The majority of black soldiers returned home as heroes, and did not want to return to the prewar order. They were determined to exploit their gains. War veterans were exempted from poll taxes which allowed them to register to vote and many of them did so. Buoyed with the abolishment of the white Democratic primaries, dozens of NAACP branches in the South established schools where blacks were taught how to fill in registration forms properly and how to answer typical officers’ questions. Within a decade, over one million southern blacks became newly registered voters, a number four times greater than in 1944 (Steven 1991: 26-29).
To persuade people who had been historically marginalized on the American continent, and who were not accustomed to participating in the affairs of their homeland was not always easy. The peoples resolve, however, was bolstered by the belief that the right time to reach full citizenship had arrived and was too strong to be discouraged. One such soldier is cited by Steven: “Now that the war has been won, the most difficult job ahead of us is to win the peace at home. ‘Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice’ which may be obtained, first, by becoming a citizen and registered voter. If you become a registered voter we may be able to win the peace” (qtd in ibid.: 22).
Black leaders agreed. They believed that if most Negroes started to vote, Jim Crow would be endangered and finally destroyed. The efforts of the NAACP were also supported by voter registration drives in cooperation with civic, religious or fraternal organizations. The enrollment of new black voters under their influence was especially successful in Atlanta where they attracted 18,000 voters in four months. Such leagues targeted blacks who were not members of the NAACP or were out of its sphere of influence. With their help black representatives were elected to the city council in Winston-Salem, North Carolina as well as into the city councils of Richmond in 1948 and Nashville in 1951 (ibid.: 26-27).
Voter drives were bolstered throughout Dixie, as the Southern states were known, by the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, abbrev. SCHW founded in 1938. They considered themselves more action oriented and secured a larger following which was essential for recruitment. Ministers preached about the importance of exploiting the right to vote and counseled black people to go to the polls. One of these ministers was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. who personified a model for his son. As assistant secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, said: “The issue of civil rights is politics. If we are to win the fight for civil rights we must use our political strength” (qtd. in ibid.: 26).
The more African Americans who requested to be registered, the less willing southern officials were to oblige. Misleading forms and absurd literacy tests that were different for blacks and whites appeared throughout the South. Even uneducated poor whites could pass them, but not qualified intelligent blacks. The worst situation was in Mississippi where literacy tests were accompanied by a poll tax and persisting white primaries despite its abolishment. Mississippi functioned as a closed society where blacks were kept at the bottom of the social strata with entirely unequal education, housing, and employment opportunities. In 1944, only 2,500 black adults managed to register out of 350,000 possible black voters. Despite the gloomy situation, blacks were encouraged with the successes of blacks in other states and in the decade after the war’s end 20,000 new black voters were added to registration lists. (ibid.: 22-28).
Still the migration from the South into northern and western cities continued because many African Americans opted to leave the vicious circle of endless racial hatred rather than endure it. Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland provided safe havens where the restrictions to become a registered voter were not so stringent, and the political influence of blacks increased in these cities. Time and again, blacks played an essential role in close elections. With their contribution, many racially orientated whites failed in their candidacies (Franklin and Moss 1994: 465).
Cities also provided a larger access to education, economic opportunities, and cultural institutions in contrast to rural areas where blacks remained more isolated, uneducated and dependant on whites. White Americans took for granted that their streets were paved, or that they were provided with police and fire protection. They did not think about regular sanitation disposal and had free access to recreational institutions (Steven 1991: 42-43). Many African Americans used their electoral power to improve the above mentioned basic public services. If they became members on ruling white councils, they strove to improve their social and materials conditions. In other words they considered the importance of the struggle not only as a tool to eliminate racial differences but also class ones.
Africans Americans were encouraged by both major and minor successes. With the slowly increasing number of black voters, more and more blacks were elected to judgeships, boards of education, or city councils. For example, by 1956 there were approximately forty of them in the North and South. The year 1954 brought blacks an unprecedented victory. For the first time in history, African Americans sent three representatives concurrently to Congress, namely Adam Clayton Powell from New York, William Dawson from Illinois, and Charles C. Diggs, Jr. from Detroit. Moreover, in 1964 Congress simultaneously had as many as six African American members (Franklin and Moss 1994: 466).
The work of the NAACP was divided after the war into two spheres. In the South its branches helped to remove the obstacles preventing blacks from registration while in the North leaders pushed the federal government for improvements in civil rights. They fought for a fair employment policy and better conditions in housing and education. It can be said that the NAACP transformed itself after the war from a protest organization to a more action oriented one (Sitkoff 1993: 18).
President Truman also contributed to the growing movement to resolve the delicate question of civil rights. As far as international affairs and the beginning of the Cold War were concerned, if the United States planned to wholly condemn communist ideology and openly come out against Russia, it could not allow itself to become an easy target in a counterattack. The question of civil rights was America’s weak link. The country that proclaimed democracy and freedom as its symbols and birthright had to deal with the fact that most of its black citizens were considered inferior, lived in unequal conditions of education, housing and employment and could not go to the polls. The President’s Committee on Civil Rights was aware of this and warned in 1947: “An American diplomat cannot argue for free elections in foreign lands without meeting the challenge that in sections of America qualified voters do not have access to the polls” (qtd in Steven 1991: 34). Japan was the first to publicly reveal the white racist tactics of violence and lynching in order to show the United States’ hypocrisy and to obtain the loyalty of non whites in China, India, and Latin America. In addition, Russia passed on this propaganda to the people of Africa and Asia (Sitkof 1993: 16).
Not only decisions concerning the United States’ foreign policy influenced President Truman. On hearing that uniformed black soldiers on their journeys home across the South were being murdered and having heard of the bloodshed in Columbia, Tennessee the President decided to act. He was disturbed by the threats of violence that whites used against blacks who wished to exercise their newly gained freedom. An interracial committee that was appointed by the President had one goal – to identify and analyze the root causes of inequality in America and to propose possible improvements. In the fall of 1947 President Truman was presented with the final report To Secure These Rights which recommended the abolishment of poll tax and any other obstacles blocking black advancement. Further desegregation of the military, in interstate transportation, and government should also be accomplished. The report concluded that the situation would require federal intervention. White politicians in the South were shocked by the report. Since southern support in the upcoming elections of 1948 was crucial regarding Cold War issues, the President decided to deal with the recommendations of the report cautiously (Steven 1991: 33-34).
That year another committee designated by the President suggested equal and integrated higher education for all and called for the abandonment of Jim Crow tactics practiced at schools. The third released report that year, Freedom to Serve suggested ways to achieve an integrated military. President Truman was determined to provide at least some solutions. He issued an executive order that guaranteed fair employment in the federal service for all. He explained his decision by stating that “the principles on which our Government is based require a policy of fair employment throughout the Federal establishment without discrimination because of race, color, religion, or national origin” (qtd. in Franklin and Moss 1994: 462). Moreover, in 1949 the army began to implement the second executive order issued in 1948 to integrate members into all positions regardless of race or color. The navy and air force also complied (ibid.).
In contrast to efforts on the federal level, a Gallup Poll conducted in March, 1948 found the opinions of most Americans, fifty six percent, did not sympathize with the President’s views regarding the changes in civil rights policies (Steven 1991: 39-40).
Increasing number of blacks who registered to vote after the war alarmed many whites, especially in the South. Many blacks had moved from rural areas to urban districts since the beginning of the century. Many of them studied and became well-educated. More and more of them became members of the NAACP, or CORE. The crusade for voter enrollment of blacks throughout the South indicated that the struggles on local level were becoming more closely connected with those on the national level. African Americans began to realize that the key to success was to be found in collective effort. Their self-confidence and belief became stronger with every victory they achieved. They elected the first black representatives and played an important role in some close elections.
On the other hand, they had to counter white resistance that was still strong. Large numbers of white Americans were exhausted by the war and their only wish was to return to the lives they led prior to the war. For many it was too soon to embrace such fundamental changes that would radically transform their society.
It may have happened that African Americans would be suppressed as after the First World War. White strength was extremely powerful and, in the name of the entrenched traditions, resolute to do whatever was necessary to maintain the status quo. Federal policy, however, was not on their side. Cold War issues forced the President to act in favour of equal civil rights for all. The time when the United States should become the actual symbol of democracy and unlimited opportunities for all was on the horizon.