One of the most troubling aspects of our history is race relations. It takes a long time to achieve true equality in a society when the heritage of one ethnic group is slavery and Jim Crow laws. Even today African Americans are more likely to be stereotyped as athletes than doctors, lawyers or entrepreneurs. The path to a “color-blind” nation is still a work in progress.
I was reminded of this fact by a new book I discovered by Rawn James, Jr. called “Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military.” It tracks the military service of African Americans in each of our wars from the American Revolution through Vietnam and the efforts to achieve equal rights and opportunity. “Double V” refers to the goal during WWII of achieving victory for democracy both at home and abroad.
The book was both painful and eye-opening. Even students of history will find the extent of racism and brutality that existed in our country mind-boggling. It goes beyond separate facilities and sitting in the back of the bus. Beatings and lynchings were commonplace to people of color, even for servicemen. There were newspapers in the South that actually advocated lynchings.
Despite many examples of valor and distinguished service in wartime before the 20th Century, blacks were considered sub-human and whites did not want to serve with them or, heaven forbid, take orders from them. When World War I rolled around, African Americans thought that by fighting for their country abroad, it would provide the momentum for equality at home.
Fat chance. Not only were most educated blacks denied the opportunity to become officers, but all African American servicemen were shunted into all-black units and assigned to menial tasks such as mess-men, stewards or stevedores. The few units that saw combat fought valiantly, but even they were assigned to French commanders since it was considered beneath white U.S. officers to deal with them.
Upon their return to the states, African American servicemen continued to be treated as scum, especially in the South. The beatings and lynchings went on unabated. Black leaders decided they needed to become more proactive in bringing about change rather than simply assuming that patriotism in wartime was going to bring equality.
There was hope during the New Deal that President Franklin Roosevelt would be an instrument of change. He was sympathetic to civil rights, but was not a visionary. FDR was not going to “rock the boat” and risk having his New Deal legislation be filibustered by southern senators. Despite repeated calls by the African American community, he never endorsed a federal anti-lynching law.
The only reason FDR signed an executive order in 1941 banning discrimination in the defense industry is because black leaders threatened a march on Washington. Roosevelt didn’t want to give the Nazis a propaganda device they could exploit. Even then, his executive order didn’t insure compliance.
By the outset of WWII, respect for African Americans had not improved in either the military or civilian life. The status of blacks was so unequal that the Red Cross at first refused to accept the blood of African Americans. When finally forced to, the organization made sure to separate it from white donors. Heaven forbid that a white person would receive “inferior” blood!
In the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” depicting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there is a scene that shows a black mess-man, Doris Miller, taking over a machine gun and shooting at Japanese bombers. That is not fabricated. Miller manned the gun for 15 minutes and maintained his post despite enemy fire. It took an order from FDR to eventually force the Navy to present him with the Navy Cross, the department’s highest honor.
The military began to change slightly as the war dragged on. Educated blacks were given greater opportunity to become officers. GIs were still segregated but circumstances dictated that at times battles were fought as essentially integrated units.
The navy was the toughest branch to breach thanks in large part to the narrow-minded attitude of Navy Secretary Frank Knox. Black sailors received greater opportunity after Knox’s death in April 1944. The new navy secretary, James Forrestal, was a member of the National Urban League and sympathetic to the cause of integration.
When the war ended the military was still officially segregated. An unlikely hero emerged in the form of President Harry Truman, who was born in the former slave state of Missouri and raised to believe blacks were inferior. He even used the “N” word all his life. But he had a strong belief in civil rights and that the laws of this country applied to everyone equally. People who served this country deserved to be treated as such.
In 1948, Truman signed an executive order banning discrimination in the armed forces. It meant the official end of military segregation, but it took time to implement and be accepted. Even during the Vietnam War there were racial incidents on bases in this country. Executive orders alone can’t change people’s prejudices.
We may be in a better state today, but can’t assume racial harmony exists simply because segregation has been officially banished. James’ book is a stark reminder that we can never take things for granted. We still have a ways to go to become a society where we’re all considered equals.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.