the venerable Henry Stimson as Secretary of War, and the former Rough Rider Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy. Both were adamantly opposed to integrating. Stimson believed that black men "lacked the moral and mental qualifications" for combat and were ill equipped for "weapons of modern war."

At Eleanor's insistence, Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to the meeting. He made sure Knox and an assistant to Stimson were there to help him explain to Randolph and White why now was not the time to bring the issue of integration before the people or Congress.

We know exactly what was said at the meeting, because that August the White House had for the first time begun secretly recording Oval Office press conferences and meetings. As William Doyle explained in Inside the Oval Office, it was because FDR's meetings were notoriously vague. He hated committing himself to anything on the spot, and deployed schmooze, jokes and charming non-sequiturs to avoid it. Stimson complained that a meeting with FDR was like "chasing a vagrant beam of sunshine around a vacant room." The journalist John Gunther said, "I never met anyone who showed greater capacity for avoiding a direct answer while giving the questioner a feeling he had been answered." White House staff hoped that keeping audio records might dispel some of the confusion.

The recordings, created on an RCA experimental rig, were not made public until a researcher stumbled on them in the FDR Library in 1978. You can hear the conversation with Randolph and White. 

Despite the poor audio quality, it's clear that FDR was at his worst. White and Randolph are dignified and direct. White says that black Americans "feel they have earned their right to participate." Randolph points to formerly all-white labor unions that successfully integrated. Roosevelt interrupts them, talks over them, tells pointless jokes and stories to divert them. He even lies outright at one point, claiming that the new draft law stipulated that black conscripts would be placed in ground combat units, which in fact it did not; that would not happen until 1944. He refers to black men in the Navy as "colored boys." Frank Knox flatly declares that having white and black sailors on the same ship "won't do," and ruefully suggests that the only way to "integrate" the Navy would be to have all-white and all-black ships. FDR suggests, "There's no reason why we shouldn't have a colored band on some of these ships, because they're darn good at it."

Randolph and White endured the humiliation, and it's a testament to FDR's ability to charm and cozen that they left the Oval Office actually believing they had won him over. They were stunned a couple of weeks later when the White House issued a press release saying that the tradition of keeping whites and blacks separated in the military was to continue. White's NAACP issued a statement denouncing the "trickery." Randolph wrote the President an enraged letter. FDR backtracked and issued a new statement making vague promises that blacks would get "fair treatment" in the military. It was enough for him to hold onto two-thirds of the black vote that November.

Randolph and White kept the pressure on FDR in the following years, much to his annoyance. In 1941 they threatened him with a mass march on Washington if he didn't do something to stop discriminatory hiring by defense contractors. He did.

Roughly a million black men and women would serve in the military during the war, in all branches. Most were in the Army, but even the resistant Navy and Marine Corps were forced to admit some. Still, the armed forces wouldn't be truly integrated until after the war, largely through Randolph's persistent lobbying.

Published February 13th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.