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“I got up and left. I left with one vow: They will never get me. I said to myself, ‘They don’t deserve you.’ When they slapped me in the face like that, that was it, it was over.” – John Hope Franklin, PhD (from Harvard), on attempting to enroll in the armed forces to serve an office position and being denied because of his race
World War II had a similar impact to workers’ rights as the first one had had. The rights of people of color were expanded to meet the needs of a country at war – since many people were overseas serving in the armed forces, the people of color who had remained at home were permitted the privilege of menial, low-paying jobs.
Mobile, Alabama, was a major hub of these expansions. Approximately 14,000 housing units were built for white workers and 1,000 for people of color. This was to accommodate the needs of the government contracted shipyard Alabama Dry Dock and Ship Building Company, or ADDSCO for short.
ADDSCO had grown from a one-thousand worker operation to employing over 30,000 individuals because of wartime needs – white, Black, man, woman. Seven thousand people of color were employed by ADDSCO, none of whom were in skilled positions. The economy demanded equality, and some small amount was granted.
Tensions were gradually increasing throughout the city of Mobile. Segregation was in full force at this time, and this inequality caused a great deal of strife as people worked alongside one another. Unfair treatment by law enforcement continued to heighten these tensions, as a white bus driver was arrested for the murder of a Black soldier in uniform.
The bus driver was permitted to sleep on the sheriff’s cot rather than being forced to sleep in a cell. This injustice was felt in the Black community. It took something much smaller that next year to cause a riot of thousands.
Six months after it was mandated by the federal government, ADDSCO promoted 12 Black welding apprentices to the position of welder on May 24, 1943. This was the first time people of color had been permitted a skilled position in this company. They were all put on the midnight shift. By the time dawn broke, multiple groups of irate white workers had gathered in the shipyard. From AL.com:
“It took little or no provocation, according to an editorial from ‘Mobile Press-Register’ publisher Ralph Chandler, for groups of white men and women to begin to attack black employees with sticks, rocks and pieces of steel. Two black men were thrown into the Mobile River; others jumped in to escape more serious injury. At the height of the riot, 4,000 people were believed to be brawling, and military units were called to break up the fighting. Amazingly, no one was killed. At least 50 were hurt; the most seriously injured was a white man who had tried to help a black man who was being beaten.”
The Black workers at ADDSCO had immediately opted to refuse entering the shipyard until their safety was guaranteed. In accordance to compromises struck among ADDSCO leadership, local politicians and the NAACP, the shipyards were segregated.
People of color were permitted to work positions that were previously inaccessible – just not in the presence of white people. They were permitted transportation to work and a separate ferry to the ship for their protection.
Violence against Black people continued in the community, and as soldiers continued to return from the war the racial equalities that had been granted continued to be rolled back. Mistreatment of Black workers would continue in the shipyards up until the late 1960s, even though federal defense contractors were not supposed to discriminate based on race.
There were a solid 20 years of evidence showing that the work of these two groups of people was equal – unfortunately this was not enough to achieve labor equality until it was mandated by law.