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The 1940s: the war years

Merdies Hayes | 2/22/2012, 5 p.m.

A people newly delighted in liberty by federal decree yet tormented by popular scorn and legal indifference exemplified courage amid a rapidly changing national landscape during the 1940s. New citizens from Eastern Europe, the Orient and Latin America would call America home from New York City to Chicago, from San Francisco to Seattle, and from Louisiana and Texas and throughout the Southwest. As immigrants came to America, African Americans were also on the move, migrating from the South to better opportunities in a burgeoning new industrial age.

The winds of impending war in Europe and the Pacific were the natural call to arms in 1940s America, whose worn and weary citizenry was anxious and adamant about revving up its powerful economic engine once relieved of the Great Depression. African Americans were equally ignited by a new charge in social improvement, because their confidence in American progress and posterity had been shaken greatly by the previous decade of worldwide economic turmoil and by three centuries of social and political injustice.

Franklin Roosevelt promised a "New Deal" with his election in 1932, but African Americans saw no identifiable change in their upward mobility in terms of national, state and local laws and a national disregard of 14th-Amendment rights.

Labor leader A. Philip Randolph, then president of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, in 1942 threatened a "March on Washington" by the hundreds of thousands to protest job discrimination in defense industries and the military. To avoid this, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which reaffirmed the policy of "full participation" in the defense program by all persons, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.

Roosevelt invited Randolph to the Oval Office and reportedly met the labor leader with an unusual question: "Mr. Randolph, instead of you asking 'how can the government help the Negro,' I'd like to know how your [people] can assist me?'" Randolph swiftly provided the president with an eloquent plea in a famous news article, spelling out for the masses the near-tyrannical plight of wartime African Americans: "The March on Washington is essentially a movement of the people. It is all-Negro and pro-Negro, but not for that reason anti-White or anti-Semitic, or anti-Catholic ... it's major weapon is the nonviolent demonstration of Negro mass power."

Though the armed services had once again become segregated with African Americans serving primarily in support roles, a number of African American veterans distinguished themselves during the war. Doris "Dorie" Miller was a mess attendant on the U.S.S. West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Miller manned an antiaircraft machine gun and downed several Japanese planes before being ordered to abandon the sinking ship. Miller's courage and devotion to duty earned him the Navy Cross, the first ever awarded to an African American sailor. Miller was killed in action in 1943.

Defense officials were reluctant to allow African American nurses to attend to White wounded personnel, but commonplace racial prohibitions did not prevent the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, bolstered in their cause by Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, from protesting wartime racial policies and achieving success in increasing the number of African American women in medical support roles at home. Also, civil rights groups and Black professional organizations pressed the government to provide training for Black pilots on an equal basis with Whites. A result was the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen, which flew escort missions into southern Europe and North Africa. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., son of the first African American general, and his 99th Fighter Squadron played a pivotal role in the liberation of Tunisia.