- The Color of Money:Race and Fair Employment in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, 1945–1955
On a hot and humid August afternoon in 1949, a group of nearly one hundred picketers marched slowly for an hour in front of the White House. Among the marchers was singer and activist Paul Robeson, holding aloft a sign reading: “Mr. Truman Take Jim Crow Off the American Dollar.” Another placard asked Truman to “enforce” the “FEPC” and still another called on “Mr. Snyder,” the secretary of the treasury, to “give negro vets a chance.” Although one newspaper described it as an “uneventful demonstration,” organized by a “Citizens’ Committee to End Discrimination at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing,” the protest punctuated a summer of intense organizing on behalf of federal black workers at the bureau.1 Coming less than a year after Republican Thomas Dewey, race liberal Henry Wallace, and segregationist Strom Thurmond unsuccessfully sought to defeat Harry S. Truman for the presidency—an election in which civil and labor rights played prominent roles—the protests indicated the continued intensity of progressive politics and the ongoing grassroots collaboration between leftists and liberals on civil rights. Despite the national schism between the two wings as well as the threat of a southern defection from the Democratic Party, African American activists targeting [End Page 221] discrimination in the federal government pressed ahead with their efforts in the postwar era, focusing a good deal of attention on long-standing race discrimination among production workers at the Department of Treasury.
Bowing to publicity and mounting pressure, the Truman administration eventually gave black workers the opportunity to tell their story in front of the Fair Employment Board (FEB). Established through executive order in July 1948 by Harry S. Truman to ensure workplace equity in federal agencies, the FEB wrestled with the bureau case from the board’s founding until its demise in 1955.2 The tortured narrative of the bureau case tells two stories about fair employment policies. First, it reveals much about the government’s inability to effect these policies in its own agencies. The executive order establishing the board emerged from the recommendations of President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights as outlined in its report, “To Secure These Rights” (1947), and it accompanied Truman’s order to ensure equal treatment in the military. However, unlike the military with its cleaner lines of authority, civilian departments represented a decentralized or horizontal structure, as historian William Novak described it, thus making it more difficult to address racist employment patterns throughout the bureaucracy.3
Second, the case demonstrates an ongoing struggle by civil rights activists, from the center and left, to push government policy beyond a colorblind model of fair employment. This early effort by individuals, and eventually the FEB, to make affirmative action and systemic racism legally actionable concepts gives us a sense of the opportunities and constraints that fair employment policy advocates faced at the federal level during a critical phase in the long civil rights movement. According to Timothy Thurber, the operation of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Committee on Government Contracts (PCGC), which tried to root out discrimination among federal contractors, demonstrated how fair employment policy “emerged more often as a result of fighting among fragmented bureaucratic entities, the priorities of agency officials, and the [committee’s] limited capacity.”4 In this instance, however, the bureau fight reveals the significant policy influence of a fluid left-liberal fair employment coalition that braved Cold War red-baiting to encourage government administrators to see the obstacles put in the path of black workers by agency officials and a white craft union determined to preserve control over access to skilled jobs.5 This complex case, the largest and most publicized one handled by the FEB, therefore calls into question not only the insular nature of fair employment policy making but also the narrative of [End Page 222] decline that many historians apply to left-liberal politics in the late 1940s, which they attribute in large measure to anticommunist attacks.6
Significantly, black women played a leading role in pushing this case forward and they strove to highlight injustice experienced by groups, rather...