History Stories

Publish date:

Did World War II Launch the Civil Rights Movement?

Centuries of prejudice and discrimination against blacks fueled the civil rights crusade, but World War II and its aftermath were arguably the main catalysts.

The civil rights movement was a fight for equal rights under the law for African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. Centuries of prejudice and discrimination fueled the crusade, but World War II and its aftermath were arguably the main catalysts.

A. Philip Randolph’s crusade against discrimination prodded Roosevelt into action.

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a State of the Union speech outlining the need for America to help Europe fight against Hitler’s tyranny.

He spoke famously of Four Freedoms for all: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It was an admirable vision, but few American blacks of the era enjoyed true freedom of any kind.

As America prepared for war, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington to protest segregation and discrimination in the armed forces and defense industries.

The threat brought increased attention to race relations and compelled Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 which prohibited, “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”

VIDEO: Tuskegee Airmen

WWII veteran Luther Smith flew with the all-black Tuskegee Airmen squadron.

Blacks served admirably in the war.

Prior to World War II, about 4,000 blacks served in the armed forces. By the war’s end, that number had grown to over 1.2 million, though the military remained segregated.

Black Americans served their country with distinction: At first, they worked as support troops, but as casualties increased many became infantrymen, airmen, medics and even officers.

All-black or mostly black units such as the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, the 761st Tank Battalion and the Tuskegee Airmen fought their way through Europe and earned reputations as courageous, honorable soldiers.

Yet, according to John C. McManus, Ph.D., Curators’ Distinguished Professor of U.S. Military History at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, “… quite commonly black soldiers found themselves confronted with ugly discrimination and segregation during off-duty hours in military towns, especially in the South.

“Probably the most famous instance of this was when Lt. Jackie Robinson refused to comply with the bus segregation at Ft. Hood. Many other incidents led to confrontations and significant violence and much social activism. At times, there were riots between white and black soldiers, even overseas as well.”

As whites at home went to war, blacks left behind had access to manufacturing jobs previously unavailable to them. They learned new skills, joined unions and became part of the industrial workforce.

United We Win

World War II home front poster. (Credit: David Pollack/Corbis/Getty Images)

The ‘Double V Campaign’ fought for victory at home and abroad.

In 1942, African American James G. Thompson wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier titled, “Should I Sacrifice to Live Half American?” which questioned if he should fight for a country that discriminated against him.

Thompson initiated the “Double V” campaign to encourage others to fight for victory and freedom abroad and at home.

The double V slogan took hold. “By serving their country, [black soldiers] earned a great deal of respect from fair-minded whites and blacks alike. This in turn gave them a greater political voice than they otherwise might have had,” said McManus.

Black veterans led the postwar civil rights charge.

Blacks returned home from the war to a life of bigotry and injustice. “[Blacks] had just helped destroy some of the most homicidal, racist regimes in human history and yet they had served in an armed force that was segregated on the basis of race,” said McManus.

“They were victimized by the same sort of racist views that had animated America’s enemies. This made zero sense and it created a powerful moral imperative for domestic change.”

The blatant injustice motivated blacks and unprejudiced whites to fight discrimination. Many blacks moved to large cities to find jobs using skills they’d learned in the military.

Others became civil rights activists and lent their powerful voices to organizations such as the NAACP, CORE, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the Deacons for Defense and Justice. In 1948, their efforts paid off when President Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the military.

According to McManus, “World War II led to an explosion of racial reform, issues that the Civil War failed to solve and that had been festering for nearly a century. In my opinion, World War II was the most significant event in American history, to a great extent because of the racial change it helped foster.”

RELATED CONTENT