"Let Economic Equality Take Care of Itself": The NAACP, Labor Litigation, and the Making of Civil Rights in the 1940s


During World War II, the lawyers of the NAACP considered the problem of discrimination in employment as one of the two most pressing problems (along with voting) facing African Americans. In a departure from past practice, they pursued the cases of African American workers vigorously in state and federal courts and before state and federal administrative agencies. These cases offered the NAACP lawyers opportunities to facilitate the growth of the Association, materially assist African American workers, and develop legal doctrine. After the war ended, however, the postwar political and economic climate was less favorable to such cases, and the NAACP's institutional plans conflicted with the continued pursuit of labor cases. Moreover, the kinds of doctrinal opportunities labor cases offered diverged from the NAACP lawyers' increasingly single-minded pursuit of desegregation in education. By the time the NAACP lawyers embarked on the path that would ultimately lead them to victory in Brown v. Board of Education, labor cases, and the particular problems of working African Americans, had disappeared from their legal agenda. That loss has had fundamental implications for the civil rights they succeeded in instantiating in constitutional law, and for the civil rights we know as our own today.

About the Author

Associate Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law. J.D., Yale Law School, M.A., Ph.D., Princeton University, A.B., Harvard University.

By uclalaw