The Second World War and America’s Civil Rights Activists
When Barack Obama is sworn in on Tuesday, former Tuskegee Airmen will be among his honored guests. These black veterans of the Second World War were trained in segregated American squadrons under the most difficult conditions, becoming the first African-American fighter pilots, who flew missions with great success.
Historical scholarship has long neglected the role black American soldiers played in freeing Europe from nationalism and fascism. But it has paid even less attention to the enormous influence the war against Hitler and his racial ideology had on the American civil rights movement. Harvard Sitkoff, a pioneer in the field of “African American Studies,” who now teaches history at the University of New Hampshire, calls World War II a turning point in the fight against racism in America. Even though segregation continued to exist, Sitkoff explained in a presentation at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, the war dealt a crucial blow to the Jim Crow Laws. The institute, together with the Heidelberg Center for American Studies and Vassar College in New York, is working to elucidate the transatlantic aspects of the civil rights movement.
Sitkoff claims that one can see how much the demographic, social, economic, political, and ideological unrest of the war years and the deployment of black soldiers to Europe advanced the struggle against segregation simply by looking at the membership numbers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). From 1940 to 1946, this civil rights organization grew from 50,000 to 400,000 members. Sitkoff, himself a veteran of the movement, attributes this development primarily to the “Double-V-Campaign” (Double Victory Campaign) of the association. With the support of black journalists, intellectuals, and artists, NAACP leaders used the military campaign against fascism in Europe to denounce segregation and discrimination at home.
Sitkoff quoted a commentary from the NAACP publication The Crisis from January 1942. The status of blacks in Washington, it declared, differed “only a little” from that of Jews in Berlin, and “if the ghettos in Poland are evil, so are the ghettos in America.” That black soldiers experienced the paradox of enjoying more rights and freedoms in Germany than in their home country, which presented itself as the defender of human rights and democracy, Sitkoff claimed, gave a decisive boost to the campaign on the home front. President Truman finally felt forced to act when numerous black war veterans became victims of violence in the South upon returning. These assaults galvanized the American government to impose civil rights with the help of a presidential mandate—that is, with the very tool later discredited in the fight against terrorism.