Racism Against African-Americans in World War II

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

World War II meant many things for African Americans. Changes would occur during and after the war that still has lasting effects for African Americans, and the U.S. In this lesson, we will discuss the various forms of racism African American soldiers faced during WWII.

July 26, 1948

On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces of the United States of America. African Americans have fought in every war this country has ever waged against tyranny, going back to the Revolutionary War, but their service did not result in the blessings of liberty that African Americans have always sought, since arriving in this land in 1619.

In this lesson, we will discuss the impact of WWII on African Americans, and on the U.S. itself.

Why We Fight

African Americans had mixed attitudes towards serving in WWII. Up to that point, African Americans had endured the indignity of involuntary servitude and a chattel form of existence for 246 years.

They had also risen above the heartbreak of false hopes they had during Reconstruction, whilst they watched what little gains they had been granted, evaporate through the practice of segregation.

African Americans and the organizations that advocated for them, supported their nation as Americans, but some also felt that giving their lives for a nation that continued to deny them certain freedoms was hypocrisy at its best.

African American Soldiers WWII
African American Soldiers


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) did its best to support the war effort in the U.S.

In 1942, the NAACP established a Washington Bureau to advocate for legislation that directly involved in policies regarding African American soldiers and to try to effect policies that would benefit these soldiers. That same year, the NAACP also tried to start a campaign to encourage African Americans to enlist in the military and participate in the defeat of fascism and Nazism abroad.


As the NAACP worked with the federal government in support of the war, they also held mixed feelings. They worked alongside labor unions to improve the treatment of African American laborers and soldiers. A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the Sleeping Car Porters, a labor union for African Americans who worked in train dining and sleeping cars, proposed a March on Washington in 1941. The march's goal was to force President Roosevelt to integrate the many industries that supported the war.

A. Phillip Randolph

Randolph gave Roosevelt an ultimatum to integrate the industries who received federal contracts for the war, or thousands of African Americans would descend on D.C. in protest.

In those days, the nation's capital was still segregated, and Roosevelt feared a race riot would ensue if the march took place. Roosevelt conceded to Randolph and the NAACP's demands with Executive Order 8802, which desegregated defense industry and government bureaucracies.

There were other African American intellectuals, like Langston Hughes, who was vehemently against African American service in WWII. In his poem, 'Beaumont to Detroit,' Hughes explained African Americans were not free at home, so they couldn't in good conscience fight for America's freedom abroad. Langston wrote:

'You tell me that Hitler

Is a mighty bad man.

I guess he took lessons

From the Ku Klux Klan.

You tell me Musollini's

Got an evil heart.

Well, it mus-a been in Beaumont

That he had his start--'

The Land of the Free

The attitudes that the U.S. had long held regarding African Americans were prevalently displayed in the ways in which African American soldiers were treated during WWII.


African American soldiers in their uniforms were a source of pride, but in the South, the mere sight of an African American soldier in uniform (especially if that uniform bore the emblems of high rank) was a threat.

Civil rights leader Hosea Williams described his treatment during WWII rather succinctly, ''I had fought in WWII, and I once was captured by the German army, and I want to tell you the Germans were never as inhumane as the state troopers of Alabama. ''

From 1877 through 1950, the Equal Justice Initiative reports that there were 4,075 recorded lynchings in the U.S. The African American soldier was at the most risk of ''dying at the hands of persons unknown'' (the legal term for lynching).

The Inferior

In order to enslave a people for centuries necessitates the need to remove them from their place among humankind. The African slave was seen not only as non-human but also as inferior, and in need of subjugation in order to survive.

These attitudes about slaves had been engrained in the minds of African Americans and their white counterparts. By 1941, these attitudes had not subsided, and they played an important part in the way African American soldiers were treated by their nation.

African American soldiers during WWII were constantly denied the chance to make rank during the war; they perceived as incompetent and incapable of leading men into battle due to cowardice. African Americans were also denied the chance to serve in positions, like that of pilots, because they were seen as unqualified and unintelligent.

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