In January 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a State of the Union speech laying out the need for America to join the war against Hitler. He spoke of the Four Freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and the freedom from fear. While it was a rousing speech, it highlighted the gross inequality of equal rights at home.
One prominent civil rights activist who took up this disparity was African American labour leader A. Philip Randolph, who threatened to organise a march on the capital against the discrimination African Americans were facing in the armed forces and the defence industries.
“It is time to wake up Washington as it has never been shocked before,” he announced.
To prevent the march, which many feared would result in race riots and international embarrassment, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 that banned “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”
The order established the Committee on Fair Employment Practices (known as FEPC) to receive and investigate discrimination complaints and take appropriate steps to redress valid grievances.
During the war, African Americans rushed to enlist in the armed forces, with 125,000 serving abroad. However, even in service, they experienced racism, discrimination and violence. Only 48 African American nurses were allowed to be recruited, and even these initially experienced segregation from white nurses and soldiers.
African American soldiers had to train in different camps and even in the frontline were separated out from their white colleagues. Despite the discrimination faced, many served with distinction. The Tuskegee Airmen, the 761st Tank Battalion and the 452nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion were three of the best known African American units, and their heroism helped shape the changing attitudes of many more liberal whites towards race and segregation.
The war gave African Americans an opportunity at home, too. With millions of men away at war, coupled with the huge expansion of industrial output required to arm and equip the war effort, African American men and women suddenly had access to jobs which had previously been unavailable to them. This brought them money, new skills and the chance to join unions.
The direction of travel was certainly not all one way, as many people of colour faced very real and increased discrimination at home. Almost 110,000 people of Japanese descent from Oregon, Washington, and California were placed in internment camps.
The Double V Campaign
Another key voice highlighting the gulf between Roosevelt’s lofty words and the reality for African Americans was the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest African American newspaper in the country.
Founded in 1907, the Courier campaigned hard for racial justice, often highlighting the comparison between the treatment of African Americans in the United States with that of the Jews in Nazi Germany.
Stung by the ferocity of the attacks, Roosevelt even wrote to the newspaper’s editor, Robert Vann, requesting that he tone down the rhetoric.
The paper complied for a while, but on 31 January 1942, just weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack which led to the US entering the war, it published a letter from James G. Thompson, a defence worker from Wichita, Kansas, who like most other African Americans, had experienced segregated workplaces and lower-skilled jobs.
"Why should I shed my blood for Roosevelt’s America, for Cotton Ed Smith and Senator Bilbo, for the whole Jim Crow, negro-hating south, for the low-paid, dirty jobs for which negroes have to fight, for the few dollars of relief and the insults, discrimination, police brutality, and perpetual poverty to which negroes are condemned even in the more liberal north?"
Titled “Should I Sacrifice to Live Half American?”, it questioned whether he should fight for a country that discriminated against him.
Thompson ended the letter reminding readers that the “V” for victory sign being displayed everywhere as part of the war effort, meant victory over the racism, tyranny and aggression of the Axis powers.
He then called for a “double VV for victory” sign, with the first V standing for the victory of enemies from without and the second V for victory over enemies within – by which he meant at home in the United States.
The Pittsburgh Courier took up the slogan and a week later published a front page with a Double V insignia and the headline: Democracy at Home-Abroad.
The response from its readers wad overwhelmingly positive, with a survey carried out some time later showing that 88% backed the campaign.
The campaign soon spread beyond the newspaper, with those serving in the military particularly enthusiastic, with some even carving the Double V on their chests. There was now a widespread determination among African Americans that they would no longer tolerate Jim Crow segregation any longer.
The Double V campaign proved to be the opening salvo in the civil rights movement.
Others were fighting for racial justice too. The NAACP was among several groups working to end discrimination in the armed forces. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organisation founded to seek change through nonviolent means, conducted the first sit-ins to challenge the South’s Jim Crow laws.
Social pressure to end segregation also increased during and after the war. In 1944, the publication of Gunnar Myrdal's classic study of race relations, An American Dilemma, "offered an uncompromising account of the long history of racial injustice and a candid analysis of the economics of inequality.”
Segregation and inequality within the US were brought into sharp focus on the world stage after the war, prompting federal and judicial action. President Harry Truman appointed a special committee to investigate racial conditions, with its report To Secure These Rights detailing a civil rights agenda.
Completed in 1947, To Secure These Rights as well as legal victories in Supreme Court cases paved the way for the Second Reconstruction – a period when the nation began to correct civil and human rights abuses that had lingered in American society.
President Truman issued an executive order that abolished racial discrimination in the military, while the NAACP won significant Supreme Court victories and mobilised a mass lobby of organisations to press Congress to pass civil rights legislation.
Other notable African American successes during the period included Jackie Robinson breaking through into Major League Baseball, and civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and George Houser leading African American and white riders on a “Journey of Reconciliation” to challenge racial segregation on interstate buses.
Journey of Reconciliation
In early 1947, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) announced plans to send eight white and eight African American men into the South to test the Supreme Court ruling which outlawed segregation in interstate travel. Organised by Rustin and Houser, the Journey of Reconciliation was to be a two week trip through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Reaction to the plans were mixed, with many in the NAACP voicing concern. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP's legal department, was strongly against the trip, warning that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved.”
Despite these objections, Rustin and Houser went ahead with their plans and the Journey of Reconciliation began on 9 April 1947.
It was not long before it ran into opposition. One rider, James Peck, who was white, was arrested with Rustin along with Andrew Johnson in Durham. On his release, Peck was quickly arrested again, this time in Asheville, and charged with breaking local Jim Crow laws. In Chapel Hill, Peck and four other members of the team were dragged off the bus and assaulted before being arrested by the local police.
In North Carolina, Rustin and Johnson were found guilty of violating the state's bus statute and were sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. However, Judge Henry Whitfield made it clear he found that behaviour of the white men even more objectionable, telling two of them: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down her bringing your ******s with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days, and I give you ninety.”
The trip attracted widespread publicity and put CORE into the national limelight. Years later, Houser would write:
“We in the non-violent movement of the 1940s certainly thought that we were initiating something of importance in American life. Of course, we weren't able to put it into perspective then. but we were filled with vim and vigor, and we hoped that a mass movement could develop, even if we did not think that we were going to produce it. In retrospect, I say we were precursors. the things we did in the 1940s were the same things that ushered in the civil rights revolution."
Jim Crow crumbles
The campaign against the Jim Crow laws was finally settled in a Supreme Court ruling in 1954, when in the Brown v. Board of Education case the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
In making this decision, the Court overruled the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which had deemed that racially segregated public facilities were legal, so long as the facilities for Blacks and whites were equal.
The origins of the Brown v. Board of Education case were a class-action suit filed by Oliver Brown against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1951, after his daughter, Linda Brown was denied entrance to Topeka’s all-white elementary schools.
In the lawsuit, Brown claimed that schools for African American children were not equal to the white schools, and so violated the so-called “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment which required that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The case went before the U.S. District Court in Kansas, which agreed that public school segregation had a “detrimental effect upon the colored children” and contributed to “a sense of inferiority,” but still upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine.
The case eventually went to the Supreme Court in 1952, but at first the court was divided, with Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson holding the opinion that the Plessy verdict should stand.
But Vinson’s death in September 1953, before Brown v. Board of Education was to be heard, allowed President Dwight D. Eisenhower to appoint Earl Warren, the-then governor of California, to the bench. This shifted the balance of power within the court and resulted in a unanimous verdict against school segregation the following year.
In the decision, issued on 17 May 1954, Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place”, as segregated schools were “inherently unequal.” As a result, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”
The birth of the modern civil rights movement had begun.