In the late 1930s and the early 1940s, the attention of African Americans focused on events in Europe—rise of dictators, Germany’s invasion of Eastern Europe, and Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. Blacks protested Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and raised funds for Ethiopian relief. Black newspapers ran stories about the invasion, and the Pittsburgh Courier sent its own correspondent to North Africa to cover the story.
African Americans were also quick to recognize the danger of Nazism and its theories of Aryan superiority. To many, it resembled the segregationist rhetoric of the American South. At the Berlin Olympics of 1936, black track star Jesse Owens carried the pride of nonwhites as he symbolically confronted Hitler’s theories. In races against Germans and other Europeans, Owens won four gold medals.
By the end of 1940, France had fallen to Hitler’s forces, and Germany, Italy, and Japan had formed an alliance. Within a year, Japan had moved into China and Southeast Asia. The United States imposed trade sanctions on Japan, but these failed to restrain Japan’s expansion. On Sunday morning December 7, 1941, Japan attacked American forces stationed at Pearl Harbor and other U.S. military facilities on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. A black mess attendant aboard the USS West Virginia, Dorie Miller, was among those later cited for distinction during the battle. In the heat of battle, he pulled his wounded captain to safety. Although he had never fired a machine gun before, Miller shot down as many as four attacking planes, for which he later received the Navy Cross for heroism.
When the war began in Europe in 1937, there were only about 5000 black enlisted men and fewer than a dozen black officers in the regular army. Before the war ended in 1945 more than a million black men and about 4000 black women had served in the armed forces. Nearly half served abroad, most in Europe and North Africa, but thousands also served in the Pacific. African Americans served in all branches of the military during the war.
In 1941 the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first black combat unit in the Army Air Corps, was established in Tuskegee, Alabama. More than 600 black pilots trained for this highly decorated unit. They completed more than 500 missions in the first year of America’s involvement in the war. Over 80 were decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for combat over France, Germany, North Africa, and Eastern Europe.
Yet even as blacks participated in the war abroad, black military troops suffered all too familiar discrimination at home. In 1941, 100 African American officers were arrested for protesting the whites-only policy of the officer’s club at Freeman Field in Indiana. In 1943 William Hastie, aide to the U.S. Secretary of War, resigned his office to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces.
By 1940 American factories were hiring new workers for war production, finally relieving the depression’s stubborn unemployment. But blacks benefited less than white workers from rising employment and increased wages. Discrimination in employment and wage policies continued to create disadvantages for black workers.
Early in 1941, A. Philip Randolph met with Roosevelt administration officials to demand equal employment for blacks in industries working under federal government defense contracts. He threatened to lead 100,000 African Americans in a march on Washington, D.C., to protest job discrimination. Negotiations were heated, but finally Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 forbidding discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin in the employment of workers for defense industries with federal contracts. The order also established a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to oversee the implementation of the order. Roosevelt’s actions immediately opened thousands of steady well-paying jobs to black workers and encouraged a new surge of migration from the South to Northern cities.
The need for labor opened factory work to women and drew large numbers from the domestic jobs many had taken during the worst days of the depression. Working in war industries, black women found that the pay was better and the work was generally less physically demanding than domestic work. Also many black women who had lost domestic jobs to white women during the 1930s now returned to take those jobs as whites left them. African American men and women fully engaged in the war effort were determined to pursue a ‘Double V Campaign,’ victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home. Consequently, the pace of civil rights protest quickened during the mid-1940s.
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