The African American Civil Rights Movement As a Long Lasting Process of Struggle for Freedom

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2.3 The Second World War

2.3.1 Perception of the War and the Segregated Army

The Second World War proved to be an important catalyst for the expansion of the Civil Rights Movement. Blacks quickly condemned the horrible practises of Hitler, fascism, and the violence committed towards non Aryan races. Moreover, they realized that a fascist victory would have ended everything they had accomplished thus far. Conversely, Hitler’s defeat would allow them to focus on their struggle for civil rights. African Americans who would eagerly take part in the war and fight for the rights of the oppressed now had to focus their efforts on their own rights. The doctrine separate but equal still applied even in the army and blacks fought to remove and replace it with a more equal approach in the American forces. Many blacks had problems enlisting in some white only areas such as Tennessee and if accepted, they could serve only in subordinate positions such as aids to medical officers or chaplains. In a similar way, the Marines and the Army Air Corps excluded blacks from recruitment completely (Steven 1991: 2-7).

President Roosevelt was afraid of white soldiers’ reactions in the case of abolishment of segregation in the army. Not wanting to provoke riots and white discontent, he passed in 1940 the Selective Service Act that forbade discrimination in the drafting and training of men but still preserved a black and white army. Blacks were outraged by the decision. With the war in progress they could see how segregation negatively influenced service of both white and black Americans. For instance, in 1942 a black army private was shot while in the custody by white patrolmen. He was under arrest for refusing to vacate his seat on a bus which was reserved for whites only. In addition, the Red Cross association prevented the mixing of white and black donations to blood banks (ibid.).

The Navy championed the egalitarian approach of integration of blacks and served as a starting point for opposition against segregation. White and black soldiers spent much time together, were in permanent contact and thus stopped insisting on purposeless segregation (ibid.: 20). Franklin and Moss mention that “approximately 165,000 served in the navy, 5,000 in the Coast Guard, and 17,000 in the Marine Corps” (1994: 438). Even the Army Air corps allowed the enlistment of black soldiers who could be trained as pilots. At the end of the war, nearly six hundred of them flew aircraft. More than four thousand black women were admitted to the Women’s Army Corps. Moreover, the end of the war witnessed for the first time black and white troops fighting side by side on German soil (ibid.: 439-442).

2.3.2 The March on Washington Movement

On the eve of the Second World War, African Americans were disappointed both by the segregated military and the lack of employment opportunities. In response to the President’s Act, A. Philip Randolph, the militant trade union leader, organized in June 1941 the March on Washington Movement, abbrev. MOWM. The goal of this march was to desegregate the American army and to eliminate discrimination in employment. His movement obtained support from the NAACP, but rather than mobilizing middle-class reformers Randolph invited masses of black people to participate. It is estimated that the march numbered between 75,000 and 100,000 participants (Steven 1991: 8-13).

The President responded by establishing the Fair Employment Practise Committee. Not having the power of enforcement, it could only rely on publicity and the appeal to moral conscience when investigating discrimination. The unemployment of blacks was at a high of eleven percent in 1940. Their hopes in obtaining better jobs were thwarted by endless queues where whites were always attended to first with their requests for jobs (ibid.).

On the other hand, black employment indeed rose by over one million because of great the outflow of men from the military and union membership doubled. They even received jobs where they had earlier been refused. Black hiring at shipyards rose from 6,000 to 14,000 and in aircraft plants from zero to 5,000. Despite the fact that African Americans still worked in lower paid jobs and their incomes were half of whites, their economic conditions were improved and provided blacks with hope for the future. Moreover the MOWM roused black pride and by including the black masses of ordinary people, it foreshadowed the successful tactics of protest in the later Civil Rights Movement (ibid.).

2.3.3 The South during the War, Bloody Riots, and the NAACP

The South also recorded great changes during the 1940s. Agriculture became more mechanized, especially with tractors, and this caused large job losses for both white and black farm workers. Forced to search for jobs in different trades, 750,000 blacks left rural areas and moved to southern cities which offered a wider social setting for racial solidarity and where political and economic emancipation could be pursued (Steven 1991: 19).

Besides southern towns, many blacks moved to northern cities, namely Detroit. By 1943 50,000 southern blacks and another 500,000 whites had arrived there. While searching for jobs, blacks encountered resistance from whites, substandard living conditions, high infant mortality and a high rate of tuberculosis. Demands for relief led to further conflicts. Civil rights leaders became severely anxious following a bloody race riot at an amusement park on the 20th of June, 1943 where “thirty-four people had been killed, seven hundred injured, and $2 million in property destroyed” (ibid.: 10). By the end of the year 241 cases of racial violence erupted in forty-seven other cities. The NAACP appealed to black people to fight for their rights but to do it through non violence. Black leaders emphasized the importance of the civil rights struggle in the courts, legislatures and ballot boxes. During the war, the NAACP solved many cases of lynching and other forms of violence both at home and in the army. In addition, they fought against segregation on public buses, unequal educational facilities and demanded an end to poll tax restrictions. From 1940 till 1946 the NAACP membership increased from 50,000 to 450,000 (ibid.: 9-10).

The NAACP initiated lawsuits against white Democratic primaries held in the South. The year 1944 brought great success. On the fourth attempt the Supreme Court overruled Smith v. Allwright which concerned white Democratic primaries in the South. This decision paved the way to voter registrations for hundreds of thousands of blacks. This decision by the Supreme Court ruled that “where a primary was an integral part of the electoral process . . . blacks were entitled to the protection of the 15th Amendment, which sheltered their right to vote from racial discrimination” (ibid.: 16). Their success stemmed from cooperation between the NAACP on the national level and with grassroots forces. This increase in cooperation became a more common feature of the growing civil rights struggle. Still, the poll tax and literacy tests remained. Despite of that black voter registration in Texas rose from three percent in 1940 to twelve percent in 1947 (ibid.: 13-17).

The work of the NAACP was supported during the war by the newly founded organization known as the Congress of Racial Equality, founded in 1942, abbrev. CORE. It originated in black activism and was more openly oriented towards taking direct action. Membership was open to both blacks and whites who believed that direct action could bring immediate resolution to racist problems. Founded in Chicago by pacifists, CORE remained faithful to the principles of non violence. The membership organized numerous sit-ins and picketing campaigns in the North aimed at the desegregation of public accommodations. Their unusual techniques led to the desegregation of restaurants and movie theatres in Detroit, Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago. They also had success with restaurants in Washington, D.C., but to a lesser extent (ibid.: 9-10).

2.3.4 Summary

Fighting for these victories resulted in successes both abroad and on the home front. Firstly, the war provided opportunities to test new protest tactics, such as sit-ins or picketing which were successful in desegregating restaurants in several Northern cities. The newly formed organization CORE constituted a possible way on how to achieve changes. The fact that it was established by pacifists who refused to take part in violent race riots and preferred the non violent actions of sit-ins and picketing became an inspiration for others. Their approach coincided with appeals of NAACP leaders to avoid violence, although their means differed. Moreover, CORE also welcomed whites who were willing to support equal rights for blacks. Similarly, the MOWM showed that mass actions such as marches could bring success as well. Conversely, race clashes during 1943 confirmed again that open combat would bring only disappointment, injuries and death with no positive effect for future.

Secondly, the argument for segregation in the American military was weakened. The Supreme Court decision that ended white Democratic primaries in the South along with wartime migration into urban areas helped blacks to improve their economic conditions and employment opportunities. Finally, participation in the war itself contributed to the growth of black militancy. Black self perception had been changed by the war. This self-awareness as being equal with white men rose to such an extent that they refused to be only the servants of whites. Blacks comprehended that they shared full equality with white Americans and that acquiring first-class citizenship depended on the right to vote. The war provided black people with courage, pride and the resolution to stand up for themselves. In subsequent years, blacks would use the right to vote as a tool for the struggle against racial prejudices and to solidify their civil rights.

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