UAW and NAACP in the 1940’s

The Ties that Bind


During the Great Depression of the 1930’s the NAACP focused its advocacy, legal work, and organizing on economic justice. Into the 1940’s, the NAACP continued its economic justice work and began to grow its work in segregation and housing.  Around the same time, the UAW was looking to grow its membership, and with thattherefore power and influence over the working conditions and wages in auto manufacturing plants.

The UAW Needs Black Workers

Between 1937 and 1941, the UAW held an organizing drive to address poor working conditions, including long hours, extreme temperatures, and improper safety measures. In order to effectively organize and use tactics like the strike, the UAW needed as many members as possible.  However, they faced a challenge recruiting Black workers whose challenges also included racial discrimination.  When the UAW would strike, the Black employees and leaders would remain polarized.  Black employees who faced racial hiring discrimination, wanted to keep their jobs, unsure of their ability to get another.  Chrysler and Ford would exploit the polarization, using Black strikebreakers to defeat the union by filling the positions white workers had vacated.  However, Black workers also faced the worst conditions, for example at Ford Motor Company.  Ford, which did recruit from the Black community, would hire and promote white women and men ahead of Black men, and place Black workers in the most dangerous jobs. Even with these facts, it was difficult to get Black workers involved in the sit-down strikes and the UAW, because Black workers didn’t trust that unions would impact their poor working conditions.  So the union turned its attention to first attracting Black workers to Ford in hopes they could then be persuaded to join the UAW.  They hired Black organizers to create propaganda to help destroy the negative view of Ford held by Black employees.  These Black organizers wrote literature placing Ford in a positive light.  

The NAACP Needs More White Allies

World War II (1939-1945) increased work opportunities in manufacturing and a need for housing, especially for Black Americans.  The job opportunities attracted new Black residents and Black war workers were also in need of housing.  As areas like downtown’s Black Bottom, downtown became increasingly overcrowded, the NAACP and others worked to establish new housing for Black Detroiters. In order to accomplish this, allies were essential.  The UAW’s existing membership and influence facilitated work with Detroit’s local government bodies such as the Detroit Housing Commission. One particularly vocal Black UAW member and minister, Horace White (later State Representative) helped to connect the UAW and NAACP’s respective memberships toward the common goal. Through this alliance, federal dollars were procured to develop the Sojourner Truth Housing Project.  The housing was slotted for development in an east side neighborhood at the corner of Nevada and Fenelon (near E. 7 Mile and Ryan). 

Conflict Cements a Relationship

That neighborhood’s white residents were angry about the development and the migration of Black residents into their neighborhood.  And the anger of those white residents evolved into the 1942 Sojourner Truth Housing riot.   On February 8, 1942 when Black residents attempted to move into their newly developed homes (for which they had already been paying rent), white supremacists attacked them and sparked a riot of white residents demonstrating and enacting violence throughout the day.

During the riot, the UAW maintained its position alongside the NAACP supporting the Black residents of Sojourner Truth.  Followingand following this riot, the UAW emerged as one of the most influential forces in Detroit’s civil right’s efforts, having taken an outspoken position on behalf of Black residents, further consolidating and creating an alliance with emerging Black leaders.  Thus, the relationship between the UAW and the Black community was solidified.

Two months later, Black residents were escorted by the Michigan National Guard into their new homes.

“The UAW had been at the forefront of the struggle for economic and social change that Detroit Blacks had found [them] to be an indispensable ally.”

– Eric Arnesen, Professor of Modern American Labor History 

UAW also benefited further from its relationship with the NAACP as the latter organization began to work on policy and legal changes.  The UAW had no political power to change laws; its power was to resolve grievances in the job market, but the size of its membership made it an influential voice.  With their overlapping interests in economic justice, the outcomes of the NAACP’s legal efforts were often beneficial to the UAW.  The NAACP and other civic organizations found the UAW to be the most important non-Black organization willing to take a rigorous public stand on behalf of the Black community.  The strengths and needs of these two organizations, despite their sometimes varying priorities and values, established a complementary relationship for the future.

The Government Connection


  1. What were the unique circumstances that created an opportunity for a partnership between the NAACP and UAW?
  2. Why was it important for organizations with different leadership and different priorities to work together?