During World War II, African Americans complained that discrimination at home could not be squared with the fight against intolerance overseas. President Roosevelt responded to this complaint by issuing an executive order in June 1941 directing that blacks be accepted into job-training programs in defense plants, forbidding discrimination by defense contractors and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). But with southerners firmly in control of major congressional committees, the president could go no further; moreover, with a war on, civil rights was a low priority.
Harry Truman, Roosevelt's successor, found himself beset by a multitude of problems after the war, and put up no protest when Congress killed the wartime agency. Later on, however, he asked Congress to create a permanent FEPC, and in December 1946, he appointed a distinguished panel to serve as the President's Commission on Civil Rights, which would recommend "more adequate means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States."
The Commission issued its report, "To Secure These Rights," in October 1947, and it defined the nation's civil rights agenda for the next generation. The Commission noted the many restrictions on blacks, and urged that each person, regardless of race, color or national origin, should have access to equal opportunity in securing education, decent housing and jobs. Among its proposals, the Commission suggested anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws, a permanent FEPC, and strengthening the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.
In a courageous act, Harry Truman sent a special message to Congress on February 2, 1948, calling for prompt implementation of the Commission's recommendations. Southerners immediately threatened a filibuster, so Truman, unable to secure action from the Congress, moved ahead using his executive authority. Among other things, he bolstered the civil rights division, appointed the first black judge to the federal bench, named several other blacks to high-ranking administration positions, and most important, on July 26, 1948, he issued the following executive order abolishing segregation in the armed forces and ordering full integration of all the services.
For further reading: Richard Dalfiume, Desegregation in the U.S. Armed Forces (1953); Donald R. McCoy and Richard T. Ruetten, Quest and Response: Minority Rights in the Truman Administration (1973); and William C. Berman, The Politics of Civil Rights in the Truman Administration (1970).
Establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services
Whereas it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense:
Now therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, and as Commander in Chief of the armed services, it is hereby ordered as follows:
Harry S. Truman
Source: Fed. Register 13 (1948): 4313.