Friday, March 5, 2010


What did it take to earn the right to fight – the right to defend your country?

For black Americans during World War II it took tremendous political pressure from black labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph. Using the slogan "We loyal Negro-American citizens demand the right-to-work and fight for our country," Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) threatened to lead a march on Washington to demand these rights. President Franklin Roosevelt
issued Executive Order 8802, which opened government jobs and defense contract work to black citizens writes Larry Tye
in his 2004 book, Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the                           
Making of the Black Middle Class.                                                          

     First Lasy Eleanor Roosevelt and A. Philip Randolph                                                                     Fair Employment Rally, 1946 (Photograph located in                                                                                       collection at FDR Library, Hyde Park, Ny)

Black leaders like Randolph saw the hypocrisy of fighting fascism in
Europe while condoning Jim Crow laws and racism at home. First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt joined the fray, when she said, "The nation cannot expect the colored people to feel the U.S. is worth defending if they continue to be treated as they are treated now."

By September 1944, there were 702,000 blacks in the Army, 165,000 in the Navy, 17,000 in the Marine Corps, and 5,000 in the Coast Guard. The irony was that "Soldiers were fighting the world's worst racist, Adolph Hitler, in the world's most segregated army," says historian and National Geographic explorer in residence Stephen Ambrose. This irony did not go unnoticed according to Ambrose. Lisa Krause interviewed Ambrose for a February 15, 2001 National Geographic News article.

Why would anyone who experienced the kind of racism black Americans endured prior to World War II want to risk their lives in a war that could be perceived as "White man's business?" In a PBS documentary titled The African-American Experience, Eleanor Roosevelt, when Vernon Jarrett, a black journalist and civil rights activist was asked if the war made racism in the United States "even more glaring for blacks" Jarrett, replied, "World War II exposed a great contradiction in American life. They were fighting Hitler; the world's premier ideologue of racism, yet a black soldier in a uniform had to be very cautious about protecting his life. They were still lynching African-Americans, hanging them up, and setting them on fire, shooting them as if they were garbage and dogs," Jarrett said. He also says they could not even get an anti-lynching bill passed during the war.

Nevertheless, many blacks did the right thing, in spite of the climate at home. A posting on the Naval Historical Center website reads, "When the United States entered World War II in December 1941 the Navy's African-American sailors had been limited to serving as Mess Attendants for nearly two decades. However, the pressures of wartime on manpower, the good examples of heroes like Doris Miller, the willingness of thousands of patriotic men to take part in the war effort plus well-focused political activities gradually forced changes." Recently the US Postal Service issued a first class postage stamp honoring Miller, USPS News Release: 2010 Stamp Program Unveiled

Mess Attendant Third Class Doris (Dorie) Miller
(Courtesy of the National Archives)

Why did they serve? According to my brother, Chief Petty Officer Samuel Powell (USN) RET, " He is modest about his war experiences, insisting that what he did was no more than anyone else who was going through the same experiences was not doing. When the Japanese attacked his ship he said, "They (the Japanese) were firing at our ship (USS Helena) and we had to defend her."

In the early 1980s, I interviewed a black World War II veteran who explained to me that his generation had earned the right to demand equality. In his opinion, their participation in the war helped change many black service members' viewpoints as well as change the climate in the United States.
The American Legion - Dorie Miller Post #915 - Chicago, IL


  1. Sharon,

    Have you seen this link about woment WWII aviators being honored?