Hotspots in a Cold War: The Naacp's Postwar Labor Constitutionalism, 1948-1964

Law & History Review, Vol. 26, pp. 327-377, Summer 2008

51 Pages Posted: 13 Oct 2005 Last revised: 1 Jun 2010

See all articles by Sophia Z. Lee

Sophia Z. Lee

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: May 1, 2008


“Hotspots in a Cold War” uses legal scholars’ recent work on the life of the Constitution outside of the courts to make visible the NAACP’s postwar labor litigation. Begun during the civil rights foment of World War II, but also continued during the political chill of the Cold War, the national NAACP office sustained a broad and vigorous labor campaign on behalf of, at the behest of, and, at times, in conflict with its members and branches. The NAACP’s campaign varied according to the racial practices of particular unions and industries and evolved as economic and political realities changed over time. Whether collaborating with the CIO’s Oil Workers International Union to challenge discrimination in the Gulf Coast oil industry or intervening in representation battles between the racially exclusive Seafarers’ International Union and the racially progressive but Communist affiliated National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards, the NAACP not only fought black workers’ exclusion from skilled jobs and training, but also for their right to join unions and have a collective voice in their workplaces.

The NAACP’s labor cases question the boundary legal history traditionally draws between law and politics and revises the narrative of postwar civil rights. Blending constitutional and administrative law, grass-roots activism and impact litigation, this history does not fit neatly into the category of law or politics; indeed, it cannot be told without traversing this disciplinary, organizational, and archival distinction. Once recovered, however, these cases, which sought to breach the Constitution’s state action barrier so as to reach the ostensibly private workplace, refocus civil rights legal historiography from the battle over “separate but equal” to the period’s contentious debates over the proper location and continuing viability of the state-action doctrine’s public-private divide. Recovering these cases extends the better known “civil rights unionism” of the 1930s and 1940s past the CIO’s anti-Communist purges. Doing so also challenges postwar labor historians’ tendency to depict rights-based legal action as undermining rather than facilitating working-class collective action. Finally, the NAACP’s workplace campaign and its collaboration with local branches that were still very much in the control of working-class members complicates the dominant account of the NAACP as having taken a conservative Cold War turn, foregoing labor issues and returning local leadership to a cautious and conservative middle-class.

In July of 1964, after over twenty years of litigation, the NAACP finally won its claim that black workers had a constitutional right to join unions and access decent jobs, ¬not in the Supreme Court but in front of the National Labor Relations Board. Long since forgotten, the NLRB’s unpretentious and technical Hughes Tool decision shared the front page of the New York Times with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Commentators noted its “sweeping” reach and Robert L. Carter, the NAACP’s general counsel, deemed the Board’s ruling “almost revolutionary.” It was an apt description of this long fought but soon displaced and co-opted chapter in African Americans’ legal and labor struggles.

Keywords: Legal History, Labor & Employment Law, Constitutional Law, NLRB, NAACP, Civil Rights, Administrative Law, Herbert Hill, Robert L. Carter, President's Committee on Government Contracts, Cold War,

Suggested Citation

Lee, Sophia Z., Hotspots in a Cold War: The Naacp's Postwar Labor Constitutionalism, 1948-1964 (May 1, 2008). Law & History Review, Vol. 26, pp. 327-377, Summer 2008. Available at SSRN:

Sophia Z. Lee (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

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