Black Soldiers in World War II

World War II:
 Segregation Abroad and at Home

Military policies and general notions regarding race relations were already very prevalent since the First World War. They became even more defined in the pre-war American times. The African American community in America was pushing for equality; to fit in the society. Racial tension swept across the nation like wild fire. Regional phenomena became a nationwide aspect. The white majority kept the two races segregated, in all aspects of the society. The term “Separate but equal” made famous by the United States Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson remained instantiated as the law of the land in reference to racial policy. This concept of keeping both races segregated had permeated across the United States and was the prominent view of most white citizens during this period. Segregation was seen—from a white point-of-view—as a way for both races to live within the society without racial conflict and tension. Separation of blacks and whites stretched across all societal institutions, including the United States Military. African Americans did not receive the same rights and freedoms that their white counterparts did. Moreover, they were discriminated against, physically abused, and were seen as less than American; and even worse, less than human. Despite all of the injustices against them, they still served and remained loyal to their country. They sought both equality and victory during World War II.

The Home Front

            African Americans had suffered profoundly in the Great Depression. Already at the bottom of the economic ladder when it began, the Depression reinforced the poverty of Black America. The black community people were mostly involved with share-cropping and mining jobs. The government then started the process of mechanization in industries. There were increased government funds for improved equipment. This factor eliminated many jobs in general in industry. The decline in industrial output combined with racial segregation of many jobs left the African Americans without job seniority out of work. The African Americans immediately lost their jobs on grounds of being unskilled labors. This led to severe unavailability of jobs in the Southern states for the blacks. With no choice left, they were forced to migrate to the Northern states in pursuit of jobs. Thus there was large-scale movement of the African Americans from South to North. This also created a bottle-neck situation in the Northern states.

            However the opening in Ohio in Akron city seemed promising for the blacks. It was becoming a booming wartime economy. So, most of the blacks from rural South migrated into Ohio. Akron was home to huge rubber corporations at this point. One of the key developments in Akron was synthetic rubber, considered almost as important to winning the war as the atomic bomb. Companies also switched over to making planes and other wartime materials.

            The black population was increasing in Akron and other northeastern Ohio industrial cities; but simultaneously racism and discrimination ruled in companies for as long as possible. Housing discrimination also continued. African-Americans were still not given semi-skilled or skilled jobs, and these often went to white men disqualified from military service or white migrants from Appalachia; African-Americans were relegated to the most menial jobs. Even after the war, many blacks were asked to give up there wartime positions for white veterans. This definitely was a step backwards for them.

African American soldiers noted the irony and hypocrisy of fighting for freedom and democracy in Europe when they could not enjoy those same privileges in their own country. This sentiment led to the development of the “Double-V” campaign which worked to end discrimination at home and ensure democracy abroad. At home this movement was maintained by discrimination in the defense industries and labour unions; racist housing practices were also noted and attempts to change these were a part of the Double V campaign. African American rights were directly tied to European emancipation.

Civil rights leader, A. Philip Randolph saw the unique situation created by World War II and the acute need for workers as an opportunity to demand equality. In 1941, Randolph threatened President Roosevelt with a 100,000-person march on Washington D.C., to protest job discrimination. In response, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, prohibiting discrimination in defense jobs or the government. The Committee on Fair Employment Practices was established to handle discrimination complaints- the FEPC.

Segregation in the Military Front

As historians Sherie Mershon and Steven Schlossman put it, “The fate of the black regiments in the years between the two world wars exemplified the low regard and the racial prism through which the Army viewed black soldiers.” They saw blacks as inferior and in order for the military to remain efficient and effective; it must continue its policy of segregation. As blacks were treated in civilian life, they were also treated in military life. The Whites believed the African Americans to be a poor investment.

Eager to do their part to fight fascism, as many as 30,000 African Americans tried to enlist in the military, only to be turned away. Initially, the Marines and the Army Air Corps accepted no African Americans; the Navy accepted Blacks only as support staff and the Army allowed only segregated units, most of which were noncombat.

The Selective Training and Service Act became law on September 16, 1940. It established the protocol for the drafting and training of eligible males into the United States Armed Forces. The Act used the 1937 Mobilization Act, specifically in utilizing black soldiers, as the foundation of how to organize and deploy troops. The amendment called for the abolishment of “discrimination against any person on account of race or color.” It also stated that blacks would be allowed in every branch of the military, black reserve officers would be eligible for combat duty, and that training of black pilots would be allowed. This act attempted to change the makeup of the military, but it did not address the underlying issues present such as stereotypes and racism. It was political theatre in order to calm the pressures from the black community, who were pushing for more equality in the military. When it first passed, many African American leaders viewed it as a landmark achievement for the black community because of the addition of the antidiscrimination provisions. But a third clause within the bill still gave the final authority to the War Department to decide who would and who would not be inducted into the military. The black community voiced their opinions in opposition to this third clause because, if employed, it would give the War Department final judgment on who could join the military, and it would not give blacks rectification if they were rejected, which would make the first two clauses useless. Evidence of the Act being more about politics and less about rights can be found all the way at the top with President Roosevelt. Shortly after the passing of this bill, and one week prior to the presidential elections, Roosevelt appointed the first black General, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. a move that would certainly gain him votes amongst the black population.

            The military may have claimed that they no longer based policy on discriminations against blacks, but in the coming years all facts would entirely oppose that statement. The

War Department used various methods and excuses to omit the volunteers and the conscripted African Americans from serving. While the 1937 and 1940 Mobilization plans called for a “balanced force” of ten percent of blacks, those numbers were never reached. Even at the end of the war, the Black population was marked at 9% in the Army.

            The War Department sabotaged the acceptance of black soldiers into the Army in every possible way. Firstly, the deliberate use of a literacy test which specifically targeted at the lack of education of the blacks; second, they lacked segregated training and housing facilities that were available to accommodate the increase in black draftees and volunteers; and finally, according to historian Phillip McGuire, in some parts of the country they purposely sent secret orders to its [First Army Headquarters] draft boards requesting that no blacks be inducted in the first draft. Other reasons included health issues and unavailability of resources.

Black Activism at Rise

            Due to the evident violation of the two anti-discriminatory clauses in the Selective

Training and Service Act, black activism and protest began to surge. Civil-rights organizations such as the NAACP and National Urban League began to gain members at an incredible rate. Also, black newspapers like the PittsburghCourier and The Crisis extended their influence and increased their circulation during World War II. Black leaders targeted many social and political issues such as lynching and employment discrimination, but the center of their protests focused on the racial policies of the military.

            Shortly after the passing of the Selective Training and Service Act, several black leaders met with President Roosevelt to discuss the furthering of anti-discriminatory policy in the military. With help from Eleanor Roosevelt, who persuaded her husband to have the meeting, black civil-rights leaders Philip Randolph, Walter White, and Arnold Hill proposed several new policies to further eliminate discrimination against black soldiers. A statement was finally released which did not satisfy the black leaders as only a few of their minor proposals were accepted. Furthermore, Roosevelt then went on to support policy which continued the establishment of segregation. This created a sudden vehement outburst by the black press and was the start of the escalation of black protest and activism against military racial discrimination.

            The backlash that the press statement caused forced Roosevelt’;s hand and he made concessions in order to keep face and not upset the black vote. That is when he promoted Benjamin Davis to be the first black Brigadier general. The black press and advocacy groups started on a passionate mission to expose the cases of racial discrimination in the military, in order to push for the improvement of conditions for black soldiers. The black press and advocacy groups hoped to force the government to take action in eliminating the discriminatory policies that were in place, specifically the integration of the Armed Forces. As a result of shining a spotlight on cases of discrimination they were often able to either force change or shame officials into changing policy. Newspapers and advocacy groups did this with great efficiency and found much success by publicizing the discrimination. Constant criticism led to the government making changes in their army policies. The Navy’;s African-American sailors had been limited to serving as Mess Attendants for nearly two decades. However, in 1942 the enlisted rates were opened to all qualified personnel. In 1944, African-Americans’; aspirations were further gratified when the Navy commissioned it’s first-ever officers of their race. The blacks were also engaged in pilot training. The Tuskegee Airmen were one of the main significant examples of black pilots contributing significantly to the War. Looking back at the events one would be hard pressed to believe that blacks would have gained any rights during World War II if it was not for the black press and advocacy groups.

Ending Note

            Black morale and opinions of the war were affected by various factors during World War

II. These factors ranged from discriminatory policies against blacks, including segregated facilities and units; to the roles of blacks within the military and questions over whether they would gain civil-rights after the war. The importance of black morale was crucial to the success of black troops during the war. With regards to the Double V campaign, the first victory, which was the triumph over the Axis powers, was definitely achieved. The second victory, however, had mixed results.

            After the attack on Pearl Harbor, in general it appeared that the black community recognized the situation in front of them and was willingly committed to support the war for the greater victory of America. Even after facing severe segregation and other forms of racial discrimination, the African Americans proved their worth. Black troops also had their fair share of success in battle and served with distinction in combat during the war. The 99th Pursuit Squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen had tremendous success during the war. Another unit that had success in battle and demonstrated heroism in battle was the 751st Tank Battalion. The battalion served in 183 days of action, fighting battles at Arracourt, France; and the Battle of the Bulge, among other battles. Despite discrimination and the lack of equality in society, black troops continued to serve their country with bravery and loyalty. The sacrifices they made for their country caused a shifting of opinions and attitudes within the white population.

The war can cautiously be labelled a “watershed” event for African Americans. They built the infrastructure of political action through the use of the Black press, the enlarging of the NAACP and the beginning of significant civil rights groups like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). African Americans in the military gained access to education, training for new jobs and the experience of greater freedom in countries like England and France. African Americans on the home front moved away from an agrarian income, learned new job skills and improved their quality of life by fleeing Jim Crow segregation in the South. In addition, government policy underwent a significant shift during the war and by the war’s conclusion fighting for civil rights was a central part of the liberal agenda.

World War II was a battle for democracy. For African Americans, they not only fought to have democracy for the world, but also for themselves. At a time and place where blacks were denied the essential civil-rights humans deserve to be granted, they were expected to participate in a war where they were not seen as equal Americans. They endured hardship, discrimination racial violence, poverty, political and social attacks, yet they still invested their lives into the country that denied them equality. They sacrificed their blood and futures for a chance to gain rights and to live in a society without segregation. They never deserted their allegiance. The advancements that were made during the war became a strong symbol for the future and laid the foundation of race relations, but it did not bring the equality that the black community had expected.

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