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April 17, 1943
Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

April 17, 1943

Guest post by Lillian G. Page, MA student in history at the University of Memphis.

In April 1943, the Bechtel-McCone-Parsons airplane modification plant in Birmingham, Alabama, was nearly constructed and making plans to hire 22,000 workers to support the World War II buildup of industry. However, despite this need for a large number of workers, the plant had barely begun training African Americans. They taught fewer than 100, all of whom were men. As a result, the local Citizens’ Committee for Jobs and Job-Training held a mass meeting at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church to call for the company to “discontinue its policy of refusing to hire Negro women in the local plant, and urged an increase in the number of Negro men employed.”

1,300 African Americans attended the meeting, 90 percent of whom were women. These women would have been interested in war jobs for two primary reasons:  the government’s propaganda calling for women to take war jobs and a desire to take better jobs than those offered to them in the prewar period such as domestic work. Prominent members of the local white community also attended the meeting to show their support for the proposal to open jobs in the plant to black women and more black men.

The Citizens’ Committee had attempted to open a dialogue with the company before calling for the meeting, but the Bechtel-McCone-Parsons plant refused to start offering African-American women positions in its training courses.

Dr. James E. Jackson, secretary of the Citizens’ Committee and the keynote speaker, offered a persuasive argument, “If we are to achieve a speedy victory in this war and reduce to a minimum the cost in lives, then we must now, immediately, without further delay, make full use of all available resources and manpower, in this favorable moment for taking the offensive in a second front against the Axis.” For the plant to refuse to hire black women was to actively hinder the war effort.

Bechtel-McCone-Parsons’ refusal to employ African-American women at their plant was common practice during the World War II era, especially given the plant’s location in the south. Many wartime industries were reluctant to hire black women for a variety of reasons that ranged from white women’s unwillingness to share bathrooms with African-American women to stereotypical beliefs about African-American women being lazy workers. Regionally speaking, northern plants tended to be more open to hiring black women than southern ones.

All over the country, though, African-American communities came together to protest unequal hiring practices in war industries. Mass meetings like this one held in Birmingham were among the most visible forms of protest, together with strikes. 

These Birmingham African Americans were actively fighting for their “Double V,” “Victory Abroad and Victory at Home,” by protesting inequality in war work they were told was essential but then denied the opportunity to participate in.