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African Americans: Achieving Greater Equality during World War II

Many African Americans had hoped their service in World War I would help bring them equality in post-war America. But they were wrong. So when World War II started, some black leaders were wary. Ultimately, African Americans did gain some ground in the civil rights movement through their involvement with World War II

“Our war is not against the Hitler in Europe,” editorialized one black newspaper, “but against the Hitlers in America.” Some black leaders demanded assurances that loyalty this time around would be rewarded with more decent treatment.

In response, Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Commission and charged it with investigating cases where African Americans were discriminated against in war industries. The commission enjoyed some success. But the real economic boost for blacks came from the labor shortage, which fueled the movement of many from the South to industrial cities in the North and West.

About 700,000 African Americans also served in the military and some strides in equality were made. Blacks were admitted into the Air Force and Marines for the first time. The Air Force enlisted some 600 black pilots and the first African American general was appointed in the Army. Some military units were even integrated toward the end of the war, although it was more for practical reasons than to further civil rights.

Even so, race relations remained mired in racism and distrust. Several cities had race riots, the worst of which was in Detroit in 1943, when 34 people died. Angry that the racism of Hitler was being fought against while the racism at home was largely ignored, many African Americans began taking a more active role in asserting their legal rights.

The ranks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) swelled from 50,000 before the war to more than 400,000 at war’s end.

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