Lately I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement and World War II is yet another area that has captured my interest. Racial segregation was the norm across the South, in the nation’s capital and also in the armed forces. Even blood collected for wounded soldiers had to be segregated by order of the War Department.
In that atmosphere of inequality and second class citizenship, it’s not hard to see parallels between the fascist and racial supremacy ideals of Hitler and the segregation of Jim Crow.
As civil rights activist (and my new hero) Pauli Murray put it in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, “We are as much political refugees of the South as any of the Jews of Germany.” As the Holocaust showed Hitler’s tyranny was far more gruesome and deadly, but blacks in the South faced lynchings, intimidation and degradation as a way of life. White racists of the South weren’t that far removed from Nazi Germany.
Murray argued for equality as part of the war effort, saying: “We cannot come into the world struggle for democracy with dirty hands.”
As the draft began blacks posed a fair question: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?” That’s how James G. Thompson of Wichita, Kan., put it, as he proposed the Double V campaign:
“The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory for 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.”
Published and promoted by the Pittsburgh Courier it became a rallying cry that gave blacks an opportunity to support the war effort and maintain their dignity.
The Double V campaign didn’t succeed initially on the home front, but in 1948 Harry Truman ended segregation of the armed forces by executive order. In the 1950s other challenges to segregation would mount and it would eventually crumble beneath the march of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, 20 years after World War II and the Double V campaign.