Today, General Motors is a vigorous supporter of affirmative action. But it took a world war and a presidential order to prompt GM to integrate its work force in the early 1940s.
In 1940, GM employees were almost all white men, said professor Thomas Sugrue, a sociologist and historian at the University of Pennsylvania. Just 3 percent of auto workers at Detroit car companies were black, he said.
But two big events in 1941 changed that imbalance:
-- In June, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order banning job bias at companies with government contracts, including GM. Sugrue said Roosevelt issued the order partially in response to a burgeoning civil rights movement in Northern states.
-- In December, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused America's entry into World War II. The departure of 16.1 million men for military service created a worker shortage at home.
As a result, GM and other automakers hired large numbers of workers from two groups they previously had shunned: African-Americans and women. By the time the war ended in 1945, Sugrue said, 15 percent of Detroit auto workers were black.
A job at an auto plant "provided a real rung on the economic ladder," Sugrue told Automotive News. "These were unionized jobs with decent pay, good benefits packages and a fair degree of security."
But even after black workers gained entry to auto plants, they were largely denied skilled-trades and white-collar jobs that paid better. By the early 1960s, groups such as the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality were picketing GM's headquarters in Detroit and its offices in New York, demanding action.
GM responded slowly, Sugrue said. "It wasn't as if all of a sudden the gates were opened and GM started hiring lots of black managers and engineers," he said.
But GM formed partnerships with other businesses to support job training programs. The company invested in community development programs that improved black neighborhoods.