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 Black Americans took part in these responses.
Like most Americans, many Black Americans viewed the rise of fascism as a threat to democracy. But like other US citizens who faced racial inequality at home, Black Americans also understood international events through the lens of their own experiences with discrimination. In some cases, this meant a greater commitment to fighting racism and tyranny abroad. It also encouraged greater recognition of the inequality and discrimination they experienced in the US.
Black 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 German-occupied Europe and facilitating their entry into the United States.1 The US armed forces remained segregated until 1948, but Black Americans served and saw combat in large numbers.2 Over 4,000 students and faculty of Howard University—a prominent HBCU in Washington, DC—volunteered to serve in the US armed forces.3 Some of them became members of the Tuskegee Airmen.4 Tens of thousands of Black Americans 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 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 at a subcamp of the Buchenwald 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 US. Within some Black 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 the US Congress.7 Some Jews living in the United States also drew parallels between Nazi persecution and the discrimination and segregation experienced by Black Americans. Abel Meeropol, a young Jewish American whose parents had fled violent pogroms in Russia, composed the lyrics to "Strange Fruit,"8 a haunting song about lynching made famous by the jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Many Black Americans decided that the war years required a dual struggle. Expressed in the so-called "Double-V" sign, they believed in fighting for victory over fascism abroad and victory over segregation at home. Articles such as "Should I Sacrifice to Live 'Half-American?'" show how many Black Americans tried linked their calls for racial justice and equality to the fight for democracy.9 Langston Hughes's poem, "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943," angrily denounces a war for liberation abroad in an era of oppression at home.
Nazi propaganda emphasized the racial segregation of American society with leaflets that targeted Black American servicemen. These messages falsely claimed that Black soldiers would enjoy better treatment by the German military. Nevertheless, inequality in the US armed forces 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 shown in the featured Executive Order 8802, their efforts only saw limited success.
Although much changed during the war, racial discrimination and segregation in the US continued. But the years 1933 to 1945 did see important developments as the US began to inch closer to ending Jim Crow segregation. Black communities gained greater access to justice under the law, education, employment, housing, and political representation. Black Americans' political 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 Black 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 Black Americans as a result of the war.13
These sources highlight how World War II in some ways proved a pivotal moment in Black Americans' struggle for equality and justice. The experience of the war became an important milestone for the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. During World War II, Black Americans were called to join a global fight against bigotry and injustice—even as they were forced to face discrimination at home and abroad.