The festering sore that was American segregation became a burning issue after Hitler’s declaration of war (11th December 1941). The world’s worse racist state declared war on a country which enshrined segregation. America’s non-white soldiers were officially second class citizens. Nothing illustrated the irony of black Americans fighting for freedom* than segregated regiments. Black soldiers were second class citizens occupying menial ‘Uncle Tom’ jobs. This didn’t escape the notice of black intellectuals. The Pittsburg Courier began their Double V campaign in February 1942. This campaign was intended to lead to victory over Hitler’s Germany and end the segregated world that black Americans lived in on a daily basis.
Social revolution was in the air once Hitler declared war. The USA was fighting Asian and European wars simultaneously. Immediately this produced labour shortages through duplicated supply chains. America’s wars meant two air forces, armies and navies. Black labour was sucked from the reservoirs of manpower in the Deep South to feed the explosive growth in war industries. Black Americans supported the war effort by migrating to the principal industrial areas in the west, east and, especially, the north. A million black Americans were also drafted into the armed forces.
The ultimate test of citizenship is defending your country when it’s in mortal danger. Entering the military entails risking your life. Once the draft (conscription) was extended in December 1941 there were virtually no volunteers as the draft kicked in for 18 years old men. Black draftees quickly saw that they weren’t ‘citizens’ in the full sense of the word because of the Jim Crow laws**, which had operated principally in the South. Segregated regiments extended the Jim Crow laws de facto for those from both the North and the South. For black Americans from the North this was a brutal statement of inferiority. By creating an uneven playing field racist officers ensured that black soldiers appeared incompetent thereby reinforcing the racist narrative.
The Pittsburg Courier began their campaign in February 1942 by cleverly denouncing military racism alongside calls for patriotism from its mainly black readership. This mix of patriotism and a radical political call for action is exemplified by their clarion call-
“We, as colored Americans are determined to protect our country, our form of government and the freedoms which we cherish for ourselves and the rest of the world, therefore we have adopted the Double ‘V’ war cry—victory over our enemies at home and victory over our enemies on the battlefields abroad. Thus in our fight for freedom we wage a two-pronged attack against our enslavers at home and those abroad who will enslave us. WE HAVE A STAKE IN THIS FIGHT…WE ARE AMERICANS, TOO!” Pittsburg Courier 14th February 1942.
In the war industries black trade unionists had already achieved a notable victory in 1940 with Roosevelt’s Executive Order (number 8802), which by-passed Congress and established The Fair Employment Act (1941)***. This ended discrimination in war industries. The Double V campaign tried to emulate that success. They failed. However they achieved a margin of success with the ever increasing pressure on manpower and so black combat units were created. The Tuskegee airmen were especially noteworthy as they out-performed white crewed aircraft who were protecting bombers.
The Double V campaign succeeded after the war when President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 ordering integration in the armed services. The depth of hatred for black Americans is illustrated by the fact that the Secretary of the Army Kenneth Claiborne Royall was sacked in 1949 for refusing to implement a direct Presidential order to desegregate the army. The final echoes of racial injustice ended with Robert McNamara’s Directive 5120.36 in July 1963 immediately prior to the US expansion in Vietnam. This directive tackled the racism that was endemic in military housing and communities.
The Double V campaign was heroic. The leaders of it were vilified by the FBI and the overt hostility of the military was ferocious. The entire world view of the military was challenged in this social version of the Audit of War. But just as with technology so it was with social change. Once unleashed the internal logic of the situation demanded change and no one could (successfully) stand against it.
*Interestingly the ancient Greeks freed their slaves, making them full citizens, if they wanted them to fight in a war situation as soldiers.
**Jim Crow laws defined segregated life for black Americans in the Deep South with institutional separation of facilities like education, which were severely underfunded and therefore a mechanism ensuring that blacks remained unable to compete in the workplace. In the North segregation was enforced through economic power and covert methods (photographs accompanying job applications for example).
*** The executive order read:- It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.