Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership
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.
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.
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).
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.
Begrudgingly, the Tuskegee Airmen were allowed to train as pilots during WWII. They began their training in July 1941, but it wasn't until the Sicily Invasion of 1943 that they got the respect they deserved for their bomber coverage under heavy fire.
Not only were African American soldiers forced to serve in segregated regiments, they also were forced to serve as janitors and cooks unable to fight for their country. When African American newspapers reported on the mistreatment soldiers received, they were accused of war crimes.
The African American newspapers of the day were expected to tow the patriotic line; to convince African Americans that their service was the epitome of loyalty and patriotism. When African American newspapers began to speak out against the war, their circulation on military bases was halted, newspapers were burned, and often times were taken away from the young 'newsboys' who sold them outside military bases.
Post War Advances
The following advances of African Americans post-WWII were due to the bravery they displayed, and the sacrifices they made, during the World War II.
African Americans, during the Great Migration which had started during the war, moved out of the South seeking employment in war industries in the Mid-West, the West, and the Northeast. These African American families entered the working middle-class, and their children would later begin the Civil Rights Movement.
The desegregation of the military in 1948, also spoke to the dreams of African Americans. If the federal government could integrate the military, then why not lunch counters and public schools as well? In the 1950s, African Americans began petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court in various cases that knocked segregation into the past.
However, legalized segregation would continue in the U.S. until 1965.
Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, ended segregation in war industries, leading to the Great Migration and more economic opportunity. Truman's Executive Order 9981 integrated the armed forces in the U.S.
These gains did not end the racism and mistreatment African Americans endured, nor repay the service African Americans had always given to the U.S. in its wars, including WWII.
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