Because African Americans made important strides during World War II in eliminating racial discrimination, they entered the post-war period with buoyed hopes and an intensified resolve to achieve complete equality. And while that intensified resolve contributed to further improvements in the prospects for the race, and some significant gains were made, the pace of change remained painfully slow as it had during the wartime years.
Indicative of the energy with which African Americans pressed for full equality after the war was the work of various black organizations, often invigorated by World War II veterans whose wartime experiences tended to make them less deferential to white racism on returning home. The NAACP, whose membership between 1940 and 1945 increased from 50,556 to 351,131, was notable among these bodies. Rulings in several important civil rights cases that it brought before the Supreme Court signaled a trend in judicial thinking that would have far-reaching consequences for the demise of segregation, although they did not end Jim Crow immediately. For example, in Morgan v. Virginia (1945), the Supreme Court ruled that a Virginia law requiring segregation on interstate bus travel was unconstitutional; in Henderson v. United States (1950) it ruled unconstitutional the Jim Crow sections of railroad dining cars; in Shelly v. Kraemer (1948) and Hurd v. Hodge (1948) it invalidated “restrictive covenants” in state and federal courts, respectively; and in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) it ordered a black admitted to the law school of the University of Texas because Texas had no separate law school for blacks, marking the first time that the high court directed admission of a black to a previously all-white school.
In several significant ways President Harry S. Truman also contributed to the improved status of African Americans in the postwar period. In 1946 he appointed a distinguished interracial committee to examine the issue of civil rights; its report, To Secure These Rights, called for the elimination of racial segregation from American life. One year later, in a strong symbolic gesture, Truman became the first chief executive to address a convention of the NAACP in person. His appointment of William H. Hastie as governor of the Virgin Islands (1946) and later to the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (1949), made Hastie the highest-ranking black judicial figure up to that time in American history. Truman’s standing in the black community was elevated by his support, albeit somewhat tepid, of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. Of perhaps greatest significance, however, was his issuance of Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Issued in the face of another threatened march on Washington by A. Philip Randolph (Randolph urged young men, black or white, who opposed racism to refuse to register for the draft) and a strong civil rights plank adopted at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, it ordered an end to segregation in the military. Thus began the slow but steady desegregation of the military, which was not fully accomplished until the mid-1950s.
Perhaps the development that contributed most to the implementation of Executive Order 9981 was the Korean War (1950-1953). During this conflict the U.S. Army for the first time fought on an integrated basis. The first integrated regiment replaced the all-black Twenty-fourth Infantry Regiment, whose poor combat performance was attributed to its Jim Crow status. The success of this new unit in turn led to the integration of the entire army in the Far East Command and, in the spring of 1952, the beginning of the racial integration of the troops stationed in Europe. The manpower pressures of the Korean War also accelerated the integration of the Marine Corps, and racially integrated marine combat units saw action in the war. Similarly, the Korean War forced the navy to broaden its opportunities for blacks and remove barriers that still virtually restricted them to the steward branch. By 1956, three-fourths of the 37,000 blacks in the 591,000-man navy had received assignments in the general services. Since the racial integration of the Air Force was accomplished faster than that of any other service branch, and was well under way when the Korean War started, the war had little influence on its desegregation efforts. Perhaps indicative of the Air Force’s lead in effecting racial integration was the fact that in 1975 Daniel “Chappie” James, a captain and pilot during the Korean War, was the first black American to don four stars, becoming the commander-in- chief of the North American Air Defense Command.
The anti-discrimination work of organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, the American Missionary Association, the National Council of Churches, and the Anti- Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, as well as members of the Roman Catholic clergy, helped to continue the slow but perceptible acceptance of blacks by an increasing number of American whites and thus helped erode racist sentiments. Perhaps nowhere was this erosion more dramatic and visible than in the entertainment world, particularly athletics. The postwar period witnessed, for example, the penetration of the color barrier in major league baseball. In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black to integrate major league baseball, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. A year later, Larry Doby, an outstanding athlete from Paterson, became the second black major leaguer and the first in the American League; he played with the Cleveland Indians. As more African American players left to join formerly all-white teams in the “big” leagues, the Negro Baseball League declined and eventually disappeared. Its disappearance foreshadowed a fate that was to befall other aspects of black institutional life in the face of the integration victories of the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
The growing perception that a foreign threat, in the form of the Soviet Union and an international Communist movement, menaced the United States also contributed to the feeling in some quarters that the nation could no longer afford the luxury of racism. It was pointed out, for instance, that racial segregation enabled the Communist world to score propaganda victories as it sought to portray itself as the only true friend of the millions of colonial subjects in Asia and Africa. On the other hand, the Cold War, the fears of Communist expansion in the United States, fostered a conservative mood and backlash that, led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, often took the form of a witch hunt for supporters of liberal or progressive causes. Since many of the most rabid anti-Communists were also among the most outspoken advocates of racial segregation (for example, southern members of Congress), for an African American to speak out forcefully for civil rights was to risk being branded a “Commie” or fellow traveler. Thus a number of black civil rights activists were charged during this period with being sympathetic to the Communist cause; the two most prominent were Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. In fact, Robeson’s passport was revoked in 1950 by the State Department because his projected travels abroad were deemed “contrary to the best interests of the United States.” The hysteria of the McCarthy era also prompted some civil rights leaders and prominent blacks, fearful of being labled subversive and unpatriotic and thereby “weakening” the civil rights movement, to temper their criticism of the nation’s racial policies, to repudiate earlier statements and positions, and to denounce blacks identified with the radical left. The net effect of the rise of strong anti-Communist sentiment was thus a temporary lessening in some quarters of the intensity of efforts to eliminate racial injustice.
Notwithstanding an overall decline in organized radical and even moderate opposition to Jim Crow during the heyday of McCarthyism, two protest efforts served as models for future attempts to destroy segregation in the South. One was the journey of Reconciliation, an early “freedom ride” conducted in 1947 in Virginia by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Using a small interracial group that rode interstate buses with its blacks sitting in the front and whites in the back, it attacked segregated seating on such buses in the South. The second, Operation Face Lift, involved a ten-day black bus boycott in June 1953 to end seating and employment discrimination in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, bus system. It was led by the Reverend T.J. Jemison, who later served as an adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
The state of New Jersey joined the anti-discrimination efforts of the period. In April 1945 the state legislature passed the Act Against Discrimination, which prohibited discrimination in employment, although enforcement was weak and penalties were mild. Moreover, the state’s new constitution, adopted in 1947, contained an anti-discrimination section that banned discrimination in education and in the national guard; it was the first state constitution with such provisions. Marion Thompson Wright, a pioneer in the writing of New Jersey African American history, influenced the drafting of this section with her seminal work The Education of Negroes in New Jersey. Published in 1941, it documented the inferior education blacks historically had received in the state’s public schools, many of which practiced various forms of segregation. Finally, the Freeman Act, signed by Governor Alfred E. Driscoll in 1949 and co- written by NAACP members Herbert E. Tate, Sr., and J. Mercer Burrell, prohibited discrimination in public accommodations.
A final key development in black life during the postwar years was the continued movement by black southerners, a movement marked by two tendencies. One, in the face of the increased mechanization of agriculture in the South (the first mechanical cotton picker capable of being mass-produced was perfected in 1944) and the continued availability of industrial jobs in northern and western urban centers, was their continued migration to these centers. And for southern blacks moving northward, New Jersey continued to be a major state of settlement, with most of the settlement taking place in cities in the northern part of the state (such as Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson). The second, largely influenced by the increased use of machinery in agriculture, was their movement to cities in the South. Because of such movement, by 1950 about 60 percent of the African American population could be found in cities, a major shift from 1900, when about 90 percent of this population was rural.
Although blacks scored significant gains in their quest for first-class citizenship during this period, they were dissatisfied with the painfully slow pace at which these gains were achieved. Most of these gains were achieved through the time-honored approach of challenging through litigation the legal basis for racial segregation and discrimination.
Materials and Preparation
Students should read either chapter 29 in The African American Experience: A History (“Gains and Losses in the Postwar Years, 1945-1960s”) or Chapter 35 in African American History (“Rights Reaffirmed”).
Students and the teacher should read pages 68-77 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History.
The teacher should read chapters 20-22 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“The American Dilemma,” “Fighting for the Four Freedoms,” and “African Americans in the Cold War Era”).
Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.
- Explain the major factors that combined to eliminate some aspects of institutional racism in the postwar period, and identify the areas in which desegregation occurred and some of the consequences for black institutional life.
- Point out to students that desegregation in postwar America was aided by successful black- initiated legal challenges to Jim Crow, the work of liberal white organizations and individuals, and, as part of the Cold War, the embarrassment and shame that American racist practices brought to the nation’s foreign policy efforts to woo Third World nations. Also explain that one of the by-products of desegregation was the demise of some black institutions, organizations, and businesses that had provided services to blacks that whites had been unwilling to offer. Among these were black-owned hotels, theaters, and hospitals. Another, and very conspicuous example, was the black professional baseball league, which, with the integration of major league baseball, disappeared almost overnight. This should prompt a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of desegregation. While students will probably know the advantages, inform them that some blacks feel that integration helped retard black self- initiative and self-reliance and erode a sense of community among black people. Divide the class into two groups and have them debate the pros and cons of integration.
- Evaluation: Have students write a 500-word essay about Jackie Robinson and his role in the integration of major league baseball. In the essay have them address the issue of why the desegregation of major league baseball occurred and how it affected the Negro Baseball League. Point out to students that some major league team owners, aware of the popularity of the Negro Leagues, saw integration as a sound business proposition.
- Explain how the advent of the Cold War and the threat of Communist subversion posed risks for African American protest activities, especially those that involved a condemnation of European colonial rule in Africa.
- Point out to the class that because the major colonial powers (Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal) were American allies, and the Soviet Union unequivocally condemned colonialism, those who attacked colonialism in Africa and Asia during the McCarthy period were often charged with being Communist sympathizers. Also explain that because of this charge, some civil rights leaders thought that speaking out forcefully against colonialism would jeopardize the civil rights movement and perhaps ruin their personal careers. Have students discuss whether they agree with such a position, whether they, as a civil rights leader during this period, would have taken a strong anti-colonial position.
- Evaluation: Have students write a short play in which the two main characters are black civil rights leaders during the McCarthy era. Using the difficulties Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois experienced as examples, have one leader oppose a strong anti-colonial position. The other leader should support speaking out against colonialism, justifying this position on the basis of the need to oppose racism consistently and the right of all peoples to self- determination.
- Describe the kinds of discriminatory practices that black New Jerseyans faced in the immediate postwar period.
- Have the class read the resolution of the New Jersey State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs to the 1947 New Jersey Constitutional Convention. Ask students what this document reveals about the forms of racial discrimination in New Jersey after World War II.
- Have students imagine they were black New Jerseyans in the immediate postwar period fighting to eliminate racial discrimination. Ask them which of the forms of discrimination identified they would try to eliminate first, and why. This question should prompt different responses from the students. Remind students that their choice could be influenced by the form of racial segregation that was the easiest to abolish. Thus, some students might choose eliminating restrictive covenants, while others might see abolishing segregation in public accommodations as their first target.
- Evaluation: Have the students write a short play about a black Trentonian who has been discriminated against in a public accommodation. The play should reenact the incident (for example, being refused service at a restaurant, or being seated in a certain section of a movie theater) and what action, if any, the victim intends to take (such as contacting the NAACP or organizing a boycott of the offending establishment).
- Show Students the film Go Tell It On The Mountain (98 minutes). Adapted from James Baldwin’s first novel, it centers on a postwar black urban family haunted by tragic memories of the rural South. A stern, domineering preacher and his gifted young stepson come into conflict over the boy’s preference for school over church. As the preacher’s past unfolds, through flashbacks, we see the roots of his religious rigidity. The film can be obtained from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Media Resource Center, 28 West State Street, Sixth Floor, Trenton, New Jersey 08608 (609-695-4838).
- Show students the film Before You Can Say, Jackie Robinson (65 minutes). This documentary examines the Negro Baseball League, with special emphasis on the Newark Eagles, who won the Negro Baseball League World Series in 1946. It can be obtained from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Media Resource Center, 28 West State Street, Sixth Floor, Trenton, New Jersey 08608 (609-695-4838).
Ralph Bunche. In 1950, because of his work for the United Nations in negotiating the 1948 Arab-Israeli armistice after the creation of Israel in 1948, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first black so honored.
Daniel “Chappie” James. Captain and pilot during the Korean War, he was the first black American to become a four-star general.
Jackie Robinson. The first African American to integrate major league baseball, he later became a corporate executive and a civil rights spokesperson.
Marion Thompson Wright. A pioneer in the writing of black New Jersey history, she was a professor at Howard University and an associate of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the acknowledged “Father of African American History.”
Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading
- Berman, William C. 1970. The Politics of Civil Rights in the Truman Administration.
- Only major study of the behind-the-scenes political exigencies of civil rights legislation during the Truman presidency.
- Caute, David. 1978. The Great Fear.
- A general overview of the McCarthy era that helps explain the retreat of some blacks from activism.
- Cruse, Harold. 1967. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.
- Best analysis of the black Left and the ideological positions of black intellectuals from the Harlem Renaissance to the 1960s.
- Geiss, Immanuel. 1974. The Pan-African Movement.
- Detailed monograph that examines the movement from its nineteenth-century roots and explains its vitality during the Cold War years.
- Marable, Manning. 1986. W.E.B. DuBois: Black Radical Democrat.
- An account by a socialist of DuBois’ political evolution and perseverance during and after the McCarthy witch hunts.
- Newman, Dorothy K., et al. 1978. Protest, Politics and Prosperity.
- A study of the treatment of blacks by public educational and health institutions, as well as by housing and economic sectors, 1940-1975. Shows vast pattern of bureaucratic neglect.
- Polenberg, Richard. 1980. One Nation Divisible.
- Good, general study that explores the economic and political fabric of racial and ethnic discord in the United State since the Great Depression.
- Baldwin, James. 1952. Go Tell It On The Mountain.
- Baldwin’s first novel, set in Harlem in the early 1950s, tells the story of a young man’s religious conversion on his fourteenth birthday and, in flashbacks, the lives and sins of three earlier generations of his family.
- Ellison, Ralph. 1962. Invisible Man.
- This novel can be taken as a metaphor for the invisibility and powerlessness of black people when they allow their lives to be directed by others — both people and faceless institutions.
- Rivlin, Benjamin, ed. 1989. Ralph Bunche: The Man and His Times.
- Composed of essays from scholars and Bunche’s associates, as well as some of Bunche’s more important speeches, this volume addresses the historic contributions to justice at home and peace in the world of this scholar, statesman, and diplomat who was the first black to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Robinson, Jackie, and Alfred Duckett. 1972. I Never Had It Made.
- This is the story of Jackie Robinson, who rose from a poor southern family to become the first African American baseball player in the major leagues, a successful businessman, a civil rights leader, and a political adviser.
- Scott, Richard. 1987. Jackie Robinson: Baseball Great.
- Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
- Taulbert, Clifton. 1989. Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored.
- In this touching autobiography, Taulbert discusses his childhood and early youth in Mississippi during the late 1940s and early 1950s, making his personal story a loving testament to the Taulbert family and all black families who kept the faith in the segregated South.
- Van Raven, Pieter. 1990. Pickle and Price.
- Set in the rural South in the early 1950s, the main characters of this novel are John Pickle Sherburn, a thirteen-year old white boy whose father runs a detention farm, and Price Douglas, a black man from Detroit who is serving time at the farm for a crime he didn’t commit. Pickle plans Price’s escape from the farm, steals his father’s truck, and decides to drive Price to Detroit and then head west to California.
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