American citizens responded to the threats posed by the Third Reich and its allies in two principle ways. First, they supported and participated in the war effort as volunteers, workers, and members of the armed forces. Second, both individuals and organizations attempted to rescue European Jews and other persecuted peoples. This collection of primary sources explores the ways in which African Americans took part in and influenced these responses.
Many African Americans viewed the rise of fascism and America's involvement in the war in the same way as their fellow Americans: as a menace to American democracy. However, like other US citizens who faced racial inequality at home, they also understood the period from to 1933 to 1945 through the lens of their own experiences. In some cases, this meant a heightened sensitivity and greater commitment to fighting racism and tyranny on another shore. But it also encouraged a renewed understanding of their own position in an America that perpetuated legalized racial discrimination, social and economic marginalization, and mob violence toward its own citizens. The items in this collection demonstrate the complicated ways in which these perspectives are intertwined.
African Americans confronted the Nazi threat in a number of ways. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) sponsored refugee Jewish professors, enabling their escape from Nazi-occupied Europe and facilitating their entry into the United States.1 Though the US armed forces remained segregated until 1948, African Americans served and saw combat in large numbers and near the end of the war participated in the liberation of concentration camps.2 Over 4,000 students and faculty at Howard University, a prominent HBCU in Washington, DC, volunteered to serve in the US armed forces, for instance, some becoming proud members of the Tuskegee Airmen.3 African Americans had also been among the first to respond to the growing threat of fascism by fighting in the Spanish Civil War.4 Tens of thousands of African Americans enthusiastically entered the war industries, helping to produce the warships, munitions, and tanks sent to the battlefields of Europe and the Asia Pacific. This collection features several items that speak to the ways in which fascism, racism, and antisemitism intersected in the minds of many African Americans involved in the war effort. For instance, former US army sergeant Leon Bass shares in an oral history his desire to join the war, and in particular, his role in liberating a Nazi concentration camp in the spring of 1945.
However, as Bass relates, African American soldiers' reflections on Nazi racism and brutality were refracted through experiences of segregation at home in the United States. For many African American communities, the war produced both cynicism and hope that discrimination in the United States could and would be toppled. Many envisioned that their participation in the war effort would finally bring white Americans to the recognition that members of marginalized communities could no longer be denied civil rights and economic opportunity. Indeed, it was against the backdrop of fascist terror abroad in the 1930s that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)5 began to campaign for the passage of the anti-lynching legislation in US Congress.6 Jews living in the United States, too, recognized the parallels between their persecution in Europe and the brutality leveled against African Americans. Abel Meeropol, a young American Jewish man whose parents had fled pogroms in Russia, composed in 1937 the lyrics to what would be become "Strange Fruit,"7 a haunting meditation on lynching made famous by the jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Many African Americans determined that the war years for them required a dual struggle. Epitomized by the so-called "Double-V" sign, they found themselves fighting for two victories at once: the defeat of fascism abroad and the defeat of Jim Crow8 at home in the United States. Voices from the African American press, including that featured in the article "Should I Sacrifice to Live 'Half-American?'", show that many African Americans tied their calls for justice and equality "to the ideology of the war," that is, the fight for democracy, in order "to prick the conscience of white America."9 Langston Hughes's poem, "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943," denounces with anger the contrast of an American war for liberation abroad in the era of oppression at home.
Ironically, German propaganda also sought to capitalize on a racially segregated American society, creating leaflets that targeted African American servicemen. These leaflets, one of which is featured in this collection, encourage desertion and suggest—falsely and absurdly—that black soldiers would enjoy better treatment by the German military. Both within and beyond service in the armed forces, activism among African Americans increased during the war years; they found themselves ready now both to protest loudly and to apply mass pressure on the government to act on their behalf,10 resulting in a dramatic growth in the membership of the NAACP and the formation of the March on Washington Movement (MOWM).11 Activists and political leaders often focused their advocacy on integrating the armed services and the war industries, though as is illustrated in the document Executive Order 8802, the war years saw success only in this latter aim.
A more just society did not come quickly, easily, or fully, but the years 1933 to 1945 helped to usher in an end to Jim Crow segregation, greater justice under the law, and increased access to education, employment, housing, and political representation. African Americans' activism during these twelve years represents a critical moment in American society more broadly. Sociologist Franklin Frazier wrote that World War II marked the point at which African Americans were "no longer willing to accept discrimination without protest."12 In his 1944 study of American race relations, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal predicted that there would be "a redefinition" of the status of African Americans as a result of the war.13
This period represents a pivotal moment in African Americans' struggle to achieve more equitable integration in American society. The experience of the war, both at home and abroad, became a critical reference point for the social and political movements in the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. That the language of those movements became more fully articulated during a period in which Americans fought against bigotry and hatred abroad while enduring and inflicting it at home reflects a unique intersection of American history, the World War II, and the Holocaust.