World War II as a Turning Point for the Civil Rights Movement

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World War II as a Turning Point for the Civil Rights Movement

Izona J. Burgess

Stratton Elementary School

AHTC Summer Institute 2007

What makes history? Usually it is an unforgettable moment, a fulcrum upon which other events turn. WWII history is not only the story of battles won, or lives lost. It is also a very human story of the history of battles fought, both on and off the battlefields. It is a war of small personal stories that don’t make the newspapers, and the accumulation of daily actions that eventually build sufficient momentum to redirect the course of human lives. Throughout the Summer Institute, whatever information was presented, my thoughts continually turned to the role that African Americans played during this war. Professor Mark Leff, our Tuesday speaker, began my thinking with his topic, “Rethinking the Good War” and viewing history as a recognition of the roots of change, and his statement that WWII served as a key period in which Americans decided who was part of “her community” and who was not. Throughout his lecture, it was hard for me to understand how the words, “good” and “war” could be used in the same sentence. But if “good” can be used to denote change that would eventually alter the course of history for African Americans, as well as other excluded minorities, it is an understood, though confusing choice of words. An overarching theme of the war has to be “hate” with the Holocaust as a backdrop and the mistreatment of other minorities as the norm. My thinking was further enhanced by Thursday’s speaker, Dr. James Barrett, and his topic—“The Peoples’ War?: The Domestic Impact of WWII”. His lecture resonated with me long after it was finished, because my thinking began to center around the changes on the domestic front for African Americans during the war with the signing of Executive Order 8802 by President Roosevelt. This Order banned work discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin for defense contractors. I also considered the many significant and landmark battles that African Americans fought after the war that were in many ways directly related to the battles fought during the war. African Americans involved in the war were essentially fighting two wars—a war against the Axis and a war against segregation, and nowhere was this more evident than in the 1942 Double V campaign, which I will share a bit later as part of my examination of primary documents to use in teaching aspects of World War II with students. Typical teaching of African Americans and World War II usually centers around the Tuskegee Airmen and the battle they waged to be recognized as airmen who were capable of fighting for their country. With the materials from the Summer Institute, I can now call attention to other seldom-heard battles, and share with students the “small” stories to better understand the “big” ones.

The first primary document that I will share is a piece of writing by J. Saunders Redding, an African-American, entitled “I Believe in This War”. I chose this document because it seemed contrary to the thinking of many African-Americans at that time. As it states in the introduction, “American society was a segregated society. Racism was institutionalized in laws and customs that kept African Americans apart from white citizens. What the war meant to African Americans is poignantly and forcefully told here. Its legacy and its connections with the Civil War are detailed. Redding also discusses patriotism and what it meant to him.” This document was taken from the Nextext publication, World War II, and is found on pages 173-177. I chose it because I was looking for a perspective on what World War II meant to segregated blacks, and was drawn to its title. I think that it would be difficult for African-Americans, today, to understand such thinking in light of the discrimination that blacks endured at that time. Mr. Saunders, who lived from 1906-1988, and was the son of a postal worker eventually went on to become an educator, a novelist, and a poet, and his work helped to educate both black and white Americans about the hardships of racism and the plight of the black American during segregation. This article was written for both blacks and whites, and helped one to see how blacks were essentially fighting two wars. Mr. Redding’s family seemed to instill in him just enough cynicism so that his claim to “believe” in this war doesn’t seem coerced or “selling out”. Three things that he says that are important are:

  1. He believes in the war, yet there are many things he does not like, comparing it to one’s belief in Christianity, noting aspects of it that he doesn’t agree with.

  2. He does not like the overt racism that exists in the camps with references to the Japs as “yellow bastards,” “yellow bellies,” and “yellow monkeys” and that the world did not officially know that there were Negro soldiers on Bataan with General Wainwright.

  3. This is a war to keep men free and to broaden and lengthen the road of freedom…our own private and important war to enlarge freedom here in America will come later. He explains this as the real reason that Negroes have to fight.

I think that the real reason that he wrote this article was to justify his reasons for supporting the war when it was such a divisive issue for so many African Americans who felt disenfranchised. He doesn’t write the article as an idealist. He says that he knows the inequalities, the outraged hopes and faith and inbred hate, but the advances that are made, the barriers that are leveled; the privileges that grow are “worth it”. He goes on to describe it as “the bit of road of freedom that stretches through America is worth fighting for to preserve.” And to sum it up by saying, “The fact that, I, a Negro in America can fight against the evils in America is worth fighting for.” helps to justify his position. This article clearly helps to counter the notion that America at the time of World War II was anything but “United We Stand” and that racism was running rampant, both in and out of the military. Both professors, Leff and Barrett, shared just enough information with the discussion of the Zoot Suit Rots and Executive Orders being made by the president to pique my interest in this topic, and to use it as a basis of discussion with students.

One of the ways that I would use this document with my students is as a way of providing background information to support my thesis at the outset of using World War II as a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement, a topic that is always timely as a Social Science study. I would want my students to note the words used in the text, such as “Negroes” or “yellow monkeys” in reference to the Japanese. I think some of the terminology would help my students to think historically since these are not terms that are used, today. Much of what I would like for my students to get from the text is outlined in the Study Guides, which accompany the text, and make it easy for the teacher to use. One of the key points, as outlined in the study guide is for students to recognize that Redding’s concerns in life are rooted in his daily struggle to survive as a black American in segregation. His fight is for broader social freedoms for himself and his family, who were born into a country where the hopes of the white-dominated nations were achieved partially at the blacks’ expense. However, the fight that he is waging, like the world war itself, is founded on the purity of democracy, which he does believe in.

And, finally, since my thesis involves getting students to view World War II as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, I would have them view and reflect upon other follow-up documents that support/counter some of Redding’s claims:

  • A letter from an African American Soldier

  • A letter from a mother of an African American Soldier

  • A letter from an African American aviator

  • Executive Order 8802

  • United We Win Poster Proganda

  • Contrast with Double V Campaign

  • Executive Order 9981

  • Letter from a Japanese American (soldier) to his Dad in an internment camp.

I would also help students to appreciate the war’s impact along racial lines on a local level by sharing two contrasting photos that I’ve linked, together, and have them share their thoughts. The photos show a celebration of navy personnel and others in downtown Champaign following the war, along with a contrasting photo of an African-American cleaning the streets following the celebration. This will serve as a catalyst for examining “milestones” of the Civil Rights Movement, with many African American leaders in the forefront of World War II, playing a pivotal role in the movement, beginning with:

  • 1948 Executive Order 9981

  • 1954 Brown v. Board of Education

  • 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott

  • 1957 Little Rock Nine

  • 1960 Lunch Counter Sit-Ins

  • 1961 Freedom Riders

  • 1963 March on Washington

  • 1964 Civil Rights Act
  • 1965 Selma March

  • 1965 Voting Rights Act

This all helps to support the notion stated at the outset that history is an accumulation of daily actions that eventually build sufficient momentum to redirect the course of human lives!

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