American citizens responded to the threats posed by the Third Reich in two main ways. First, they served as volunteers, workers, and members of the armed forces to support US participation in World War II. 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.
Like most Americans, many African Americans viewed the rise of fascism as a threat to democracy. However, like other US citizens who faced racial inequality at home, they also understood the era through the lens of their own experiences. In some cases, this meant a greater commitment to fighting racism and tyranny abroad. But it also encouraged a recognition of their own position in a political system that marginalized and discriminated against them.
African Americans organized against the Nazi threat in a variety of ways. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) sponsored refugee Jewish professors, helping them 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.2 Over 4,000 students and faculty at Howard University, a prominent HBCU in Washington, DC, volunteered to serve in the US armed forces,3 some becoming proud members of the Tuskegee Airmen.4 Tens of thousands of African Americans enthusiastically entered the war industries, helping to produce the weapons and supplies sent to the battlefields of Europe and Asia. Others, like US army sergeant Leon Bass, even helped to liberate concentration camps in Europe. In an oral history featured here, Bass recalls his desire to join the war and describes the scenes he encountered after arriving in a Nazi concentration camp in the spring of 1945.
Like Bass, many Black soldiers drew parallels between Nazi racism and the discrimination they faced at home in the United States. For some African American communities, the war produced a hope that Jim Crow segregation could be defeated.5 Many thought participation in the war effort would finally lead to expanded civil rights and economic opportunities. Indeed, the threat of fascism abroad helped push the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)6 to campaign for the passage of anti-lynching legislation in US Congress.7 Some Jews living in the United States also recognized the commonalities between Nazi persecution and the brutality facing African Americans. Abel Meeropol, a young American Jew whose parents had fled pogroms in Russia, composed the lyrics to "Strange Fruit,"8 a haunting song about lynching made famous by the jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Many African Americans determined that the war years required a dual struggle. Expressed in the so-called "Double-V" sign, they found themselves fighting for both victory over fascism abroad and victory over segregation 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"—the fight for democracy—in order "to prick the conscience of white America."9 Also featured here is Langston Hughes's poem, "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943," angrily denouncing an American war for liberation abroad in era of oppression at home.
German propaganda worked to highlight the evils of racial segregation in American society with leaflets that targeted African American servicemen. These messages falsely claimed that Black soldiers would enjoy better treatment by the German military. Nevertheless, inequality in the ranks inspired new protests within the military and beyond.10 Membership in the NAACP grew rapidly during the war, and new campaigns like the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) emerged.11 Activists and political leaders often focused on integrating the armed services and the war industries. However, as illustrated in the featured Executive Order 8802, they saw only limited success.
A more just society did not come quickly or easily. However, the years 1933 to 1945 saw the US inch closer to ending Jim Crow segregation. African American communities gained greater access to justice under the law, education, employment, housing, and political representation. African Americans' activism during this period 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, another scholar predicted that there would be "a redefinition" of the status of African Americans as a result of the war.13
These sources highlight how World War II in some ways proved a pivotal moment in African Americans' struggle to gain equitable integration in American society. The experience of the war became an important milestone for the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. During World War II, African Americans were called to join a global fight against bigotry and injustice even as they were forced to endure discrimination at home and abroad.