THE POST-WAR DECADE, 1945–1955
On September 2, 1945, World War II came to an end, but the dream that the war would bring a permanent improvement in the economic status of the black workers had ended even before that. As victory approached, war industries began cutbacks in production, and Afro-Americans, being the most recent newcomers to many industries, were the first to lose their jobs. When the FEPC ended in 1946, the employment of black workers on equal terms with whites ceased to receive even “lip service” from the federal government. What gains had been made occurred during the war, and when the guns were silenced retrogression had already begun.
Nor did job opportunities for blacks develop either in number or in status with the increase in war production after armed forces were sent to Korea in 1950. Many blacks who had worked in defense plants during World War II were bypassed in favor of new white recruits. The plight of black workers was exacerbated by a technological revolution which was eliminating menial and unskilled jobs in industry at the very time that mechanization in southern agriculture was driving blacks off the land and into the cities. Thus, as the demand of basic industries for unskilled labor was declining, the influx of rural blacks into the industrial centers was increasing.
It came as no surprise to black workers and community leaders alike that the AFL’s racist posture persisted after World War II. But they were seriously disappointed that the CIO seemed to lose interest in the plight of black workers during the postwar period. By 1950, there was no organization concerned specifically with the rights of black workers. To fill this void 900 delegates met in Chicago in June, 1950, at the National Labor Conference for Negro Rights. The conference formed a committee which would lay the groundwork for establishing a permanent organization. On October 27, 1951, a convention was held in Cincinnati, Ohio, to found the National Negro Labor Council. The convention adopted a Statement of Principles and a Program of Action, based on the premise that blacks could attain first-class citizenship only if black workers organized to fight for full economic opportunity. The NNLC set two basic tasks for itself: to break the pattern of job discrimination against blacks in industry, and to eliminate racism in the unions. However, 1951 was the height of the anti-Communist hysteria, and the NNLC was branded subversive by the House Un-American Activities Committee. NNLC leaders were hounded by the Committee, and by the Subversive Activities Control Board. Confronted with defense costs of $100,000, the NNLC’s leaders voted to dissolve the organization.
One of the staunchest supporters of the NNLC, and unionism among blacks generally, was Paul Robeson (1898–1976). The son of a former slave, Robeson graduated from Rutgers University with Phi Beta Kappa honors, and received a law degree from Columbia, before distinguishing himself internationally as an actor and baritone. A trip to the Soviet Union early in his career was the beginning of a life–long attachment to the USSR, which awarded him the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952. After World War II, Robeson took a firm and vocal stand against oppression throughout the world, particularly against European colonization in Africa, and segregation in the United States. As editor of Freedom, a black monthly published in Harlem, Robeson attacked the anti-Communist witchhunting of the post-war era, and called for a return of peaceful relations with the socialist nations of the world. Because of this position, Robeson was harassed by the U.S. government, which also lifted his passport, and thereafter was deprived of earning a living as an artist. The last years of his life were spent in self-imposed seclusion.
Robeson was an articulate spokesman for the view that workers themselves must save the labor movement. By 1954–1955, Robeson could point to the movement to merge the AFL and the CIO into one organization as evidence that the CIO had become as conservative as the AFL.