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"Should I Sacrifice to Live 'Half-American?'"

Double V
The Pittsburgh Courier
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tags: activism community hope

type: Newspaper Article

The two-fingered "V for Victory" sign first flashed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill became a symbol of hope and unity for Allied forces throughout World War II. On January 31, 1942, James G. Thompson of Wichita, Kansas—a reader of the prominent Black newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier—addressed a letter to the editors in which he offered his thoughts on this gesture and the questions it raised for him. 

The featured letter inspired the editors of the Courier to take action. The paper soon announced that it had "introduced its war slogan—'double V' for a double victory to colored America."1 The campaign's logo—two Vs topped by an eagle—stood for victory abroad over fascism and victory at home over racism.

The "Double 'V'" campaign captured the sentiments of many Black Americans and became a symbol of pride. At the time, "Jim Crow"2 laws denied equal rights to Black Americans in many parts of the country even as Black soldiers fought for the US abroad. The irony of this situation was not lost on Black Americans, but many saw the war as an opportunity to lay a foundation for arguing more forcefully for equality after the war.

The twin goals of the campaign were the full enjoyment of Constitutional rights for all Black Americans and the "elimination of the ban which prevents loyal and patriotic Negro Americans from full participation in the defense industries of the country," including the end of segregation in the military. At that time, Black soldiers were forced to live in separate and substandard housing. They were also given inferior training and equipment, were assigned only to support and service units, and were banned from holding command positions over white soldiers.

The "Double V" campaign was so popular that it appeared everywhere in Black community life during the war.3 There were "Double 'V'" baseball games, gardens, war bond drives, and beauty pageants—there was even a "Double 'V'" hairstyle, the "Doubler," as well as fashions and accessories. The campaign also encouraged political changes and reached out to businesses to encourage non-discriminatory hiring practices.

Some white Americans regarded the "Double 'V'" campaign as a danger to the war effort. Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) J. Edgar Hoover tried to censor Black journalist and branded support for the campaign seditious—even treasonous. But these charges were not credible. 1.2 million Black men and women served in uniform during World War II. A large percentage of these servicemembers were volunteers who had not waited to be drafted.

With the powerful title "Should I Sacrifice to Live 'Half-American'?", Thompson's 1942 letter to the Courier provided a spark for the "Double V" campaign. This campaign built momentum in a larger movement against the segregation of Black Americans in the armed forces.4 In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which began the process of integrating the armed forces of the United States.5

Although the word "Colored" was frequently used by many people in the early 20th century—including many Black people—it is widely considered an offensive term today. For more on how such terms have changed to adapt to developing standards of respectful speech, see Tom W. Smith, "Changing Racial Labels: From 'Colored' to 'Negro' to 'Black' to 'African American,'" The Public Opinion Quarterly, 56:4 (Winter 1992): 496–514. The featured quote is from the Pittsburgh Courier, February 14, 1942. For more on Black voices in American newspapers during World War II, see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's citizen history project, History Unfolded. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s article, "What Was Black America's Double War?" provides more background on the slogan and campaign.

"Jim Crow" refers to a legal system designed to create and sustain racial hierarchy in American society. For more information, see the Jim Crow Museum website. 

A "War Manpower Commission" was formed in 1941 to advance integration in war industries. The commission sought to improve interracial relations among American workers for the cause of victory.

Rawn James, Jr., The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).

After facing pressure from Black Americans, the Roosevelt administration desegregated the war industries in 1941. See the related item Executive Order 8802.

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Dear Editor:

Like all Americans my greatest desire at this time, this crucial point of our history, is a desire for complete victory over the forces of evil which threaten our existence today.  Behind the desire is also a desire to serve this, my country, in the most advantageous way.

Most of our leaders are suggesting that we sacrifice every other ambition to this paramount one, victory.  With this I agree; but I also wonder if another victory could not be achieved at the same time.  After all the things that beset the world now are basically the same things which upset the equilibrium of national internally, states, countries, cities, homes and even the individual.

Being an American of dark complexion and some 26 years, these questions flash through my mind: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?”  “Will things be better in the next generation for the peace to follow?”  “Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life?”  “Is the kind of America I know worth defending?”  “Will America be a true and pure democracy after this war?  “Will Colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been so heaped upon them in the past?”  These and other questions need answering: I want to know and I believe every colored American who is thinking, wants to know.

This may be the wrong time to broach such subjects, but haven’t all good things attained by men been secured through sacrifice during past such times of strife?

I suggest that while we keep defense and victory in the forefront that we don’t lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home.

The V for victory signs is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny.  If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict then let we colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory.  The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within.  For surely those who perpetuate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.

This should not and would not lessen our efforts to bring this conflict to a successful conclusion: but should and would make us stronger to resist these evil forces which threaten us.  America could become unified as never before and become truly the home of democracy.

In way of an answer to the foregoing question in a preceding paragraph I might say that there is no doubt that this country is worth defending: things will be different for the next generation: colored America will come into their own, and Americans will eventually become the true democracy it was designed to be.  These things will become a reality in time; but not through any relaxation of the efforts to secure them.

In conclusion let me say that though these questions often permeate my mind, I love America and am willing to die for the America I know will someday become a reality.

James G. Thompson

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
The Pittsburgh Courier
Date Created
January 31, 1942
Page(s) 3
Author / Creator
James G. Thompson
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Document Type Newspaper Article
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