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.