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April 25, 2013

Book takes readers on path for equal rights

(Continued)

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.

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