African Americans, World War II

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As the Nazis began to dominate the European continent, African Americans continued to grapple with the realities of life in a racist society. Jim Crow segregation and its quiet cousin, de facto segregation, ruled the land. Violence undergirded this social structure and prevented blacks from gaining some measure of parity with whites. World War II gave blacks an opportunity to reinvigorate the struggle against discrimination and, coupled with other social and political developments, to change a nation.

the quest for equality

The Great Migration of blacks, during the World War I era, from the South to the North and Midwest began a national demographic transformation. The process resumed with vigor in the 1940s as black Southerners flocked to the industrial centers of the North, Midwest, and far West. The build-up for war created new opportunities for blacks in expanding industries, where blacks earned higher wages than in farming or domestic service.

As America prepared for war, longtime labor organizer A. Phillip Randolph joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League to pressure the White House to desegregate the military and defense industries. After an unsuccessful meeting with the president, Randolph and other grassroots activists planned a protest against racial discrimination for June 1941 to be held at the Lincoln Memorial. To avoid the embarrassment of having 10,000 or more blacks demonstrating in the nation's capital for a chance to work and fight for their country, Roosevelt relented and signed Executive Order 8802. Executive Order 8802 outlawed racially discriminatory hiring practices in the defense industries and created the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to enforce the edict. Bolstered by this victory, most blacks threw their unqualified support to the president, thereby prompting the shift of black voters from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Despite this triumph, the stark realities of racial hostility did not fade. Thus, black leaders sounded the clarion call of the "Double V" campaign: war abroad against fascism and war at home against racism. The connection between the two battles is best exemplified by the fate of the black soldier.

military service

In spite of their heroic performances in World War I, which had been widely recognized in Europe, black soldiers were pariahs in the United States. Whites remained wedded to the presumption of black inferiority, disloyalty, and cowardice. Because of rampant discrimination, black leaders sought proportional representation of blacks in the Army's combat units. President Roosevelt and others urged the Army to adopt a quota system so that the numbers of black soldiers would be representative of their proportion in the general population. Following the 1940 Selective Service Act, the enlisted strength of the Army usually was 10 percent black. By September 1944, the 701,678 black troops in the Army comprised 8.7 percent of the total. These gains aside, black troops found themselves shunted to the bottom of the military's hierarchy, and the armed services continued their practice of segregating whites and blacks.

Military officials forced black soldiers into segregated service units. Military policy did not allow blacks into combat units until 1944, thus accounting for the fact that little more than 50,000 black troops engaged the enemy in combat. Blacks served courageously in every theater of action, yet routinely the military failed to honor their bravery.

For example, Dorie Miller, one of the heroes of Pearl Harbor, shot down at least two Japanese fighter planes despite the Navy's prohibition against combat training for black sailors. The Navy ignored Miller's courage until the black-owned media trumpeted the community's outrage. On May 27, 1942, Miller received the Navy Cross but perished just eighteen months later when a Japanese submarine sank his ship, the USS Liscome Bay. Sadly, Miller ended his career as it began: as a messman.

The military's unwillingness to recognize the valor of, or simply to protect, black soldiers exacerbated these inequities.

By the end of World War II, 294 Medals of Honor had been bestowed on America's soldiers, yet none had been awarded to a black soldier. Beginning in 1993, research by a team organized at Shaw University—a historically black university in Raleigh, North Carolina—found a pattern of discrimination in the distribution of the Medal of Honor and recommended that the disparity be rectified. One such recipient of the award was Sergeant Edward Carter. Carter, who was demoted in order to serve in a combat unit, single-handedly wiped out a German unit and captured two prisoners while suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds across his body.


Despite the heroics of Carter, Miller, and others, black soldiers faced violence and hostility at home. Expanding black neighborhoods and business centers increased the competition for physical, cultural, and political space in America's cities. The ensuing tensions erupted in racial clashes and riots throughout the war years, the worst coming in Detroit in 1943. The military's disdain for African Americans echoed in the events surrounding a 1944 work stoppage by 258 black soldiers following an explosion at Port Chicago, California. Of that number, 50 were tried and convicted of mutiny, despite representation from the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall and support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition, many black soldiers were beaten, maimed, shot, or lynched—often while in uniform—by mobs and local authorities. By 1945, many blacks believed that war had ended only on one front.

Ultimately, the successes of black activists encouraged a stronger push for racial justice. President Roosevelt's actions served as a prelude to the Truman administration's executive order integrating the military and its espousal of civil rights. The treatment and triumphs of black workers, voters, and soldiers radicalized a community that already was eager to end the last vestiges of racism. In this manner, World War II—and the black responses to it—paved the way for racial integration, the civil rights movement, and a wider debate on the nature of American citizenship.


Allen, Robert. The Port Chicago Mutiny. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Brandt, Nat. Harlem at War: The Black Experience in World War II. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Carter, Allene. Honoring Sergeant Carter: Redeeming a Black World War II Hero's Legacy. New York: Amistad, 2003.

Converse, III, Elliott, et al. The Exclusion of Black Soldiers From the Medal of Honor in World War II: A Study Commissioned By the United States Army to Investigate Racial Bias in the Awarding of the Nation's Highest Military Decoration. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1997.

James, C. L. R., et al, eds. Fighting Racism in World War II. New York: Monad Press, 1980.

George White, Jr.

See also:Civil Liberties, World War II; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Labor, World War I; Labor, World War II; Roosevelt, Eleanor; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.

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African Americans, World War II

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African Americans, World War II