The Volumes: The Papers of Clarence Mitchell, Jr., and the NAACP Washington Bureau
The broad social, political and international forces that the New Deal and World War II unleashed pushed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People beyond its long-time goal of opening an office as a “watch dog in the national capital” for monitoring hostile efforts against blacks in Congress. This it did in 1942. The papers of Clarence Mitchell, Jr., document these extensive activities, especially the legislative phase of the modern civil rights movement when the principal laws and programs that today bar discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, sex, and age were enacted. Other laws barring discrimination against homosexuals and the physically handicapped came from that template.
In effect, the papers show the extent to which legislative strategies currently being utilized by other social and political groups are carbon copies of those Mitchell developed.
The reports cover his years in Washington when, from 1942 to 1946, he was principal fair practice examiner, associate director, and then director of the Division of Field Operations at the Fair Employment Practice Committee; from 1946 to 1950 when he was NAACP labor secretary; and from 1950 to 1978 when he was director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and legislative chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
The FEPC was created under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which was issued on June 25, 1941. It was subsequently strengthened by Executive Order 9346, issued on May 27, 1943. It’s jurisdiction now covered federal government establishments, employers holding government contracts with anti-discrimination clauses, other employers who were engaged in production related activities or the utilization of war materials, and labor organizations whose activities affected those employers.
Volumes I and II, which comprise the FEPC reports, show the formative stages of the struggle for leadership from the Executive Branch to end employment discrimination in defense industries, a principal goal that defined the modern civil rights movement. The FEPC’s Final Report, which Mitchell helped prepare, noted:
The Committee’s wartime experience shows that in the majority of cases discriminatory practices by employers and unions can be reduced or eliminated by simple negotiations when the work of the negotiator is backed up by firm and explicit National policy.
FEPC’s unsolved cases show that the Executive authority is not enough to insure compliance in the face of stubborn opposition. Only legislative authority will insure compliance in the small number of cases in which employees or unions or both refuse after negotiation to abide by the National policy of nondiscrimination.
The papers show how Mitchell, building on that foundation, used the NAACP and the LCCR as vehicles for implementing that lesson by mobilizing in the White House and Congress leadership and support for passage of laws to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and to end other forms of discrimination. Brown overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal doctrine and reasserted the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The reports chronicle the arduous, repetitive and incremental nature of the long but revolutionary legislative struggle. They document the roles of the principal lawmakers and committees in Congress that were involved. Furthermore, they document the contributions of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter by the leadership they provided to the struggle.
Mitchell explained there were three basic areas in which groups such as the NAACP make contributions to legislative activities:
- Mobilizing public opinion and public support for broad national and international programs that would benefit the country.
- Building a more informed electorate by providing information on important issues and where members of Congress stood on them.
- Assisting members of Congress in promoting good legislation, defeating bad ones, and strengthening others with amendments or clarifying the intent of Congress.
The first phase of his reports is a window to the broader social ramifications of the war and the subsequent demobilization. The opportunity for blacks to seek equal employment opportunity was provided by critical labor shortages in the principal war production regions and by America’s defense of western democracy abroad. The FEPC struggle was waged simultaneously with the NAACP’s. From its overriding focus on lynching and other violence against blacks, the NAACP expanded its struggle to include a quest for a more efficient use of the nation’s manpower regardless of race in the war production industries. One of the NAACP’s primary goals was getting Congress to pass a permanent FEPC law.
The FEPC was a federal affirmative action program that operated under the direction of the Executive Branch. It was the first government agency in which blacks were all line officers. Previously, they were only racial advisers. Therein lay its historical promise.
At the same time, the NAACP struggled for laws to end the poll tax, discrimination in federal spending and public housing and by such agencies as the U.S. Employment Service, the Office of Price Administration, the Government Printing Office, the War Department, the United States Post Office, the Treasury Department, the Civil Service Commission, and the United States Public Health Service. The NAACP’s battles for an anti-lynching law and to end school desegregation reinforced those struggles.
Several problems, such as discrimination by federal agencies, remained paramount concerns until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Poll taxes were abolished by the Twenty-fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court in 1966, federal court decisions and by state law.
Volumes I and II
First Phase, 1942-1946: “World War II, the Foundation”
The FEPC’s jurisdiction for barring discrimination in employment based on race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, and against aliens covered any company holding a government contract or sub-contract. Mitchell’s reports provide a comprehensive overview of the FEPC in its most productive period. They reveal the systemic discrimination endemic to every aspect of war production, from major industrial centers in Philadelphia to Ohio and the West Coast.
Initially, a crippling problem that Mitchell sought to address was the widespread work stoppages by whites refusing to work beside blacks. Other problems included the strong resistance to training black workers and to hiring or upgrading African American women.
Mitchell’s second primary concern was discrimination in government agencies.
His third primary concern was discrimination by labor unions.
The reports show the extent to which Mitchell’s messianic attention to the details of discrimination would characterize his struggle for the passage of civil rights laws. From his experience with the FEPC he learned the critical role that the president and the federal government played in setting national policy.
Volumes III and IV
Second Phase, 1946-1950: “The Quest for Presidential Leadership”
The NAACP hired Mitchell to lead its struggle for a permanent FEPC. The reports show how he began that effort by first establishing a working alliance with organized labor. At the same time he began seeking President Truman’s leadership in the struggle to preserve and strengthen the FEPC idea. This he did by getting Truman to issue executive orders barring discrimination in government service, thus setting the pattern for future Presidents.
Additionally, they show Mitchell’s frustrations with state FEPCs that led him to abandon his efforts to get every state outside the South to create them and instead devote his energies to getting Congress to pass a comprehensive law barring discrimination in employment. That law became Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The papers show how Mitchell built on his FEPC experience by expanding and strengthening the NAACP’s early legislative programs.
Seeking the repeal of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act was central to Mitchell’s efforts to gain organized labor’s support for his work. At the same time, he intensified his earlier struggles against discrimination in labor unions. Mitchell sought organized labor’s support because he recognized its financial and political power, which he needed for his lobbying alliance.
At the same time, upon joining the NAACP’s staff, he strengthened and broadened the Washington Bureau’s other civil rights and social legislative programs.
Third Phase, 1950-1954: "Reasserting Citizenship Rights”
The reports show how, upon becoming director of the NAACP Washington Bureau in 1950, Mitchell consolidated its work, which had begun in 1942, and significantly expanded it.
One of the lessons Mitchell learned at the FEPC was the importance of organizational support. He thus provided significant help in organizing in January 1950 the Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization, which Roy Wilkins led as his brainchild. The mobilization marked the creation of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the coalition of civil rights, labor, religious, fraternal and civic organizations.(The papers show that the name “Leadership Conference” was coined by Walter White in 1948.) The mobilization demanded that Congress create a permanent FEPC, adopt the Powell Amendment barring discrimination in the use of federal funds, and enact other civil rights programs.
Other important NAACP priorities were its demands for Congress to extend Social Security coverage to migratory and domestic workers and to give the District of Columbia home rule.
The pivotal breakthrough in this period, nevertheless, was the Supreme Court’s declaration in Brown V. Board of Education that “separate but equal” was inherently unconstitutional, thus confirming both the FEPC’s and the NAACP’s position that segregation and discrimination were one. Previously, Mitchell had faced a stone wall in Congress. There southerners maintained that by practicing segregation they were not discriminating, thus there was no need for the civil rights laws he was seeking.
The papers document his use of the opinion to reinforce the struggle to get Congress to pass civil rights laws grounded in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and the commerce clause of the Constitution. The overriding challenge during the early years was overcoming the southerners’ stranglehold on Congress. In the Senate, southern chairmen controlled the 13 most important committees. Additionally, until 1957, senators had used the filibuster since the 1920s to block passage of every civil rights law. In the House, a southerner was speaker, while another controlled the Rules Committee. They thus made the lower body a civil rights graveyard.
Only by matching the southerners in their expertise on parliamentary procedures, amassing support in the House and Senate by creating bipartisan committees, mobilizing a political juggernaut through the NAACP and LCCR, and progressively strengthening presidential leadership was Mitchell able to win passage of the civil rights laws.
Korean War – Another key to Mitchell’s success in 1957 was his earlier use of the Korean War to intensify the struggle to end violence against black servicemen and segregation in the armed services. He thus ensured that gains obtained during World War II not only were not lost, but that they were strengthened. The papers document the extent to which he as well as Walter White, NAACP executive secretary, and Thurgood Marshall, NAACP special counsel, fought against discrimination in the military and paved the way for the historical advancement of blacks like Colin Powell.
Cold War – America’s need to counter Soviet propaganda throughout the Third World as the cold war intensified reinforced Mitchell’s struggle for civil rights laws. While doing so, he had to combat the nefarious loyalty investigations into communist infiltration. Mitchell’s special concerns were the false charges against NAACP leaders and other assertive blacks that they were fellow travelers to destroy them professionally and their businesses.
Volumes V and VI
Fourth Phase, 1955-1957: "Psychological Breakthrough"
Mitchell’s legislative strategy was based on a four-pillar political foundation: the nationwide NAACP branch structure, the LCCR, for which he was legislative chairman, bipartisan coalitions in the House and Senate that included powerful conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, and presidential leadership.
Passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first such measure since Reconstruction, or in 82 years, vindicated Mitchell’s conviction that Congress could be made to pass civil rights laws. The reports show that even though Congress made it a weak voting rights law by removing the broader provisions Mitchell had sought, it was major a psychological breakthrough that cleared the way for stronger, more effective measures.
Fifth Phase, 1958-1960: "Political Interregnum"
Until 1960, the NAACP was the civil rights movement. The reports show the extent to which the resistance from southerners in Congress to the passage of meaningful civil rights laws contributed to the launching of the demonstrations in the South with the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. Even though the demonstrations made the South the epicenter of the movement, Mitchell’s papers document the extent to which it was national.
Sixth Phase, 1961-1965: "Holy Fire"
Except for the Civil War, America had never experienced a period as tumultuous and portending as the modern civil rights movement.
The papers reveal the vindication of Mitchell’s belief that laws were more effective than executive orders in protecting civil rights. They show the extent to which early in the Kennedy administration those contesting views sparked fierce battles with Mitchell when the President, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and several others in the Executive Branch fiercely resisted the NAACP’s demands for civil rights laws.
Even within the NAACP, the debate pitted Mitchell against Roy Wilkins, executive director, and other top administrators who regarded executive orders as the most feasible course. Mitchell insisted that a law was permanent, whereas executive orders ended with each presidential term. The reports show how the Kennedy administration’s failure to respond effectively to the cacophony of demands strengthened Mitchell, especially in his struggle for a law to protect blacks and civil rights demonstrators from violence in the South. Events forced the administration to opt for legislation.
The drama in 1963 was heightened by the demonstrations in Birmingham, Kennedy’s enunciation that the struggle was a moral one and his sending of a civil rights bill to Congress, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi, the subsequent, stronger bill Kennedy submitted to Congress, the NAACP’s Legislative Strategy Conference in Washington, the March on Washington, and the assassination of the President.
Despite the national moral awakening, Mitchell had to battle the Kennedy administration over the scope of the bill. Their principal differences centered on Title VI, barring discrimination in federally funded programs, and especially Title VII barring discrimination in employment.
The papers document Mitchell’s intimate relationship with Mitchell and how the Texan’s presidency was a turning point for the movement. Under Johnson’s leadership, Congress passed the 1964 Omnibus Civil Rights Bill with provisions barring not only segregation in public accommodations, but also with Titles VI and VII.
Immediately following the Selma to Montgomery March protesting the wanton disfranchisement of blacks in the South, Mitchell assumed the successful leadership of the struggle in Congress for passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Seventh Phase, 1966-1968: "White Backlash"
Passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act was Mitchell’s crowning achievement. It further vindicated his faith in the legislative process. The reports underscore his belief that it made little sense to have a law if it was not enforced. The reports show how, with President Johnson’s support, he launched and developed this struggle for enforcement.
This process was especially complicated because of notable developments in this period. They were the urban riots, the racist presidential campaign of Governor George Wallace of Alabama in the North that aroused the anti-civil rights passions of the so-called silent majority, including blue-collar white workers, the birth of the "black power" movement among the young who rejected the flag ship NAACP’s integration goal, the bitter anti-Vietnam War protests, Martin Luther King's Poor People's campaign in Washington, the student movement, and the challenge within the Democratic Party by southern blacks for equality. The ultimate elements of the national crisis were the assassinations of King and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
For the NAACP, the combined effect of those developments was catastrophic. The reports show Mitchell’s deep frustration over the lack of gratitude that King and many other blacks showed not only President Johnson for his unprecedented contributions on civil rights, but also Hubert Humphrey for his faithful leadership in the Senate. So not only did the anti-war protest force Johnson not to seek reelection, but Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon by a squeaker in the 1968 presidential campaign, thus implanting in the national government the forces of reaction.
Eighth Phase, 1969-1978: "Conservative Countermovement"
The reports show the effects of the fragmented movement on the legislative program. They document the far-reaching ramifications of Mitchell’s battles against President Nixon and his Southern Strategy, notably, the President’s nominations of federal judges Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. The papers show the extent to which the attacks that Nixon began on the federal courts as a result of their strong roles in seeking to enforce Brown and providing other constitutional protections for blacks were the turning point in strengthening the conservative countermovement. They document the manner in which Nixon used the school busing issue to whiplash the NAACP and hand the civil rights movement its first significant defeat since the 1950s by getting Congress to bar the use of federal funds to implement Brown in this manner. They provide a comprehensive basis for assessing the roles of Congress and the Executive Branch in strengthening America’s constitutional foundations.
***The reports are being published by the The Papers of Clarence Mitchell, Jr., Project with the permission of the NAACP and the Clarence Mitchell, Jr.,family.