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“Freedom and Democracy in Our Own House”: Black Lawmakers on Capitol Hill during World War II | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives

Early in the afternoon on December 8, 1941, shortly after Congress met in a Joint Session to receive President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s request to declare war against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Members from both parties took to the floor to voice support for the U.S. war effort.Representative Arthur W. Mitchell of Illinois, the only African-American Member of the 77th Congress (1941–1943), joined his colleagues that day in support of FDR’s message. Mitchell noted that he represented not only his Chicago district, but all African Americans. He said his constituents everywhere were willing to fight, work, and sacrifice for the cause, and that they expected “the same treatment under our so-called democratic form of government” as any other American. “If he is good enough to die for his country,” Mitchell declared, “he should be given the largest and fullest opportunity to live for his country without any type of racial discrimination.”The House approved the joint resolution declaring war on Japan later that afternoon, but it remained to be seen how or if Congress would address the racial inequality Mitchell had worked tirelessly to correct.World War II and Black AmericaFor Black Americans, the war presented new possibilities for military service, employment, and civil and political rights. Before Pearl Harbor, even as many American factories converted to war production, companies often did not hire Black workers. In January 1941, labor leader A. Philip Randolph called for a large protest in Washington, DC, on July 1, unless President Roosevelt took significant action to address discriminatory practices in defense industries and the military. On June 25, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in federal job training programs and defense production jobs—but not in the military—and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to help implement this directive.Representative Mitchell praised the President’s initiative but warned that ongoing employment discrimination at home was “the weakest point in our fight for world democracy.” For Mitchell, America’s efforts to defend democratic values overseas were imperiled by “our failure to practice these very principles among ourselves, and to extend the proper recognition and justice to the Negro who is an American citizen.” Mitchell’s remarks anticipated the “Double V” campaign pioneered in 1942 by the Pittsburgh Courier and embraced by Black newspapers and activists, which tied victory in the war abroad to the battle for fair employment and democratic rights at home.On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan coalition in the House began to push for legislation to protect the civil and political rights of African Americans and others facing discrimination. In September 1942, for example, Congress approved a bill to protect the voting rights of African Americans and women in the military—including a provision eliminating the poll tax for those serving overseas. Another proposal, designed to ban states from using a poll tax to restrict voting rights at home, passed the House on October 13 but died in the Senate.During the debate on the latter anti-poll tax bill, Mitchell, who was set to retire from Congress just a few months later, accused southern states that maintained poll taxes of undermining the war effort. The Chicago Representative urged his colleagues in both chambers to quickly pass the anti-poll tax bill. “Let us strike with all of our might, as this is a blow for freedom and democracy in our own house.”“Victory Legislation”Mitchell’s successor in the 78th Congress (1943–1945), William L. Dawson, was, like his predecessor, the only Black Member at the time. But he was joined two years later in the 79th Congress (1945–1947) by New York City councilman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem. Both lawmakers were Democratic Party stalwarts who went on to spend more than two decades in the House, rising to influential committee chairmanships. But during the crucial years of 1943 to 1946, as the United States waged war and transitioned to peace, Dawson, first by himself, and then with Powell, championed Mitchell’s call to use the war to push for civil rights legislation.When the 78th Congress opened on January 6, 1943, Representative Vito Anthony Marcantonio of East Harlem, New York, introduced a bill to ban the poll tax. Marcantonio had led the fight against poll taxes in the previous Congress. He insisted the bill would bolster the war effort, strengthening the nation’s position as the standard-bearer of democratic rights around the world. “This,” Marcantonio declared in 1942, “is victory legislation.” Though he was the lone member of the American Labor Party in Congress, Marcantonio’s proposal attracted support from Dawson and other northern Democrats, as well as Republicans like George Harrison Bender of Ohio, who said ending the poll tax would unite Americans and “strengthen our national will to fight to the finish for democratic institutions.”For more than a decade southern Members of Congress had prevented the House from passing antilynching and other civil rights legislation. Opponents insisted that states had the right to implement poll taxes, and that federal legislation outlawing them was unconstitutional and threatened to create social and political divisions during wartime. Marcantonio rejected these claims and pointed out that many White southerners, who could not afford to pay the required fee to vote, were also disenfranchised. To lead in the fight for “democracy all over the world,” he warned, the United States must “extend it now, before the war is over, to everyone within our own borders.”When the House Rules Committee, which decides whether a bill makes it to the floor, refused to act on Marcantonio’s legislation, the New York lawmaker used a discharge petition signed by 218 Members—a majority of the House—to release the bill from Rules and send it to the full House for consideration. On May 25, 1943, Dawson defended Marcantonio’s bill, pointing to his own lived experience. “I know more about what is the real ground of this subject matter,” Dawson declared, “than any man in this assembly.” He reminded the House that southern governments framed the poll tax as a source of revenue for local schools, yet he could not access quality public education during his youth in Georgia. Despite opposition from southern Democrats, the anti-poll tax bill passed the House, 265 to 110.Five months later, Representative Dawson testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the anti-poll tax bill. He reminded the subcommittee that the Constitution directs the federal government to ensure each state had a “republican form of government.” As long as a poll tax existed, Dawson said, “Democracy becomes a byword—our vaunted government of the people, by the people and for the people is a joke to the rest of the world when it appears that our Government is unable to fulfill its guaranty to its citizens in the matter of their sacred right of franchise.” Southern Senators, however, obstructed the progress of the bill, and amid the threat of a filibuster, the bill died.Fair EmploymentShortly after its creation in 1941, the FEPC had started to investigate cases of discrimination in hiring but had little power to broadly enforce the President’s executive order. In March 1944, Dawson introduced a resolution to create a special House committee to “make a full and complete study and investigation of race relations in the United States,” including discrimination in the military and in hiring.Although the House took no action on Dawson’s resolution, the House Appropriations Committee held a hearing later that month on funding for wartime federal agencies. In testimony before the committee, Dawson argued that “the welfare of the minority is inseparably linked to the welfare of the majority,” and insisted that the FEPC had demonstrably improved the lives of African-American workers during the war. In addition to jobs, Dawson explained, the FEPC “has done more to restore confidence in our institutions, hope in the future of our country, and to heighten morale by restoring belief in ultimate participation by all citizens in the benefits for which America now fights than any one Government agency operating at this time.” In May, Dawson, a World War I veteran, cited the sacrifices made by Black soldiers and the contributions of Black workers in war industries as he helped ward off attempts to cut funding for the FEPC.A much longer battle occurred in 1944 to determine the postwar fate of the FEPC, which FDR had only intended to be a temporary agency. In January 1944, Dawson, Democrat Thomas Edward Scanlon of Pennsylvania, and Republican Charles Marion La Follette of Indiana introduced identical bills to prohibit hiring discrimination and establish a permanent agency, known as the Fair Employment Practices Commission, to continue the work of the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee.In June, the House Committee on Labor held hearings on what was known as the Scanlon–Dawson–La Follette bills. Appearing as a witness, Dawson told the committee that the creation of a permanent FEPC would be “a step to assure the American public the consummation of a right, not the infliction of a wrong.” Ending workplace discrimination at home was also key to America’s postwar foreign policy objectives, he argued. Dawson reminded his colleagues that future trade partners, such as U.S. allies in South America, will be surprised to learn that “the fundamental human right of the opportunity to work and earn a livelihood is denied to American citizens because of race or national origin.” Moreover, these contradictions threatened to “destroy the faith and confidence of other nations in the sincerity of the American people.”Six months later, the House Labor Committee issued a report urging the House to adopt Scanlon’s version of the bill. But the 78th Congress ended before lawmakers could act.“Democracy here—now!”While Dawson was carrying the mantle of Black representation on Capitol Hill from 1943 to 1945, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was in New York, aiming to join the Chicago lawmaker in the House. Powell was a well-known minister, activist, and New York City councilman. In the two years leading up to the 1944 election, Powell benefited from the backing of The People’s Voice, the newspaper he owned and operated, which supported the Double V campaign and frequently derided southern segregationists as “American fascists”—allies of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany who needed to be confronted and defeated within the United States. Powell announced his intention to campaign for the new Harlem congressional district under a banner that read “Winning Democracy for the Negro is Winning the War for Democracy.” He easily won election to the 79th Congress in November 1944, becoming the first Black Member of Congress from New York. Powell and Dawson also became the first Black Representatives to serve together since 1891.During the first three months of his congressional career, Powell proposed an expansive legislative agenda designed to democratize immigration laws, voting rights, and access to public space and the workplace. He introduced legislation to provide a path to citizenship for immigrants from the Philippines, Korea, and India, along with bills to ban the poll tax, lynching, and segregation in interstate travel. Powell also drafted the only measure designed to eliminate segregation in the armed forces during World War II.As he had done in the 78th Congress, Marcantonio introduced an anti-poll tax bill in January and once again used a discharge petition to force the Rules Committee to release the bill. On June 12, Dawson and Powell advocated for the legislation on the House Floor. Speaking not long after the surrender of Germany, Powell cited the service of Black soldiers in the war, linking their actions abroad to their expectations for postwar America. “They fought to make the world safe. They intend to have democracy here—now!” The bill passed the House later that day, but languished under a threat of a filibuster in the Senate for the remainder of the 79th Congress.Fair employment legislation encountered similar resistance in the 79th Congress. In January 1945, Dawson and Powell introduced bills designed to ban hiring discrimination and establish a permanent FEPC. Dawson argued that his bill would ensure the war industries had enough labor to maintain production and quicken the pace of victory. “It is our duty to establish this committee now and thereby lay the foundation for fulfillment of the highest ideals of our democracy,” he said. Powell, who served on the House Labor Committee during his first term, joined the majority in recommending the House pass a fair employment bill in February.The FEPC bill stalled in the Rules Committee in the summer of 1945. In July, Dawson and Powell spoke on the floor to defend the role of the FEPC and urged continued funding, but the House only provided the means to sustain the agency through June 30, 1946. The fragile bipartisan coalition that passed anti-poll tax legislation was not strong enough to force a vote on a fair employment bill. On July 1, 1946, the FEPC closed, and the 79th Congress adjourned on August 2, 1946.A month later, in a letter to the head of a veterans’ organization, President Harry S. Truman lamented that the nation was still plagued by discrimination even after “a long and bitter war against intolerance and hatred in other lands.” Truman called Congress’s failure to end the poll tax and promote fair employment “a shameful aftermath of a war in which so many of our young men died so that racism might be put down for all time.” Change was still a long way off. It would be nearly two decades before Congress banned hiring discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and eliminated the poll tax through the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution the same year.During the war, Dawson and Powell recognized the global significance of the struggle for civil and political rights. In 1942, their predecessor, Representative Mitchell, had warned that democracy could only survive if it “shed the garment of hypocrisy.” By championing the war for democracy at home and abroad, America’s Black Representatives used their position to turn a spotlight on racial injustice within the boundaries of the United States.Sources: Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (8 December 1941): 9519–9520, 9526, 9537; Congressional Record, Appendix, 77th Cong., 1st sess. (24 July 1941): A3574–A3575; Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (13 October 1942): 8120–8174; Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (6 May 1943): 4092–4093; Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (24 May 1943): 4807–4813; Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (25 May 1943): 4843–4889; Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 2nd sess. (26 May 1944): 5059–5060; Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (12 June 1945): 5984; Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (12 July 1945): 7479, 7485; Hearings before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on H.R. 7, Poll Taxes, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (1943): 1, 69–74; Hearings before the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Deficiencies, National War Agencies Appropriation Bill for 1945, Part 2, 78th Cong., 2nd sess. (1944): 606–607; Hearings before the House Committee on Labor, To Prohibit Discrimination in Employment, 78th Cong., 2nd sess. (1944): 22–23; House Committee on Labor, Prohibiting Discrimination in Employment Because of Race, Etc., 78th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 2016 (1944): 1–9; House Committee on Labor, The Fair Employment Practice Act, 79th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 187 (1945): 5; H.R. 2014, 77th Cong. (1941); H. Res. 472, 78th Cong. (1944); H.R. 3986, 78th Cong. (1944); H.R. 4004, 78th Cong. (1944); H.R. 4005, 78th Cong. (1944); H.R. 1744, 79th Cong. (1945); H.R. 1746, 79th Cong. (1945); H.R. 1747, 79th Cong. (1945); H.R. 1901, 79th Cong. (1945); H.R. 1925, 79th Cong. (1945); H.R. 2183, 79th Cong. (1945); H.R. 2708, 79th Cong. (1945); H.R. 700, 79th Cong. (1945); H.R. 1743, 79th Cong. (1945); Public law 77-712, 56 Stat. 753 (1942); Public Law 78-372, 58 Stat. 533 (1944); Public Law 79-156, 59 Stat. 473 (1945); Arkansas State Press (Little Rock), 11 August 1944; Atlanta Constitution, 27 May 1944, 13 June 1945, 1 August 1946; Baltimore Sun, 1 July 1946; Chicago Bee, 14 January 1945; Chicago Daily Tribune, 11 September 1942, 27 March 1946; Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 1945; New York Times, 25 May 1943, 26 May 1943, 30 May 1945, 13 June 1945, 5 September 1946; People’s Voice (New York, NY), 20 June 1942, 28 November 1942; Pittsburgh Courier, 6 March 1943; Washington Post, 7 April 1944, 13 June 1945; Matthew F. Delmont, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad (New York: Viking, 2022); Thomas A. Guglielmo, Divisions: A New History of Racism and Resistance in America’s World War II Military (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021); Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991); Kevin M. Kruse and Stephen Tuck, eds., Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008).