The Afro-American and the Second World War

Wynn, Neil Alan (1973). The Afro-American and the Second World War. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000debb

Abstract

The second World War had a great impact on the black American population. The issues of military participation and the aims expressed in Allied propaganda were seized upon by Afro-Americans in order to press their claims for equality at home. This war on two fronts, as it was called, found expression in black newspapers, in literature, and in song and the common theme was that service in the armed forces or in defence industries would, or at least should, be rewarded with equal citizenship rights.

The militant campaigns launched by blacks at this time, particularly the March on Washington Movement, resulted in 'guided' changes : changes resulting from government actions to reduce discrimination in industry and the armed forces. More important, however, were the 'unguided, changes which came about as a result of the war itself. Manpower shortages in industry after 1942 led to increased employment of blacks and in a greater variety of jobs than previously experienced. Similar shortages in the Army in 1944 led to a successful experiment in integration which undermined the basis of segregation in the forces.

Such changes did not go unresisted and the massive migration of Afro-Americans to centres of war production, and their own belligerence, led to conflict with whites over employment and housing. In 1943 a number of cities were disrupted by race riots, the largest of which took place in Detroit. More sympathetic whites urged their countrymen to practice what they preached abroad in their own country, a message which was taken up by President Truman when he acted in the field of civil rights after the war. The riots and race conflict of the 1940s demonstrated the importance race relations had achieved during, and because of the war: they were also a foretaste of the things to come when black hopes and expectations were crushed in the 1950s.

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