The Impact of African Americans during World War II

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The United States was seen as a nation divided by the start of World War II. This division was spurred by race and religion. World War II is known for being a war centered around humanity, prejudice and basic human rights. While the Holocaust, Nazi Germany and Pearl Harbor are popular topics regarding World War II African Americans were ultimately the underdogs of the 1940’s. The civil rights movements that followed were direct results of their impact during World War II. Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery was legally brought to an end. However, African Americans still did not see the right to vote until 1965 (Foner 412). This meant that throughout World War II, African Americans could fight as partially free and independent Americans. This essay will take an in-depth look at life for African Americans during World War II, and how their actions later sparked the foundation for the civil rights movements.

Many Americans saw World War II as a contradicting war. It’s ironic knowing the United States of America, the greatest power and democracy in the world, is fighting to defend the honor of the mistreated Jewish people of Europe while forcing segregation and prejudice of African Americans. These contradicting views caused America, as a whole, to take a step back and look at what they were truly fighting for.
World War II showed to be extremely beneficial to the status and fight of segregation throughout the country. At the beginning of the war, African Americans had a very minimal role in the armed forces due to discrimination and prejudice. After the United States was bombed at Pearl Harbor their involvement in the war was unavoidable. This participation emphasized the overall need for more soldiers on the front lines. African Americans were involuntarily involved in the war at that point. Foner stated, During the war, more than 1 million blacks served in the armed forces (Foner 701). This monumental number shows the important and underestimated role that African Americans played in the war.

The definition of freedom during World War II was different based on who you were and where you lived. To most African Americans, freedom was seen more as the end of discrimination, misunderstanding and injustice rather than a basic human right. The generalized public saw freedom as defending America and not allowing an enemy of war to invade the American way of life. Even though both were fighting under the same nation, African Americans and white citizens were definitely fighting for difference causes.

African Americans saw no racial improvements while fighting in the war. Blacks were completely segregated to their own platoons and transportation systems (Foner 701). Meanwhile, in America, there was a massive migration of southern African Americans to the north and west seeking paying jobs and better living conditions. This migration was seen as The Second Great Migration. Foner stated, About 700,000 black migrants poured out of the South on what they called liberty trains,’ seeking jobs in the industrial heartland (Foner 701). This was a monumental opportunity for African Americans, but it did not come without hardships. After the large African American population shift, the majority still did not find jobs. Meanwhile riots and fights broke out in these industrial neighborhoods that they were seeking employment. The social disturbances are emphasized when Foner said, In 1943, a fight at a Detroit city park spiraled into a race riot that left thirty-four persons dead, and a hate strike of 20,000 workers protested the upgrading of black employees in a plant manufacturing aircraft engines. (Foner 701). At the time of the migration, the African American population was still seeking the same rights, jobs and courtesies as their fellow white citizens. The change was still yet to come.

The neglect to African Americans after the migrations directly led towards the modern civil rights movement from Philip Randolph, Jesse Owens, and Martin Luther King Jr. Randolph, one of the most influential African Americans of the twentieth century, spoke up. In 1941, Randolph called for an African American march on Washington (Foner 702). Foner further explains by stating, His demands included access to defense employment, an end to segregation, and a national anti-lynching law (Foner 702). This powerful, and persuasive idea scared the government all the way to the point of compromise. President Roosevelt issued a new executive order which implemented the diminishment of segregation in defense jobs and a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to monitor compliance (Foner 702). This executive order was easily seen as one of the most crucial documents benefiting the entire African American population in the twentieth century. This aided in adding an immense amount of manufacturing and war defense jobs for blacks across the United States. According to Foner, By 1944, more than 1 million blacks, 300,000 of them women, held manufacturing jobs (Foner 702). As the war raged on, the African American people found their footing on insisting the same basic human rights they were fighting and protecting others for. As various conditions were slowly improving African Americans were finally feeling a sense of entitlement and belonging to the nation.

Another major influential African American during World War II was the Olympic hero, Jesse Owens. This African American athlete completely dominated the 1936 summer Olympics which were being held in Germany, during the war. Owens ended up setting world records and winning gold medals in front of the Nazi Germany supremacist himself, Adolf Hitler. According to Mike Milford of Sports in History, a requirement at the time of hosting the Olympics, the leader is to congratulate the winning athletes on their victories. However, Hitler famously refused to do so with Owens, who easily won every event against Hitler’s’ caucasian German team. Jesse was the only Olympian out of the entire field of Olympic athletes that did not get congratulated by Adolf. Most Americans did not get the chance to watch Owens’ numerous medal ceremonies. Hitler was too embarrassed and morally destroyed knowing he lost to an African American to even broadcast it to the world.

The final and the most infamous African American civil rights leader of the twentieth century was Martin Luther King Jr. The most colossal component that commenced the Civil Rights Movement was The March on Washington in 1963. During this famous march, hundreds of thousands of Americans crowded around Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington D.C. as he gave his famous I Have a Dream Speech (Foner 776). The speech not only fired up the souls of African Americans, but all Americans as he explained his vision of how the United States could easily and efficiently work with both whites and blacks intertwined in everyday societal activities. He continued to explain how he dreams someday that his children will be able to have a crucial and active role in society without being judged by the color of their skin but solely on the content of their character. This speech has gone down in history as one of the most influential and powerful messages ever presented in a social environment. The results of what came afterward are proof enough.

These three African American men were viewed as the major catalysts that played a consequential role in America throughout the twentieth century. Randolph, Owens, and Luther King Jr. not only initiated the Civil Rights Movement, but also gave hope and fuel to others following the influential movements. The civil rights movement was successfully ignited because of the due-diligence and perseverance of African Americans, their hard-working and passionate views consequently sparked other movements such as the Selma-to-Montgomery March, and the rise of Malcolm X.

At the start of 1965 Martin Luther King Jr. led one of his African American voting campaigns in Selma, Alabama. His presence and influence was needed in this particular location because only two percent of the total African American population in the city of Selma could vote (Foner 783). As a sense of power from King and his supporters grew, they knew that a defiant march upon Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, was inevitable. The people needed to make a stand to the lawmakers of Alabama, at any cost. With thousands of African Americans gathering for this march, all eyes throughout the United States turned to King Jr. and his followers. All of the advocates marching against the government knew it would not be an easy or painless defiance of power. Foner further explains this by stating, state police assaulted them with cattle prods, whips, and tear gas (Foner 783). This statement by Foner shows how desperately these African American people wanted their voices to be heard. These African Americans wanted to be heard not only by the lawmakers of Alabama, but also by the entire country. Those participating in the march sent a strong message to everyone across the United States, that no matter how long or tough the road to equality will be, every single one of them will stand strong for what they believe in. King Jr. and his followers found themselves successful after getting their message out to the public. In 1965, congress passed the Voting Rights Act. This act prohibited the rejection of voting because of race, color, or experience as a slave. Even though African Americans just obtained a main component of equality they were striving for, this was not the end.

Malcolm X, an orator from Nebraska, found himself walking against the normalities of the civil rights movement. Foner says, he had insisted that blacks must control the political and economic resources of their communities and rely on their own efforts rather than working with whites (Foner 788). This quote shows that life for African Americans through Malcolm’s eyes were still not good enough. Instead of just coinciding with whites, he wanted some African Americans to hold power. Malcolm saw the opportunity for African Americans to make a difference in their desired communities. He emphasized the need to become an independent community and not have to rely of whites (Foner 788). Even though X was fighting for independence within the African American society, he still showed the importance for whites and blacks to peacefully work together to improve the interracial relations throughout the United States. After forming his own organization in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated (Foner 788). His thoughts and ideologies were closely followed by millions and his beliefs were carried on throughout the end of the civil rights movement by those who believed in him.

Nothing can be done to repair the wrongs of slavery or discrimination throughout history. No matter how much time goes by, the cruel treatment of African Americans will always be a ghost in America’s past. After the movements led by Randolph, Owens, King Jr, and Malcolm X, America is forced to look at an equal and non-discriminatory society. These men spent most of their lives fighting for freedom, and as a joint effort, they obtained it. After these leaders passed away, the tides turned, and America was now seen as a glass half full. A bright, optimistic future is inevitably ahead for every citizen proud to call themselves American.

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