HIST 222 AMU week 5 lesson Victory on Two Fronts: African Americans in World War II American Military University
World War II accelerated progress toward the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Pressure from black leaders led President Roosevelt to establish initiatives towards racial desegregation of war industries as they continued to fight for the same in the military. Many black servicemen distinguished themselves iN military service. Protest groups like the March on Washington Movement resulted in the creation of government initiatives like the Committee on Fair Employment Practice to stop discrimination on the home front. While their success was only marginal, the 1940s set up the possibility of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Topics covered will include:
- The Eve of War
- The March on Washington Movement
- Race and the U.S. Armed Forces
- Fighting Segregation in the Military
- Black Soldiers in Combat
- Victory at Home
- The Cold War and International Politics
- The Truman Presidency
The Eve of War
In the lead-up to World War II, African Americans were actively involved in campaigns to both end discrimination at home—particularly in the government and defense industries—and in opposition to fascism abroad.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, only two African nations—Liberia on its west coast and Ethiopia on its east coast—remained independent from European colonization. Ethiopia had warded off an Italian attempt to colonize it in the late nineteenth century, but in the 1930s its military was poorly trained an unorganized.
This allowed for Benito Mussolini’s forces to invade the nation in 1935, commencing the Italo-Ethiopian War. While the League of Nations condemned this act of aggression, they did little to stop it, and in 1936 Italy proclaimed control over Ethiopia as its emperor, Haile Selassie, went into exile.
The March on Washington Movement
Even as war loomed and the defense industry was starved for skilled workers, over half of defense employers would not hire African American workers for any reason, even if they were highly skilled. While the war effort employed hundreds of thousands of Americans left jobless by the Great Depression, only a small percentage of these were black workers, who typically held jobs such as porters and janitors.
Black workers who moved to cities in the early 1940s to find jobs were often met with violence and discrimination. In 1941, only a few months before the United States officially entered World War II, black leaders held a meeting in Chicago to discuss how to influence the Roosevelt administration to change this situation.
Race and the US Armed Forces
Although African Americans were able to serve in the military during World War II, desegregation did not proceed far until after the war. Nevertheless, many black men and women served bravely, as soldiers,
sailors, pilots, nurses, and in other service positions, and the exposure to other parts of the world transformed their perspectives on racial justice in America.
African Americans who wished to serve in the military had faced discrimination ever since George Washington had prohibited them from fighting in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. In World
War I, they had served in segregated units, which were generally poorly trained and equipped. But while racism had not played a large role in World War I’s inception, fighting countries that espoused racial superiority while promoting the same ideas within one’s own military seemed paradoxical, especially when black soldiers fought alongside whites in other Allied nations such as Great Britain.
Fighting Segregation in the Military
Soldiers and civilians alike protested military discrimination. The NAACP and the National Urban League (NUL) published editorials in their magazines, The Crisis and Opportunity, which denounced the practice. William Hastie, the first African American federal judge, was appointed as a civilian aide to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, but resigned from that post after his efforts to end military segregation went unheeded. One of the most successful attempts at military desegregation involved officers’ clubs. The few black officers in the military would protest segregation policies by entering local officers’ clubs, sit down at tables, and wait to be told to leave. On some bases, black soldiers responded to racism and discriminatory treatment with violence.
Black Soldiers in Combat
After a demand for soldiers opened up combat positions to black men, many distinguished themselves in battle, leading to a reevaluation of segregation and discrimination in the military. The Marines began accepting blacks for the first time in 1942, the same year that the Coast Guard recruited its first 150 black volunteers. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC), first created in 1942, enlisted both black and white women. In 1944, all-black units were introduced in the military.