Recruits in the first African-American Marine Corps trained at Montford Point, eventually ending the military’s longstanding policy of racial segregation.
The year was 1941. The United States was preparing to enter World War II, and it needed recruits. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a problem. Hiring discrimination based on race was still the norm in the defense industry, but civil rights leaders were organizing for change. A. Philip Randolph—who had organized and led the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—was planning a march on Washington to pressure Roosevelt to open up the defense industry to blacks. But the president resisted. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, among other officers, was vehemently opposed. As the march grew closer—and under pressure from his wife Eleanor—Roosevelt conceded. On June 25, 1941, just a week before the march was set to take place, the president signed Executive Order 8802, prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry or in government. At last, all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces were open to African Americans.
“There is evidence,” Executive Order 8802 states, “that available and needed workers have been barred from employment in industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color, or national origin, to the detriment of workers’ morale and of national unity.” In other words, the order recognized a need to prevent discrimination, but made no mention of ending the military’s standing policies of segregation.