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“Pearl Harbor Blues”: Black Americans and World War II

p. 303-318

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1Near the end of World War II, Richard Wright visited the Schomburg Library in Harlem. The curator had told him about a recently acquired collection of letters written by black servicemen. Wright spent the afternoon reading them. Most were bitter letters, complaining of brutal treatment and expressing a cynical view of the war. “I feel deeply,” wrote one soldier, “that the most important roles Negroes are playing in this war are that of hostages to prevent Hitler, Goebbels, and company from using our omission from the war effort as propaganda. The longer I stay in the service, I wonder why in hell we criticize Hitler and his Jew-eliminating technique.” Another wrote, “I'm not a coward, never was one. I’m not afraid to fight when I find something worth fighting for. But this much I know: If the so called democracies win this war they do not intend to do the right thing [for colored people] any more than Hitler.” Another wrote his mother, “I’ve finally ended up in the South, and I don't like it.... If what I've already experienced is any example of Southern ways, I think I'd just as soon be overseas, or dead, than to stay down here.” Still another black GI told his family how the army handled Negroes (like himself) who object to discrimination. “They are declared to be of “paranoiac personalities” and are sent to the hospital for observation and treatment. Such has happened to me —so I speak with authority.”

2Richard Wright left the library “in a daze,” deeply moved by what he had read, and he recorded his anger in the daily journal he kept, “Good God, what a sea of despair to swim in! Reading these letters are [sic] horrible. They are a wail, a cry, but a useless one, for in no single letter was there even a ghost of an idea about how they could get out of their hated lot.” The letters reinforced earlier reports he had heard of violent skirmishes involving black and white seamen carrying cargoes to the war zones. “Some world!” Wright thought. “Why does not the country call off the war with Germany and concentrate single-mindedly on Japan, a nation whom they can hate without reservation for they are colored? I think that the average white man would fight Japan for fun!”

3The day after his visit to the Schomburg Library, while brooding over the imminent induction of his friend Ralph Ellison into a Jim Crow army, Richard Wright gave full vent to his feelings about the black experience and race relations in America.

Again I say that each and every Negro, during the last 300 years, possesses from that heritage a greater burden of hate for America than they themselves know. Perhaps it is well that Negroes try to be as un-intellectual as possible, for if they ever started really thinking about what happened to them they'd go wild. And perhaps that is the secret of whites who want to believe that Negroes really have no memory; for if they thought that Negroes remembered, they would start out to shoot them all in sheer self-defense. (Wright, 1945-47. Entries for Jan. 7, 28, 29, 1945.)

4The outburst by Richard Wright addressed an issue that persisted throughout World War II —the condition of black men and women in white America and their exclusion from participation in the larger society. Through the first three decades of the twentieth century, the essential mechanisms that fixed the place of black men and women in southern society remained largely inviolate. Individual blacks made some breakthroughs into the professions and the middle class, the New Deal encouraged a politics of hope, but most black southerners still lived out their lives in a rigidly segregated and repressive world; were denied a political voice, refused equal educational resources (“enforced ignorance”), confined to an economic system that left little room for ambition or hope, subjected to a criminal justice system that operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding the absolute power of whites to command black subordination and labor.

5The narrow boundaries, the limited possibilities, the need to curb ambitions, to contain feelings, to weigh carefully every word, gesture, and movement when in the presence of whites still shaped black lives in the South. Personal security lay in repressing any impulses toward individuality or assertiveness, in learning how to accommodate to daily indignities. Reflecting on the eve of World War II over what he had endured in his lifetime, Arthur Brodie, who lived in Franklin County, North Carolina, felt numbed by the experience. “There's been so many times that you get to the point you feel it's a way of life for a long, long time.”1 Bluesman Willie Brown employed a chilling, apocalyptic imagery to convey that same feeling.

Can't tell my future, I can't tell my past.
Lord, it seems like every minute sure gon' be my last.
Oh, minutes seems like hours, and hours seems like days.
Yes, minutes seem like hours, hours seems like days. (Brown, 2002.)2

6On the eve of World War II, that was the racist order in the South into which black youths were socialized. And it is in the context of this experience that black Americans would view the events unfolding in Europe and Asia. The cynicism ran deep. Four days before the United States entered the war, Charles Jenkins, a black man, wrote President Franklin Roosevelt, “If there is such a thing as God, he must be a white person, according to the conditions we colored people are in.... Hitler has not done anything to the colored people—it's the people right here in the United States who are keeping us out of work and keeping us down.” (Blum, 184) The cynicism was rooted in the conviction that this was essentially a white man's war, a war to maintain white supremacy throughout the world, involving colonial nations such as France and Great Britain with a sordid record of racist repression and exploitation. After all, the same President Roosevelt who told the western democracies, “We Americans are vitally concerned in the defense of your freedom,” placed a low priority on defending the freedom of black men and women in the United States. “What I wants to know,” a Georgia black youth asked, “is, if democracy’s so good for white folks, why ain’t it good for niggers too?” (Redding, 259.)

7Even with America's entry into the war, the mood of cynicism in black America did not suddenly vanish in a patriotic frenzy. If some remained indifferent, others could no longer contain the rage and resentment they felt. “I hope Hitler does come,” a black domestic in Raleigh, North Carolina, told her employer, “because if he does he will get you first!” (She was sentenced to prison for three years for her outburst. [Ottley, 307]) For some, the war seemed distant and took on less meaning than the daily struggle for survival. Unable to enjoy the rights and privileges accorded white Americans, many blacks might have wondered if this was their country under attack. An old black sharecropper, after coming to the Big House to receive his ration of cornmeal and fatback from the plantation owner, noted in passing the news of Pearl Harbor. “By the way Captain, I hear the Japs done declared war on you white folks!” (Cayton, 267.)

8If anything, as the war progressed, the questions only grew more insistent. How could white Americans express outrage over the plight of Jews while remaining indifferent to the lynching and brutalization of black Americans? How could a Jim Crow army fight for a free world? How could black Americans fight abroad in defense of freedoms denied to them at home? No amount of patriotic hype or sloganeering could settle or postpone answers to these questions. “The Negro today is angry, resentful and utterly apathetic about the war,” a black writer observed early in 1942. “‘Fight for what?’ he is asking. ‘This war doesn’t mean a thing to me. If we win I lose, so what?”’(Brown, Earl, 546.) This time the democratic war slogans found no ready acceptance in black America. “White folks talking about the Four Freedoms, and we ain't got none.” (Silberman, 61.) This time blacks resolved not to rely upon the expected gratitude and sense of fair play of white Americans, for each time they had done so in the past (as in World War I) they had been betrayed. “Now we are disillusioned,” the Pittsburgh Courier editorialized in 1942. “We have neither faith in promises, nor a high opinion of the integrity of the American people, where race is involved. Experience has taught us that we must rely primarily upon our own efforts if we are to enjoy the full fruits of the victory for which we fight. That is why we protest, agitate, and demand that all forms of color prejudice be blotted out.3

9World War II, then, would be fought on two fronts. This time blacks responded to the calls for wartime unity and loyalty with a conditional patriotism. Rather than lessen the agitation for civil rights in the spirit of wartime unity, they heightened the agitation. “So we must speak, even as we fight and die,” proclaimed The Crisis, the organ of the NAACP in 1942.

We must say that the fight against Hitlerism begins in Washington, D. C., the capital of our nation, where black Americans have a status only slightly above that of Jews in Berlin. We must say that if forced labor is wrong in Czechoslovakia, peonage farms are wrong in Georgia. If the ghettos in Poland are an evil, so are the ghettos in America. We must say that the enslavement of the bodies and spirits of men, of whatever color, or race, or residence, must be wiped out. We must say all the things that cry aloud to be said—not later, but now. (The Crisis, n° 49, 7.)

10Endorsing that same theme, a Harlem leader observed, “If we don’t fight for our rights during this war, while the government needs us, it will be too late after the war.” (Sitkoff, 662.)

11With unprecedented unity in the black community, civil rights and community organizations, along with the black press and the black church, exposed and attacked the gross disparities between the American democratic creed, proclaimed war aims, and racial practices. Protest became not only widespread but respectable, involving individuals never before mobilized in the struggle for civil rights. Membership in the NAACP multiplied nearly ten times during World War II, the number of its chapters tripled, the membership crossed over class lines and became more representative of the black population, and that significant change in the reach of the NAACP altered the strategies and direction of its activism.4 The black press also played a critical role. Despite attempts to censor black newspapers and threats to deny them scarce news print, the press maintained its vigilance, covering in depth every racial incident and every invasion of civil rights. (White, 1969, 206-210; Washburn, 1986.) If these reports and protests threatened the nation's wartime unity, as public officials believed, they persisted nonetheless. Responding to charges of disloyalty, a black observer captured the prevailing mood, “It is not a question of Negro... loyalty, but essentially that of lack of enthusiasm for a war which they do not believe is being fought for... true democratic principles.” (Blum, 189.)

12If most blacks accepted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, their obligation to serve in the military, if some still believed (as had blacks in previous wars) that their service would be recognized, respected, and honored and ultimately promote changes in white attitudes, many retained their doubts. This time the pessimism, the ambivalence, the bitterness, the frustration, the questioning, the cynicism ran much deeper, as it did for this black youth about to be inducted into the Army. The very nature of the war and its racial implications tempered his enthusiasm and patriotism. “Just carve on my tombstone, ‘Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of a white man.”’ (Cayton, 268.) Since army recruiters deemed them troublesome and inferior, some blacks opted to turn racial stereotypes to their advantage, even play into them to avoid service. Malcolm Little (Malcolm X) showed up at his physical as a Harlem jivester, wearing his most outrageous zoot suit and yellow shoes. He proclaimed great enthusiasm for serving his country. “I want to get sent down South,” he confided to the psychiatrist. “Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns, and kill up crackers!” (X, 108.)

13If blacks needed “to fight for the right to fight for democracy,” as Walter White of the NAACP insisted, some blacks could not mount a sufficient enthusiasm for the war to make that kind of commitment. It made more sense to drop out. Horn player Howard McGhee, a pioneer of Be Bop, adopted no conscious strategy to avoid service. He simply told the army psychiatrist how he felt, articulating doubts and a bitterness no doubt many might have shared with him. “Man, why should I fight?” he asked the army psychiatrist, “I ain’t mad at nobody out there.... I wouldn’t know the difference.... If he's white, I'm going to shoot him. Whether he's a Frenchman, a German, or whatever, how the fuck would I know the difference?” The army informed McGhee it could not use his services. “I wasn’t ready to dodge no bullets for nobody,” McGhee later reflected. “And I like America. But I didn’t like it that much. I mean, it’s all right to be a second-class citizen, but shit, to be shot at, that's another damn story. (Deveaux, 246.) Dizzy Gillespie attracted the attention of the army psychiatrist when he appeared carrying his trumpet in a paper bag. His words attracted even more attention.

They started asking me my views about fighting. “Well, look, at this time, in this stage of my life here in the United States whose foot has been in my ass? The white man’s foot has been in my ass hole buried up to his knee in my ass hole! Now, you're speaking of the enemy. You’re telling me the German is the enemy. At this point, I can never even remember having met a German. So if you put me out there with a gun in my hand and tell me to shoot at the enemy. I’m liable to create a case of ‘mistaken identity,’ of who I might shoo.... They finally classified me 4F because I was crazy enough not to want to fight in anybody's army. (Gillespie, 120.)

14To quantify such reactions would be impossible, but in the streets and rural crossroads of black America there is substantial reason to believe that many shared this cynicism and evinced the same spirit. Wherever black men and women gathered, the subject of the war provoked considerable discussion, as a reporter for the Chicago Defender observed:

The men in the barbershop, on the assembly line, sweeping the floors or washing windows know their spirit concerning the war is not right. They can’t diagnose it. Uncle Sam is aware of it too, and he calls it morale. So the millions of Negroes who go through all the motions of patriotism —and are actually patriotic— do not feel patriotic, because in the recesses of their minds there is disturbance, a disturbance which won't quiet.... (Johnson, 90.)

15In Harlem, a white draft board member had been accustomed to giving black draftees “a little patriotic talk to make them feel good.” It didn’t, he confessed. “They only laughed at me. Now I bow my head as they come in for their induction.” (Brown & Leighton, 8.)

16Whatever these stories suggest about the depths of black disillusionment, the threat of Hitlerism and Nazi racial theories were not lost on black Americans, and the outbreak of war found most of them responding (once again) to the call to fight a war to make the world safe for democracy, enlisting at a rate sixty per cent above their proportion of the population (Blum, 184). Heavy weight champion Joe Louis, the hero of black America, came closest to capturing the prevailing sentiment: “There may be a whole lot wrong with America, but there’s nothing that Hitler can fix.” Upon being inducted into the Army, Louis recalled, “they gave me my uniform and sent me over to the colored section.” (Brown, S., 483; Louis, 172.) At the very least, some thought that military service afforded them the opportunity to escape the economic and social subordination that circumscribed their lives as civilians. Blues man Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup envisioned still other opportunities:

I’ve got my questionairy and they need me in the war (twice)
Now if I feel like murder, won’t have to break the county law.
All I want is a 32-20, made on a 45 frame, (twice)
Yes, and a red, white, and blue flag waving in my right hand.5

17If many blacks expressed cynicism about the democratic slogans, still others embraced the promise that a war to wipe out Nazi bigotry might eradicate racist bigotry in the United States. Some blacks believed (as in the Civil War) that only a prolonged war would enable them to achieve their objectives. That is, the longer the war, the more blacks might make of their opportunities, turning white dependence on their loyalty into measurable gains. “Not only will a long war develop a new white outlook,” George Schuyler wrote in The Crisis, “but a new black outlook as well... America will need the Negro as never before and will act accordingly even if the war ends tomorrow. But let the struggle last for many years and there will be interracially little resemblance left to the United States of December 7, 1941.” (The Crisis, n° 50, 329, 344.) The long-delayed commitment of black units to combat has been called a reaction to the length of the war and wartime needs as well as to relentless pressure. With every month, as the questions became more insistent, the pressure mounted, forcing the armed services to move from exclusion (as in the Marines and Air Corps) and confinement to kitchen duty (as in the Navy) to segregation and to sporadic attempts at integration. (Sitkoff, 667.)

18To many African Americans, the struggle for “the right to fight for democracy” took on a special meaning. If denied the right to fight for their country on an equal basis with whites, what could they envision after the war but a return to the racial status quo? The armed forces thus became a focal point for black agitation, and there was much to agitate about. The rigidly segregated army into which more than a million blacks were inducted reflected at all levels the dominant racial attitudes of white America, including the doctrine maintained throughout the war that blacks were inferior to whites. Secretary of War Henry Stimson vowed that the U.S. Army was not about to be turned into a “sociological laboratory,” General George Marshall (a Virginian) insisted that desegregation of the Army violated American customs and habit and would destroy morale, and both agreed that “leadership” was not “embedded in the Negro race” and that segregated blacks had to serve under white officers (preferably southerners who knew how to handle and control them [Blum, 184-185.]). Not only did black servicemen undergo their basic training in segregated camps, mostly in the South, but they were usually assigned to menial or construction labor, in keeping with the dominant view of the “place” of black men and women in American society.

Well, ‘airplanes flyin’ ‘cross the land and the sea,
Everybody flyin’ but a Negro like me.
Uncle Sam says, “Your place is on the ground,
When I fly my airplanes, don't want no Negro round.”

The same thing for the navy, ships goes to sea,
All they got is a messboy’s job for me.
Uncle Sam says, “Keep on your apron, son,
You know I ain’t gonna let you shoot my big navy gun.”

Got my long government letters, my time to go,
When I got to the army, found the same old Jim Crow.
Uncle Sam says, “Two camps for black and white,”
But when trouble starts, we'll all be in that same big fight.
(White, Josh, 148-9.)

19Even as President Roosevelt committed the nation to a worldwide struggle for freedom, black soldiers faced a consistent denial of that freedom, coupled with acts of discrimination, violence, and humiliation. It was left mostly to the black press to document the abuses: the insults hurled at black GIs; the harassment by Military Police; the hostility of civilians in towns near military bases, especially in the South, where Jim Crow laws were relentlessly enforced, often with the assistance or compliance of MPs, and where military authorities refused to protect black troops off base. Numbers of black soldiers, including army nurses, were brutally beaten and jailed for defying Jim Crow laws, many more were simply turned away from cafes, saloons, hotels, and railroad restaurants. Violent racial clashes, with a disproportionate number of black casualties, broke out at army bases in the South, many in the North and West, and some in Australia, England, and the South Pacific. USO and service clubs and canteens might bar black soldiers altogether, exclude them on the nights white soldiers were admitted, or provide separate facilities, as did post movie theaters and PXs. “It is pretty grim,” observed an NAACP official, “to have a black boy in uniform get an orientation lecture in the morning on wiping out Nazi bigotry, and that same evening be told he can buy a soft drink only in the ‘Colored’ post exchange!” (Wilkins, 1944, 130) Segregated chapels existed on many bases, and some found a unique way to post the schedule of religious services: “Catholic, Jews, Protestants and Negroes.” Not only did the Red Cross maintain segregated entertainment centers but to calm any fears in this war against Nazi racism and Aryan superiority, the Red Cross ordered that the blood plasma from white and black donors be kept separate. Without any medical justification, the Army, with the blessing of the Red Cross, thought it inadvisable “to collect and mix Caucasian and Negro blood indiscriminately for later administration to members of the armed forces.” For any black soldier to question any of these practices was to run the risks of transfer, the stockade, or dishonorable discharge.6

20Perhaps the ultimate humiliation was best described by Lloyd Brown, when he recalled the greeting he and his fellow black soldiers received in Salina, Kansas when they entered a lunchroom on the main street:

As we entered, the counterman hurried to the rear to get the owner, who hurried out front to tell us with urgent politeness: “You boys know we don't serve colored here.” Of course we knew it. They didn't serve “colored” anywhere in town.... The best movie house did not admit Negroes and the other one admitted them only on the balcony. There was no room at the inn for any black visitor, and there was no place in town where we could get a cup of coffee. “You know we don't serve colored here,” the man repeated.... We ignored him, and just stood there inside of the door, staring at what we had come to see —the German prisoners of war who were having lunch at the counter. There were about ten of them.... No guard was with them.... We continued to stare. This was really happening. It was no jive talk. It was the Gospel truth. The people of Salina would serve these enemy soldiers and turn away black American G. I.'s.... If we were untermenschen in Nazi Germany, they would break our bones. As “colored” men in Salina, they only break our hearts.7

21What Lloyd Brown had seen was by no means rare. Nazi POWs en route to POW camps in the South and in parts of the Midwest and West were permitted to eat with white soldiers, guards, and civilians in railroad dining cars and in station restaurants, but black soldiers, even if assigned to guard the POWS, were barred from such facilities. That, to bluesman Β. Β. King, was the “eye-opener.”

German prisoners of war were on the same train. But unlike us, they weren't forced to sit in separate and inferior compartments. They sat with the white folk. And these were our sworn enemies!.... It upset me even worse when I saw how the German prisoners were used to pick cotton in the Delta. We blacks picked till nightfall — seven or eight in the evening. But the Germans were allowed to take off at three in the afternoon. Plantation owners worried about overworking them. That made us feel less than human. We were seen as beasts of burden, dumb animals, a level below the Germans. To watch your enemy get better treatment than yourself was a helluva thing to endure.... As a kid, I was brainwashed by a segregated system. I was taught caution and strict adherence to society's codes. As a twenty-year-old, fresh out of basic training, I was starting to feel the weight of the system. I felt the injustice. And I felt anger. (King, 91-2.)

22At one prisoner-of-war camp, black entertainer Lena Home appeared. The camp commander had filled the front rows with German POWs; their black guards had to sit in the back of the auditorium. “I don't think I have ever been more furious in my life,” Lena Home recalled. She stepped down from the stage, walked up the aisle, and with her back turned to the POWs sang to her own people in the back of the hall. “But by the third or fourth song I was too choked with anger and humiliation to go on.” After the performance, she wired the USO that she was leaving the tour. “The word was very quietly passed down,” she remembered, “to keep that big-mouth woman out of the Southern camps.” (Home, 175.)

23The hypocrisy was too glaring, too conspicuous, too humiliating to ignore, and blacks reacted with an anger that could not always be contained. “Honest to God” a southern black youth declared, “I hope Hitler wins the war. If he does and comes over here, he will treat American white people the way they treat us. They'll know then what it feels like to be treated as dogs. They'll understand how we feel.” After reciting the dreary news of still more lynchings and the abuses of white officers, a black GI pleaded, “Good God give me something to fight for.” He would just as soon die fighting “Georgia crackers” than Germans.8

24Military intelligence and the War Department documented black unrest and the many different ways in which it was manifested, and circulated the information (marked “confidential”) to commanding officers. Thousands of pages, organized under such headings as “Monthly (or Weekly). Estimate of Subversive Situation,” or “The Racial Situation in the U.S.,” detailed black agitation and “subversive” speech; black and white provocations; editorials in the “incendiary” black press; willful defiance of Jim Crow laws; violent and deadly clashes between black and white soldiers, black soldiers and white civilians. Black undercover agents (posing as “city-slickers” or “draft dodgers”) reported regularly on the meetings they had infiltrated and the utterances they had overheard, and evaluated the loyalty of suspect black soldiers. The amount of time and print spent on “subversive” activity and utterances in black America validated the conclusion reached by one Army officer based on the correspondence reaching his desk, “The threats to the nation were ‘first Negroes, second Japs, third Nazis —in just that order!”’9

25The War, it seemed, had made no difference at all. On the contrary, the treatment accorded blacks seemed designed to make certain that the war would change nothing. If anything, segregation laws were enforced even more rapidly, defended as a war emergency and deemed essential to the morale of white soldiers, workers, and civilians. In a national poll conducted in 1942, a majority of white Americans (six out of ten) thought black Americans were not dissatisfied with how they were treated, they were accorded all the opportunities they deserved, they should not expect to be treated any differently after the war, and the inferior position they occupied in American society reflected their own shortcomings, not white practices or beliefs. Perhaps as revealing, a majority of whites interviewed in the Northeast and West expressed a preference for separate schools, separate restaurants, and separate neighborhoods for the races. (Dalfiume, 103.)

26With such beliefs deeply entrenched, the tensions, the anxieties, and the frustrations could only mount. In urban America, the availability of better-paying jobs in the North and West, particularly in the war industries, stimulated a migration involving millions of black men and women. That migration accelerated the competition for scarce housing and recreational facilities, heightened the competition for advancement in jobs, and reinforced the vigilance with which whites policed the racial boundaries. At the same time, if the war had not succeeded in obliterating segregation, it had raised black expectations and increased anger and frustration over the betrayal of those expectations. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes had asked. It explodes, as it did in 1943 in an epidemic of race riots: 242 racial clashes in 47 cities, the worst of them in Los Angeles, Beaumont, Tx., Mobile, Harlem, and Detroit. By the time federal troops arrived in Detroit, the riot had taken the lives of 25 blacks and 9 whites, more than 700 had been injured, and more than 2 million dollars in property had been lost. (Sitkoff, 671-676; Blum, 199-207.)

27Commissions made their reports, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover promised to round up the communist agitators causing racial unrest, and Secretary of War Stimson blamed the tension on “the deliberate effort... on the part of certain radical leaders of the colored race to use the war for obtaining... race equality and interracial marriages.” (Dalfiume, 106.) But to an elderly black woman in Detroit, the causes of racial unrest were easily discernible, and she needed no sociologist, no government commission, no J. Edgar Hoover or Henry Stimson to explain what was happening. “There ain't no North any more. Everything now is South.” (Lee & Humphrey, 141.) The extent to which whites —from the Roosevelt Administration and local and state government officials to newspaper editors and ordinary Americans— sought to blame black disillusionment on outside influences and agitation revealed only the depths of their ignorance of or indifference to what blacks experienced day-to-day. In a “Draftee's Prayer,” published in 1943, a black soldier gave voice to that experience.

Dear Lord, today
I go to war:
To fight, to die,
Tell me what for?

Dear Lord, I'll fight
I do not fear
Germans or Japs;
My fears are here.
America! (Takaki, 25)

28The persistence, even the heightening, of racial discrimination, segregation, and violence during World War II suggests little change in race relations, whether in the dominant racial attitudes of white Americans or in the racial policies of the states and the federal government.

The Jim Crow car’s still dirty.
The color line's still drawn.
Yet up there in Washington
They’re blowing freedom’s horn!

29And yet, in many significant and far-reaching ways, in the ways it dramatized the disparity between American democratic rhetoric and racial practices, in the ways it heightened, even revolutionized black consciousness and black expectations (much to the horror of the white South), in the stimulus it gave to black migrations northward and westward, in the growing political power blacks exercised in the North, World War II altered the relationship of African Americans to American society. “To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply,” James Baldwin wrote, “a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded.” (Dalfiume, 90.)

30Not only did blacks lose respect for whites, but those who had fought in the war and still others lost another quality which had been instilled in black people over several centuries — fear of whites, and that would have dramatic and far reaching implications, as poet Langston Hughes suggested,

Negroes, sweet and docile
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!

In the cotton fields,
Gentle breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees! (Hughes, 365.)

31The very nature of World War II, along with its proclaimed objectives, focused attention on race relations throughout the world. None of this was lost on blacks in the United States. “If we don't take action the Negro will be lost,” a black preacher told his congregation. “Play dumb to the white man,” but prepare for what needs to be done.10 The progress blacks had made during the war in challenging the entire apparatus of Jim Crow only increased their impatience and made the remaining disparities that much more glaring, as bluesman Big Bill Broonzy suggested.

When I was born in this world, this is what happened to me:
I was never called a man and now I'm fifty-three.

When Uncle Sam called me I knew I would be called the real McCoy
But when I got in the army they called me soldier boy.

When I got back from overseas, that night we had a ball
I met the boss the next day, he told me ‘Boy get you some overall.’

I wonder when will I be called a man.
Or do I have to wait ’till I get ninety-three? (Broonzy, 44.)

32But after World War II, the conviction grew that the way it used to be did not have to be, and black men and women, many of them born during that war, would give voice to that feeling in ways white America could no longer ignore. “You said they said wait until the war is over, you damn right,” a black soldier overseas wrote in response to a column in a black newspaper, “wait until it's over here and it [the war] will really be fought down there [the South], I hear these young fellows talk and I know they mean it. A new person will come back home, embedded with more hate than ever before....”11 Incidents like the one reported in Waynesboro, Georgia began to take on epidemic proportions. A returning veteran responded to an insult by a white man by knocking him to the pavement. As his friend recalled, “All that anger he had, and fear, frustration he had when he was in the war, World War II, just came out on him. And he hit that guy twice and knocked him cold. And he walked away, he didn't run.” When he decided it might be safer to settle elsewhere, he went to Florida, taking with him a small arsenal: a hand grenade, two guns, and a long rifle with a bayonet attached. He was ready for war, he was still a very angry person you know.”12

33Such incidents confirmed the worst and most deep-seated fears of white southerners: that returning black veterans would seek to undermine the status quo in race relations. After the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, what blacks viewed as an opportunity to use their military service and patriotism to secure their civil rights, white southerners perceived as black men dangerously out of place. The sight of uniformed black men had always terrified whites, dramatizing the fear that military service would have a demoralizing effect on them when they returned, that it would raise expectations that could not be fulfilled. Even as many blacks believed that Jim Crow could not survive World War II, whites insisted on reinforcing the machinery of their supremacy, making certain that military service in no way misled blacks about changes in race relations. The warning sounded by the city prosecutor in Macon, Georgia in the trial of a black non-commissioned officer after the Spanish-American War echoed throughout the white South after World War II: “I am going to show a nigger soldier that he is the same as any other nigger.” (Litwack, 466.)

34Nearly a century after the Civil War, on new battlefields (Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Jackson, New Orleans, Little Rock, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles) another struggle would be fought over the meaning of freedom in America. This time it would be fought in the context of the experience of World War II, a new generation of black Americans, a rapidly changing world, and a new climate of political necessity that would force the United States as a leader of the free world to reassess the traditional position of inferiority assigned to black people. More than a million black Americans had fought a war to make the world safe for democracy. After the war, even larger numbers developed new strategies and ideologies to make the United States safe for themselves. No longer did they feel the need to contain their anger, or to veil their feelings.

I feel my hell a-risin’, a-risin’ every day;
I feel my hell a-risin’, a-risin’ every day;
Someday it’ll bust this levee and wash the whole wide world away....
(Levine, 418.)

35The struggle would never be easy. Nor has that struggle ended.


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Works cited

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Notes de bas de page

1 Interview with Arthur Brodie, Durham, N. C., May 28, 1993. “Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South.” Center for Documentary Studies. Duke University: N. C.

2 Robert Palmer used the term “apocalyptic imagery” in his review of the album in Rolling Stone, March 5, 1992.

3 Pittsburgh Courier, September 12, 1942

4 Dalfiume, Richard M. “The ‘Forgotten Years’ of the Negro Revolution,” Journal of American History, LV (June, 1968), pp. 99-100; Sitkoff, 663.

5 Arthur Crudup, “Give Me a 32-20,” in Cool Disposition (recorded on April 15, 1942) Catfish Records, Guildford, England.

6 McGuire, Philip, ed., 1993 (-1983). Taps for a Jim Crow Army: Letters from Black Soldiers in World War II. Univ. of Kentucky Press; Sitkoff, 667; Dalfiume, 72-77, 107. In addition to the black press and the Crisis, the military intelligence records housed in the National Archives are filled with reports of incidents of racial clashes, many of them precipitated by black challenges to Jim Crow practices. On the outbreak of racial violence abroad, see White, 1945, and Smith, 1987.

7 Brown, Lloyd L. “Brown v. Salina, Kansas”: The New York Times, Feb. 26, 1973, p. 31.

8 Bell, W.Y., Jr. “The Negro Warrior's Home Front,” Phylon, V N°3, Third Quarter 1944, p. 277; War Dept., Special Service Division: Research branch, Survey 32, March 4, 1943, p20-21.

9 For having assembled these materials from the National Archives (most of them declassified in 1992), I am indebted to Ron Ridenhour who was until his untimely death writing a book on race relations in the military during World War II, with a focus on what happened at Camp Van Buren, Miss., In 1943. I am deeply grateful to Mary Howell of New Orleans for permitting me to reexamine Ridenhour’s archives in her possession. The conclusion reached by an army officer is quoted in Reddick, L. D., “The Color of War,” p. 10, a ms. in the L. D. Reddick collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

10 War Dept., Memorandum for the Commanding General Army Service Forces, “Racial Situation in the United States, 25 Nov. 1944 to 9 Dec. 1944,” Dec. 19, 1944. Ridenhour Archives.

11 PFC Van G. Stearns, “In France,” to “Dear ‘Truthful”’, Nov. 25, 1944. I found the letter and accompanying article in New Orleans Informer and Sentinel, a memo issued by the War Department, Army Service Forces Training Center, Post Intelligence Office, Camp Flauche, New Orleans, Nov. 25, 1944 (Confidential). Ridenhour Archives, New Orleans.

12 Interview with Wilhelmina Baldwin, Tuskegee, Alabama, July 19, 1994, Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, North Carolina.

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