Unit 12 World War II: Struggle for Democracy at Home and Abroad, 1940-1945


African Americans again saw fit to “close ranks” once the United States entered the war in 1941, not- withstanding their treatment as second-class citizens and the siren call by the Japanese for their support against the United States as World War II approached. But while they viewed Germany and Japan as the aggressors, they also saw the elimination of racial discrimination as a war aim. They sought to use the war to achieve greater opportunities and their full rights as American citizens — to make the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear) enunciated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt available to themselves and to wage a Double V Campaign: victory against international fascism abroad and victory against white racism and bigotry at home.

Official American military policy regarding blacks during World War II can best be described as offering greater opportunity within the framework of segregation, that is, perpetuating the Jim Crow system while improving the treatment of blacks. As evidence of segregation one can point to the continued army policy of organizing blacks into separate units, a policy later adopted by the Army Air Corps and Marine Corps. Additional indicators of military racial discrimination involved the general opposition to blacks serving overseas and engaging in combat, as well as the practice of placing blacks under the command of white officers. By the war’s end, however, although segregation was still the military’s officially sanctioned policy, the manpower demands of the war, the need for efficiency, and the proddings of civil rights leaders (including Judge William H. Hastie, special adviser to the War Department on racial matters, and his successor, Truman K Gibson, Jr.) had led the military to discard some of its racist practices. For example, in 1941 African Americans were admitted for the first time to the Army Air Corps; this resulted in the highly publicized training of nearly one thousand African American aviators at famed Tuskegee Institute. A year later the Marine Corps admitted its first blacks; its long tradition (since 1798) of excluding blacks perhaps accounted for it being the only service branch not to have a black officer during the war (the first black Marine officer was commissioned in November 1945). Also in 1942, the navy, in which blacks traditionally had served in certain occupations rather than in separate units, began accepting blacks for “general service” positions like gunners, electricians, radiomen, and machinists. Later, to show that blacks could even operate a modern warship, the navy undertook a limited experiment in having all-black crews (initially under the command of white officers) man both the destroyer USS Mason, which served on the North Atlantic convoy route, and a submarine chaser, PC 1264. During the war African Americans generally gained free access to theaters, exchanges, and recreational facilities on military bases.

The resistance of black servicemen to segregation and discrimination during the war often led to racial clashes with white civilians, especially in southern military-base towns (for example, Tuskegee, Alabama, and Durham, North Carolina), as well as conflicts with white servicemen on military bases (such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi; and Freeman Field, Indiana). In terms of the number of black participants, perhaps the most serious racial incident involved a mutiny by black sailors at Port Chicago, California, in July 1944. This mutiny followed the detonation of hundreds of tons of ammunition that tore apart two strips and killed 300 persons, 250 of whom were blacks assigned to a segregated labor unit that was loading ammunition on board the two vessels. Fifty of the survivors refused to resume this dangerous work, believing it to have been assigned to them because of their race. A court-martial convicted them of mutiny and sentenced them to prison, but the African American press and civil rights organizations campaigned successfully to have the men returned to duty.

Nearly 1,000,000 African Americans served in the armed forces in some capacity during World War II: 702,000 in the army; 165,000 in the navy; 20,000 in the Marine Corps; and 5,000 in the Coast Guard. Of this number more than half served overseas, mainly in a noncombat capacity. For example, in the army they served mainly in units like the quartermaster, transport, and engineer. Of the two black army divisions, the combat units of the Ninety-third Division (Pacific theater) are thought to have performed better than those of the Ninety- second Division (European theater). Probably the most outstanding unit of the two divisions was the Ninety- third’s Twenty-fifth Infantry, which fought on the island of Bougainville and later, along with the 368th and 369th Infantry, served as the garrison force on such islands as Biak, Morotai, and Mindanao. Generally even more effective were the smaller black combat units that were in neither division and fought as components of larger white units. These included the Twenty-fourth Infantry which received official recognition for its service as the garrison unit on Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas Islands; the 761st Tank Battalion, which fought in the Battle of the Bulge and saw service in six European countries, including France, Germany, and Austria; the 369th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment, which defended Hawaii against aerial attacks during much of the war; the 969th Field Artillery Battalion, which received the Distinguished Unit Citation for its contribution to the defense of Bastogne; and the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which fought in Germany and was the first black ground unit to receive the Distinguished Unit Citation during the war.

Black pilots saw perhaps more combat action during the war than did any other group of black servicemen. The first black Army Air Corps unit to engage in combat was the celebrated Ninety-ninth Fighter Squadron. It first saw service during the Sicilian campaign in the summer of 1943, then distinguished itself again in downing twelve German planes over the Anzio beachhead on January 27 and January 28 of 1944, receiving a Distinguished Unit Citation for each of these campaigns. By the time the war ended, eight black squadrons had been formed. Four of these, constituting the 477th Bombardment Group, never served overseas, but the 332nd Fighter Group — made up of the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd squadrons — served from mid-1944 on as a pursuit unit that escorted bombers deep into Germany. In addition to downing a number of German interceptors, the group boasted that no bomber entrusted to it had ever been lost to German aviators. Its commander, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first black army general-Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, later became the first black lieutenant general in the air force, the highest rank attained by an African American in the military up to that time.

In Dorie Miller the navy could claim the first African American hero of World War II. During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller, a steward on the bombed and burning USS Arizona, dragged the battleship’s wounded captain from the exposed bridge, manned a gunner’s station, and shot down four Japanese planes. Despite Miller’s heroism, which earned him the Navy Cross, and his obvious skill with the machine gun, he was still serving as a steward when he died in the sinking of the escort carrier Liscome Bay on November 24, 1943.

All the black marines who served overseas were in the Pacific theater. Ironically, the two black marine combat Units — the Fifty-first and Fifty-second Defense Battalions — did less fighting than the black depot and ammunitions companies that unloaded and distributed munitions and other cargo during amphibious landings on islands like Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima. At Saipan, for example, Private First Class LeRoy Seals became the first black marine killed in action.

African Americans in the Coast Guard, as in the navy, served ashore and afloat. The latter service included rescue work in Atlantic, Pacific, and Alaskan waters. Black coast guardsmen were also among the first to go ashore at Okinawa in early 1945.

As it did for other Americans, World War II essentially ended the Great Depression for blacks, enabling them to make a significant contribution to the war production effort on the home front. With the demand for workers heightened by the expansion in defense production, as well as the removal from the labor force of millions for military service, the need for black participation in the labor market was greatly enhanced. Initially, however, African Americans experienced considerable opposition to their efforts to gain employment in the defense industries. In an attempt to redress this injustice, as well as integrate the armed forces, A. Philip Randolph, the labor and civil rights leader, threatened in January 1941 to mobilize fifty thousand to one hundred thousand blacks to march on the nation’s capital in July. He created the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) to organize this effort; it inaugurated the tactic of mass protest that would be used so successfully during the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s. President Roosevelt, after several failures to dissuade Randolph from carrying out the march, issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941. It prohibited discrimination in employment in defense industries and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to monitor compliance with the directive. Despite violations of the order, black employment in industrial jobs increased considerably (in 1942 blacks were 3 percent of the war production work force, and in 1944 8.3 percent of this force). The skills of African American workers were also upgraded in wartime training programs, enabling them to occupy skilled and semiskilled jobs. Black women in particular made significant employment gains, leaving domestic work in record numbers to enter defense industry jobs. The overall employment gains of blacks during World War II helped effect the most rapid closing of the white/ black income differential at any time in American history. For example, in 1939 the median income of blacks was 41 percent that of whites; in 1950 it was 60 percent that of whites.

Very much connected to the wartime expansion of the African American industrial work force was the migration out of the South of large numbers of blacks in search of industrial employment. It is estimated that over a million blacks left the South during World War II. Many of these migrants, like those who participated in the migration triggered by World War I, settled in New Jersey, especially in such urban centers as Newark, Trenton, Camden, Paterson, and Passaic; they came, again, mainly from southern states along the Atlantic coastline. And for the first time, blacks moved in large numbers to the West Coast: California alone received over 340,000 black southern migrants between 1940 and 1945. Cities (Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, and Portland in particular) experienced huge increases in their African American populations. States furnishing a disproportionate number of migrants who went to the West Coast during World War II were Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

The large-scale wartime movement of African Americans into the nation’s urban centers in search of better economic opportunities helped create racial tensions in these places not unlike those that had contributed to the racial strife that followed World War I. Indeed, against a wartime background of increased urban racial segregation (black ghettos expanded) and racial conflict, sometimes aggravated by scarce housing and black use of parks and other amusement/recreational facilities that had formerly been tacitly reserved for whites, several serious race riots erupted. Buffalo (1943), Harlem (1943), Detroit (1943), and Philadelphia (1944) were the sites of the more notable of such incidents. The greatest loss of life occurred in Detroit (twenty-five blacks and nine whites), but the riots in Harlem and Philadelphia were also significant because they, like the 1935 Harlem riot, were ghetto riots, having the features and characteristics of the civil disorders of the 1960s, (for example, the destruction of property).

In contrast to many unpleasant contacts between the races in northern cities during World War II, there also occurred the formation of a civil rights coalition that was somewhat sustained by the nation’s slowly changing attitudes about the treatment of blacks. The work of this coalition, composed largely of blacks and Jews, aided by sympathetic whites among Catholics, Protestants, and non-church goers, assumed many forms. Included were the struggles in Congress and state legislatures for fair employment laws, the desegregation of the governing boards, staffs, memberships, and clients of numerous social organizations and agencies, and the mounting of a number of interracial and interfaith conferences. This pattern of mutual cooperation among men and women of good will of both races continued into the postwar period.

While the black struggle for equality was strengthened by the work and support of various interracial bodies, African Americans, as a consequence of their movement out of the South, also continued to reap benefits from their increased presence in the nation’s cities of the North and West. For example, Harlem in 1944 became the second northern district to send a black to Congress. This congressman was Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church (in the 1930s its ten thousand members made it the nation’s largest black congregation). He combined a gift of oratory with militant social protest to become a civil rights leader and the most powerful black politician during his stay in Congress, which lasted until 1967. Powell’s election also had import because he was the first major black politician (he was a Democrat) to fashion his own political machine, one independent of Tammany Hall, the white-controlled machine that then dominated New York City Democratic politics.


World War II, like World War I, had a major impact on black American life. In addition to the military experience it afforded thousands of blacks, it triggered an exodus of blacks from the South in search of better opportunities. For the first time, many southern migrants went to the West Coast. Migration helped African Americans intensify their struggle against racial bigotry and discrimination, to seek the “Four Freedoms” and wage a “Double V Campaign.”

Materials and Preparation

Students should read either chapter 28 in The African American Experience: A History (“World War II and African Americans, 1941-1945”) or chapters 33 and 34 in African American History (“Black America and the Great Depression” and “Patriotism and Prejudice”).

Students should read the excerpt from the oral history interview of Reginald W. Maddox, which describes an incident of racial discrimination he experienced while serving in the navy during World War II.

Students should study the black migration patterns during World War II shown on Map #9

Students and the teacher should read pages 68-77 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History. The teacher should read chapters 20 and 21 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“The American Dilemma” and “Fighting for the Four Freedoms”).

Time Period

Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.



  1. Identify the kinds of discriminatory treatment African American servicemen experienced during World War II.
    Discuss first with the students the discrimination African Americans encountered in the nation’s military branches. Remind students that while the army segregated blacks into separate units, the navy allowed blacks and whites to serve on the same ship but limited the kinds of positions blacks could hold on these ships. Have students discuss whether they would have preferred serving in the army or navy and why. Next, have students read the brief account of the racial incident experienced by Reginald W. Maddox at the Memphis train station in 1943. From this they will learn that black servicemen faced racial discrimination in nonmilitary situations.
  2. Evaluation: Have students write a 500-word essay comparing the treatment of blacks as World War II servicemen with their treatment during World War I. The students should indicate which war they, as a black serviceman, would have preferred serving in, and why. In making their comparisons, students should note that blacks were able to serve in the air force and the marines for the first time during World War II. Or have students imagine that are among the black sailors who were with Reginald W. Maddox when he saw German prisoners of war being served in the restaurant for whites at the Memphis train station. Have them write a 500-word essay about how they would have responded to this incident. The students should be reminded that racial segregation in America was both legally and socially acceptable as late as World War II.


  1. Assess the significance of oral testimony in documenting the black past.
    • a. Have students discuss the pros and cons of using oral testimony to reconstruct the past. They should, for example, discuss the reliability of memory as a source of historical documentation. Inform them that critics of oral history cite the fallibility of memory and the likelihood of bias. They argue that subjectivity might color an account of the past; they also contend that oral history involves looking at the past from the perspective of the present, so that the past may be distorted by subsequent changes in values and points of view. Defenders of oral history maintain that memory is likely to be accurate when what is remembered is of interest and significance; they point out that bias can also be found in written primary sources. They stress that with any primary source one must look for plausibility, seek confirmation from other sources, and be aware of potential bias.
    • b. Have students discuss whether oral history might be of particular significance in recreating the black American past because people of African descent have a strong and rich oral tradition. Students should focus on black “orality,” the special emphasis placed on oral communication in black societies throughout the world as witnessed in the “griot” (oral historian), “talking drum,” games of verbal competition (signifying), and most recently, the emergence of the popular music form rap. Black communities accord considerable admiration and esteem to those who are very skillful and able in verbalizing orally.
  2. Inform students that the use of oral history has grown considerably since the 1960s thanks to a new approach — the “new social history” or “history from the bottom up” — which was spawned by the increased social consciousness that developed during the 1960s. This approach has tended to move history beyond great individuals and events and to focus on nontraditional historical subjects that did not usually generate written records. Students should be informed that oral history helps to democratize historical research; it has facilitated greater study of the black American past. In making this point, introduce students to Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers, the life history of a black Alabama sharecropper as recounted orally.
  3. Evaluation: Invite a black veteran of World War II to your class and conduct an oral history interview based on the veteran’s World War II experiences with racial discrimination. Have students prepare a 500-word report on that interview that indicates what they learned about World War II and their assessment of the value of oral history.


  1. Compare and contrast the black migration that accompanied World War II to that accompanying World War I. Have students discuss the following in comparing and contrasting black southern out-migration for World War I with that for World War II: push/pull syndrome, volume, and routes. In other words, students should discuss the forces that operated to uproot black southerners during the two wars, the scale of black migration for the two wars, and where wartime migrants on both occasions settled. Also have students compare Map #7 with Map #9and indicate the key difference(s) between the migration patterns shown in the two maps. Then have students, using Map #9, identify those states whose black migrants used two distinct migration corridors in uprooting themselves.
  2. Evaluation: Have students write a short play about a single family’s wartime migration experiences. The play should show one part of the family leaving the South during World War I and the other during World War II and identify ways in which their experiences were similar and dissimilar. Or have students, using Map #9 as a guide, use Map #10 to indicate the migration patterns associated with World War II (i.e. copy map #9 on map #10). Students should understand that these migration patterns established essentially the present-day distribution of the non-southern black population.


  1. Explain the major economic gains resulting from the employment of African Americans in defense industries during World War II. Point out to the students that black income and the percentage of blacks doing skilled and semiskilled work rose considerably during World War II and that this war witnessed the fastest closing of the income gap between blacks and whites. Finally, mention that black women in particular gained from working in World War II defense industries and that this helped large numbers of them to leave domestic work.
  2. Evaluation: Have the students imagine they are reporters interviewing an African American woman about her wartime work experiences in Newark. They should write a newspaper article about her leaving employment as a domestic worker to work in a munitions factory.

Supplemental Activities

  1. Show students the film A Soldier’s Story, an account of racial discrimination and murder at a World War II army base that is based on an award-winning play by Charles Fuller (123 minutes). Although fiction, it is faithful to the climate of the era. It can be obtained from most local video rental facilities.

Key Persons

Benjamin 0. Davis, Jr. Commander of the 332nd Fighter Group during World War II, he later became the first black lieutenant general in the military.

William H. Hastie. Appointed special adviser on racial matters to the War Department during World War II. Afterward, he was the first black to serve as governor of the Virgin Islands and to be appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Dorie Miller. Navy steward who shot down four Japanese planes during attack on Pearl Harbor and became the first black hero of World War II.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Harlem minister who became a civil rights leader and powerful politician in Congress from 1944 until 1967.

Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading


Buni, Andrew. 1974. Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier: Politics of Black Journalism.
Vann was the nationally known editor of the black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier. He initiated the “Double V Campaign” among African Americans, which sought victory against international fascism abroad and domestic racism at home.
Dalfiume, Richard M. 1969. Fighting on Two Fronts: Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, 1939-1953.
The goals of desegregating the armed forces and obtaining jobs in American defense industries were the focus of black leaders during the World War II years. Dalfiume views this protest activity as the forerunner of the modern civil rights movement.
Garfinkle, Herbert. 1969. When Negroes March.
While World War II stimulated the resurgence of American industry, blacks were disappointed that they did not receive their share of the new jobs. Blacks were also displeased with the racially segregated armed forces. A. Philip Randolph led the March on Washington Movement organization to obtain integrated armed forces, equal employment opportunity in defense industries, and the vote for southern blacks. Garfinkle explores these important issues in detail.
Lee, Ulysses. 1966. The Employment of Negro Troops.
A good survey of the black contribution to the American military. The work contains valuable information on African American involvement in World War II.
Nalty, Bernard C. 1986. Strength For the Fight: A History Black Americans in the Military.
The most comprehensive one-volume study of African Americans in the armed forces from early American history to the 1980s. The study has excellent chapters on the black soldier in World War II and the desegregation of the military.
Ruchames, Louis. 1953. Race, Jobs, and Politics: The Story of the FEPC.
The March on Washington Movement organization succeeded in pressuring President Roosevelt to issue an executive order creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which enforced anti-discrimination employment policies with companies having government contracts. Ruchames explores the creation, structure, and effectiveness of this agency.
Sandler, Stanley. 1992. Segregated Skies: All-Black Combat Squadrons of World War II.
The campaign during World War II to acquire combat training for black aviators, their deployment, and their outstanding performance are covered in this thorough study.
Silverea, John D. 1947. The Negro in World War II.
A survey of the black contribution to the war effort. It is valuable for its depiction of attitudes on race current during the war years among some segments of the American population.
State of New Jersey. Urban Colored Population Commission. 1945. New Jersey Negro in World War II.
This study contains interesting data on the social and economic condition of New Jersey’s black population during the war.
Washburn, Patrick S. 1986. A Question of Sedition: The Federal Government’s the Black Press During World War II.
A thoroughly researched and documented study of the campaign waged by certain sectors of the federal government to prohibit the black press’s criticisms of racism and unfair governmental racial policies. It is a disturbing example of how close the federal government came to censorship.


Davis, Benjamin O. Jr. 1991. An Autobiography.
Commander of the first all-black squadron to fight in World War II. Davis helped integrate the American armed forces. His is indeed a story of achievement: he became the first black to reach the rank of lieutenant general in the American armed forces.
Jakoubek, Robert. 1988. Adam C. Powell, Jr.: Political Leader.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
Killens, John Oliver. 1984. And Then They Heard the Thunder.
This is a story about the black American GI’s bloody encounter with racism and hatred during World War II. The principal character, Solomon Saunders, a proper Negro, discovers the humiliation of racism during his stay in the army.
Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. 1972. Adam By Adam.
The autobiography of the flamboyant and colorful preacher/ politician from Harlem who was elected to Congress in 1944. His Marching Blacks (1945) should be read for additional commentary on the black protest movement before, during, and after World War II.
Rosengarten, Theodore. 1974. All Gods Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw.
The oral autobiography of an eighty-eight year-old black Alabama sharecropper that is narrated in the wonderfully expressive language of a storyteller.


Map 9 — Black Migration Routes During World War II (PDF)

Map 10 — The United States During World War II (PDF)

Oral History Interview of Reginald W. Maddox

Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Wednesday, April 23, 2003