On this dayJul 23, 1942

Alabama Refuses to Aid in War Effort if It Means Any Form of Racial Integration

On July 23, 1942, Governor Frank M. Dixon of Alabama refused to sign a contract that would help produce 1.7 million yards of cloth to assist the U.S. in World War II efforts, fearing that the nondiscrimination clause in the contract could require integration and choosing instead to uphold segregated workforces as a “basic necessity.”

The involvement of the U.S. in World War II in 1941 spurred a reliance on government agencies to help finance and increase production of defense supplies. The Defense Supplies Corporation was established to help finance critical wartime supplies. When a non-discrimination clause was introduced into a contract with the Defense Supplies Corporation mandating that “the seller, in performing the work required by this contract, shall not discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color or national origin,” white politicians throughout the South launched a massive campaign to resist the erosion of segregated working conditions—even if it meant hindering U.S. defense efforts. 

Relying primarily on the labor of incarcerated people at Alabama cotton mills, the Defense Supplies Corporation’s contract with Alabama was meant to produce 1.7 million yards of cloth. However, on July 23, 1942, in a letter to the New York agent of the corporation, Governor Dixon explained his refusal to sign this contract, arguing that “demand[s] that Negroes be put in positions of responsibility” at cotton mills in Alabama were unacceptable. 

Instead, Governor Dixon praised Jim Crow practices throughout the state of Alabama “under which the white and Negro races have lived in peace together in the South since Reconstruction.” In aligning himself with other Southern white politicians, Governor Dixon attested that the “the present emergency [World War II] should not be used as a pretext to bring about the abolition of the color lines in the South.” So fearful of the “intermingling” of Black and white workers, Governor Dixon explicitly praised “white supremacy,” and stated that “he will not permit the employees of the state to be placed in a position where they must abandon the principle of segregation.”

Governor Dixon was not alone in his decision to maintain segregation over assisting the U.S. in defense production. Earlier that week, an attorney named Horace Wilkerson in Birmingham made a public speech calling upon white people in Alabama to join in resisting integration under any circumstance. In stating that “a herculean effort is being made to break down and destroy segregation,” Wilkerson advocated for the establishment of a “league to maintain white supremacy.” Throughout the summer and fall of 1942, thousands of white businessmen and workers supported the Governor's decision to uphold segregation instead of signing the contract that would assist World War II efforts. Forty-two newspaper editorials were published in support of Governor Dixon’s decision. Though pressure for a skilled labor force eventually compelled Governor Dixon to rescind his refusal and permit the training and employment of Black people in defense industries in Alabama by the fall of 1942, he did so only with the understanding and agreement that Black workers must be segregated from white workers.

Two years later, when an executive order ended segregation at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, former Governor Dixon wrote to the current governor, Chauncey Sparks: “It is heartbreaking thing for those of us in the South who realize what the destruction of segregation would mean … to have all our plans wrecked by the type of very dangerous thinking which produced this order.” Urging Governor Sparks to continue to stand against integration for “our people,” Dixon remained committed to maintaining white supremacy even after his term as governor.

To learn more about the campaign of massive resistance to integration that white politicians and leaders, with popular support from millions in the white community, waged against calls for racial equality, read EJI's report, Segregation in America

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