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Vol. 74/No. 47      December 13, 2010

Blacks confront segregated
armed forces in WWII
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Blacks in America’s Wars by Robert W. Mullen, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for December. The book traces changing attitudes of African Americans toward service in the U.S. military, from the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War. The piece below describes the racist conditions Blacks faced during World War II and the refusal of the government to end segregation in the armed forces. It also describes initial steps taken in the midst of the war to organize protest actions against these conditions. Copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Mullen. Reprinted by permission of Pathfinder Press.

Blacks entered the Second World War with mixed emotions. They were going to defend the United States, a country just as influenced by racist ideology as Germany, a country where lynchings had become so commonplace and so much an accepted part of American life that an anti-lynching bill could not be passed in Congress, a country where the rate of lynchings during the years of the Roosevelt administration had risen to one per week….

In January 1941, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, announced plans for a March on Washington on July 1, 1941, to protest discrimination in war industry employment and segregation in the armed forces. He predicted that between 50,000 and 100,000 Blacks would participate in the demonstration.

The call for a March on Washington was received with great enthusiasm by Blacks all over the country, and thousands began to work on the campaign and make preparations to demonstrate. It also caused great consternation in government circles. Government officials kept asking “What will Berlin say?”—to which Blacks could reply that they were more interested about what Berlin would say about America’s racist policies.

As the date for the March on Washington approached, the government put great pressure on Randolph to call off the demonstration. Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia were sent to meet with him and try to coax him into canceling it. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called him to Washington to meet with him in hopes of securing his agreement to drop the plan.

In the discussions Roosevelt refused to consider desegregating the armed forces but agreed to issue an executive order forbidding discrimination in war industries. One week before the march was scheduled to take place, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Practices order, and Randolph, despite objections from some in his movement who wanted to hold out for desegregation of the armed forces as well, agreed to call off the march… .

Many Afro-Americans took advantage of the war to tie their racial demands to the ideology for which the war was supposedly being fought. The Black press frequently compared the similarity of American treatment of Blacks and the Nazis’ treatment of minorities, the white-supremacist doctrine in America and the master-race doctrine in Germany. Stimulated by the “democratic ideology of the war,” Blacks increasingly were moved to reexamine their position in society. They found it simply too difficult to reconcile their treatment with the announced war aims.

As one observer put it: “The hypocrisy and paradox involved in fighting a world war for the four freedoms and against aggression by an enemy preaching a master race ideology, while at the same time upholding racial segregation … could not be overlooked. The war crisis provided American Negroes a unique opportunity to point out, for all to see, the difference between the American creed and practice… .”

The refusal of the government and armed forces to end official segregation was one of the conditions that most disturbed Blacks during the war. On October 9, 1940, the White House issued a policy statement which refused to abandon the principle of segregation in the armed forces.

As the war progressed, the emotional impact of this issue grew. The hypocrisy involved in setting up a segregated army to fight an enemy with a master-race ideology was apparent to all Black troops. One result was that Blacks, on the average, “tended to show less enthusiasm for the war than did whites, and manifested somewhat greater reluctance to go overseas or to enter combat.” One group of young Blacks in Chicago formed a group called the “Conscientious Objectors Against Jim Crow” in 1941 and urged others to resist the draft because of the segregation in the armed forces.

The tenacity with which the armed forces maintained segregation, and the contortions it sometimes had to go through to coordinate the efforts of two separate armies—one white and one Black—suggested to many Blacks that the maintenance of segregation seemed more important to the army and the country as a whole than victory over the enemy.

Racial violence flared up at virtually every post in the United States and abroad when Black GIs tried to use the normally superior facilities alloted to white GIs—entertainment, post exchanges, etc. Race riots took place at such places as Ft. Bragg, Camp Robinson, Camp Davis, Camp Lee, and Ft. Dix during the war.

Black doubts about the value of fighting a war between two white-supremacist countries were increased by widely publicized incidents in which Black GIs in the South were refused service at restaurants that willingly served German prisoners of war.

The growing shortage of manpower in 1943 led to a change in the army’s policy towards Black units. Pressure to commit some Black combat units to battle began to build within the War Department in 1943. Additionally, a drastic shortage of infantry replacements as a result of the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45 persuaded General Eisenhower that Black troops should be allowed to volunteer as infantry replacements in white companies. Those who did volunteer were assigned to white units and participated in the fighting in Germany in 1945.  
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