Many African Americans were understandably ambivalent about World War II. Black Americans who had committed themselves wholeheartedly to the “war for democracy” returned from World War I to find the Klan marching in Washington and segregation undiminished. Now the government asked them to risk their lives in a war against Nazi racism abroad, while in many parts of their own country American law forced them into separate and distinctly unequal facilities. Even the armed forces, within which African Americans were supposed to strike their blows for democracy, maintained strict segregation, with African Americans generally relegated to service and support jobs. Why should they fight to secure for foreigners’ rights that they could not enjoy at home?
Despite these misgivings about the righteousness of the cause, more than seven hundred thousand African Americans served in the military. The challenge for African-American leaders was to remind white Americans that a struggle for racial justice abroad must inevitably lead to a closer look at injustice at home. The documents here demonstrate some of the efforts made by both white and black leaders to build support for the war in the African-American community, as well as the intense frustrations that persistent segregation at home and in the military produced.
African-American leaders constantly reminded their fellow citizens, and themselves, that this was their country too; they had shaped its history in profound ways. They walked a difficult line. Often patriotic, they nevertheless found America’s institutionalized and pervasive bigotry increasingly hard to endure. Langston Hughes, the distinguished poet and writer, hoped that African-American participation in a war against racism abroad might undermine racism at home. In 1944 he contributed the lyrics to the folksinger Josh White’s song “Freedom Road.” The lyrics call for an end to fascism and a new beginning of race-blind justice. White described it as “a rousing plea for true democracy.” Franklin Roosevelt considered Josh White, best known for his religious songs, his favorite singer; White’s brother Billy served as Eleanor Roosevelt’s chauffeur. The recording session for “Freedom Road” was sponsored by the CIO as part of a collection, Citizen CIO, aimed at building support for the war among union members and working-class Americans generally.
More complicated, and more troubling, was The Negro Soldier, produced by renowned Hollywood director Frank Capra in 1944 from a script by Carlton Moss, an African-American journalist. It appeared as part of a government-sponsored, commercially distributed series, “Why We Fight.” Moss’s script was heavily reworked; Capra himself wrote, in his 1971 autobiography, The Name above the Title, that Moss “wore his blackness as conspicuously as a bandaged head,” and that “time and again he would write a scene, and then I’d rewrite it, eliminating the angry fervor.” The film does portray African Americans’ contributions to American history with dignity and seriousness, and the film’s actors never do any of the cheap mugging Hollywood frequently demanded from them in films. African Americans were typically limited to portraying “toms, coons, mulattos, mammies, and bucks,” as film historian Donald Bogle put it. But The Negro Soldier celebrates African-American pride and achievement while completely ignoring the cold fact of racial segregation in the military.
Outside the military, nearly two million African Americans found jobs in wartime industries. But there too, segregation persisted. Prodded by his wife, Eleanor, whose concern for civil rights was well known, Franklin Roosevelt saw the injustice of segregation in war industries. Nor could he ignore the embarrassing criticisms of American racism launched by the Axis nations. Nazi Germany sought to segregate Jews and Gentiles, critics pointed out: how was the United States any different when it segregated its black and white citizens? Roosevelt needed the votes and the labor of African Americans, and so when A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington, Roosevelt had to take notice.
A lifelong socialist and labor organizer, Asa Philip Randolph served officially as the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a strong, almost entirely African-American, union. Benjamin McClaurin, in an interview with William Ingersoll in 1960 for the Columbia Oral History Project, recalls how Randolph, touring the South during the war, decided that “something has to be done to get Negroes to participate in a program.” Randolph’s plan, a mass march on Washington by at least fifty thousand black Americans, would specifically protest segregation in wartime industries. The March on Washington Movement captured the imaginations of African Americans: it was, McLaurin recalls, “the only thing I know of that you could go into a bar room and they’d stop drinking and throw money in a hat to help a cause of this kind.” The movement eventually had more than a million members.
Fearful of such a march, Roosevelt agreed to meet with Randolph and McClaurin in the White House in June 1941. McLaurin here recalls the president as charming, affable, and evasive, and Randolph as stubborn and determined. Despite personal entreaties by Mrs. Roosevelt, Randolph insisted that “the March must go on.” Finally, the president promised Randolph federal legislation “with teeth in it” if he would call the march off. Randolph agreed, McLaurin takes pains to note, only after Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 8022 in June 1941.
This landmark order established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), which was charged with investigating claims of racial discrimination in government jobs and wartime industries. Though it was suspended in 1946, the FEPC helped pave the way for later government interventions on behalf of civil rights. It established the federal government as a broker on issues of racial justice. It also helped convince African Americans that there might be some hope for improvement through an activist government, especially after Randolph used similar tactics to pressure Harry Truman into finally revoking segregation in the armed forces in 1948.
In both the political and the cultural arena, during World War II African Americans challenged the legal and customary limits on their participation as equal members of American society. As World War II exposed the hypocrisy of American racism more sharply, it allowed African Americans to build a foundation for attacking segregation and racial inequality in the postwar era.
For more reading on African Americans at home in World War II, see Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (1973).