During World War I, African Americans had joined the war effort with the hopes that their patriotic service might be rewarded. They had imagined that through their participation both the world and the United States would become "safe for democracy." But by war's end blacks had discovered their expectations betrayed. Jim Crow restrictions remained securely intact in the South, racially motivated crimes including lynching were on the rise all over the country, and racial discrimination kept black Americans underpaid or unemployed.
So, by the outbreak of World War II, African Americans were much more cynical. Some responded to Japanese and German hostilities with uncertainty, others with spite. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a black sharecropper remarked to his white landlord, "I hear those Japs done declared war on you white folks."17 Some were skeptical of the national call to duty abroad, referring to the conflict as the "white man's war." Twenty years after black leader W.E.B. DuBois had urged his people to set aside their grievances and commit themselves to the war effort, the black press proclaimed, "Our war is not against Hitler in Europe but against the Hitlers in America."18
With the passage of the Selective Training and Service Act in August 1940, all American men between the ages of 18 and 45 became liable for military service. Some black men who had no desire to fight in the "white man's war" used racial stereotypes to their advantage to avoid the draft. Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, appeared before a draft board wearing his most audacious zoot suit and exaggerating his desire to join the army in order to "kill some crackers." The draft board subsequently deemed Little "mentally disqualified for military service." Musician Dizzy Gillespie told the board that, for so long, "the white man's foot has been buried in my a--hole up to his knee."19 Therefore, he said, he might be likely to shoot any white man he encountered.
Still, many others agreed with heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who said, "America's got lots of problems, but Hitler won't fix them."20 Throughout World War II, more than one million blacks entered the armed forces. Some believed that victory over America's enemies abroad was as important as victory over enemies at home and joined to protect the United States from the Nazis. The military also offered enlistees a reliable salary, so many African Americans plagued by unemployment and poverty enlisted to escape the degradation of their current condition.
Black inductees found discrimination and segregation prevalent in the armed forces. Military and government officials rejected desegregation, some asserting the belief that blacks were inferior. Segregation policies reflected the notion that blacks did not make adequate leaders and worked best under white supervision. The United States Army enlisted black soldiers into separate regiments; the Navy confined blacks to service roles as cooks, janitors, and waiters; the Marine Corps, for much of the war, excluded blacks altogether. African-American servicemen were sent to segregated training camps, often on military bases in the South where black GIs were harassed for defying Jim Crow laws or, simply, for wearing a military uniform. Army base chapels, mess halls, and entertainment centers excluded or segregated black soldiers.
Even Nazi prisoners of war enjoyed more rights than black American servicemen. German prisoners of war held in United States military bases were commonly permitted to dine with white U.S. soldiers in facilities that excluded black U.S. soldiers. When Lena Horne, an African-American songstress, performed in a southern GI camp, German prisoners of war were given front row seats while black servicemen were relegated to the back of the theater. Horne delivered her performance in the aisles before her follow black Americans, but, shaken by the experience, she ended her military tour.
Like World War I, the Second World War, despite all the democratic rhetoric, brought few tangible changes for African Americans. Lawful segregation continued to limit access to public facilities in the South, laws restricting black suffrage remained intact, and the threat of economic reprisal and death at the hands of whites prevented black citizens from owning land and gaining economic independence.
Still, one thing had changed; black veterans returned home transformed. With their wartime experiences came new frustrations, and a more urgent desire to take charge of their lives and protest ill treatment. The fear and anger they felt on the battlefield didn't fade at war's end but, instead, intensified. Black veterans were determined to discard the mask of accommodation. No longer would they veil their true feelings and allow whites to degrade, humiliate, and terrorize their communities. "I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself," Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins reflects in Devil in a Blue Dress, a novel by Walter Mosley. "I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was."21
Black soldiers returning from World War II would provide the fuel for the growing Civil Rights Movement.