Despite dedicating their lives to America's service, Black Americans who served in WWII faced racial segregation from White American soldiers and those from other countries.
According to records, some 1.2 million Black men served in the United States military during World War II. Sadly, their decision to defend America did not spare them from racism and the harsh treatments they received from their comrades.
After America's first peacetime draft law birthed the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940, civil rights activists pressured then American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to allow Black men to register and serve in integrated regiments.
Although history recorded the involvement and contribution of African Americans in every conflict since the American Revolutionary War, the American government was not interested in integrating them into the system. Authorities wanted Black men to fight for America but did not want to elevate their status as second-class citizens into the American Army.
When the need for more United States Armed Forces arose as the war across Europe intensified, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that Black men could register for the draft. His condition was that they would remain segregated, and the military would determine the proportion of their induction into the service.
The compromise represented the paradoxical experience of the 1.2 million African American men who served in World War II: They fought for democracy overseas while being treated as second-class citizens.
Despite their eagerness to fight in World War II, African American soldiers were victims of the Jim Crow laws just like every Black individual in American society.
In all the military bases and training facilities, including Fort Huachuca, located in Arizona, which was the most significant military installation for Black soldiers in America, Black soldiers were not allowed to use the same blood banks, hospitals, medical staff, barracks, and recreational facilities as their white comrades.
In addition to this, the Black soldiers were often victims of racial abuse from White soldiers and residents who harassed them.
"The experience was very dispiriting for a lot of Black soldiers," says Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College and author of Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African American Newspapers.
"The kind of treatment they received by white officers in army bases in the United States was horrendous. They described being in slave-like conditions and treated like animals. They were called racial epithets quite regularly and just not afforded respect either as soldiers or human beings."
Regardless of their distinct physical and intelligence attributes in combat and strategy, African American soldiers were mostly relegated to labour and service units. The military did not see them fit for leadership positions.
Working as cooks and mechanics, building roads and ditches, and unloading supplies from trucks and airplanes were everyday tasks for Black soldiers. And for the few who did make officer rank, they could only lead other Black men.
As Christopher Paul Moore wrote in his book, Fighting for America: Black Soldiers—The Unsung Heroes of World War II, "Black Americans carrying weapons, either as infantry, tank corps, or as pilots, was simply an unthinkable notion…More acceptable to southern politicians and much of the military command was the use of black soldiers in support positions, as non-combatants or laborers."
African American soldiers regularly reported their mistreatment to the Black press and the NAACP, pleading for the right to fight on the front lines alongside white soldiers.
"The Black press was quite successful in advocating for Blacks soldiers in World War II," Delmont wrote in his book. "They point out the hypocrisy of fighting a war that was theoretically about democracy while having a racially segregated army."
In 1942, the Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier—in response to a letter to the editor by James G. Thompson, a 26-year-old Black soldier, in which he wrote, "Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?"—launched the Double V Campaign.
The campaign gave Black journalists and activists a platform to protest against racism ad demand better treatment for African American soldiers. It highlighted the soldiers' contributions in the war effort and exposed the discrimination that Black soldiers endured while fighting for liberties that African Americans themselves didn't have.
However, like many other protests before and after it, very little was achieved.
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