How black WWII vets helped lead the civil rights movement
“From the last plane to the last bullet to the last minute to the last man — we fight. We fight! We fight!” is the well-known mantra from the film Red Tails chronicling the important contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen in winning World War II.
Although the enemy was supposed to be Hitler, black soldiers were fighting two wars. Jim Crow thrived in the military, manifesting itself in segregated divisions and barracks, as well as racial slurs and second-class treatment. Black soldiers also routinely received menial assignments.
Sailor Doris “Dorie” Miller, who fired upon Japanese aircraft despite being untrained for such action during Pearl Harbor, was officially a cook. Although he was awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery, he was not celebrated like his heroic white peers, which the Pittsburgh Courier relentlessly reported. So, even as black soldiers joined the fight for the world’s freedom, they were denied their very own.
That harsh reality is what prompted the Pittsburgh Courier to launch the “Double V” campaign in the February 7, 1942 edition. Its mission of “Democracy: Victory at Home, Victory Abroad” struck a chord with millions of black Americans and the soldiers themselves. As a result, black soldiers played a critical role in the war on Jim Crow.
When black veterans did return to the United States, they were rarely welcomed back as “champions of democracy,” regardless of what acts of extraordinary heroism they had displayed. This was especially true in the South where veterans frequently encountered resentment despite serving their country. Instead of buckling to the status quo, they refused to lower their weapons, which eventually resulted in significant “civil rights” gains that we continue to enjoy today.
World War II veteran Medgar Evers, who became the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, served valiantly with the Red Ball Express, the truck convoy system that provided Allied forces with supplies following D-Day, the storied invasion of Normandy. Like many veterans, Evers not only tasted victory in Europe but played a critical role in bringing it about in his own country, ironically surviving World War II but dying in the war on Jim Crow in the state of his birth.
Although lesser known nationally than Evers, Mississippi civil rights leaders Amzie Moore and Aaron Henry were also World War II veterans. All of the men helped build the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a homegrown Mississippi organization that worked for civil rights before the NAACP’s focus on the state in the 1950s and 1960s. Henry eventually became head of the NAACP’s Mississippi branch and a founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Both Moore and Evers collected information in the Emmett Till murder that helped turn the national spotlight on Jim Crow. Moore is also credited with conceiving the voter registration drive that became the centerpiece of Freedom Summer.
In Louisiana, Charles Sims, a World War II veteran, and Ernest “Chilly Willy” Thomas, who served in the Korean War, were key leaders in the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a black self-defense militia that helped protect civil rights workers from the Ku Klux Klan, in the 1960s. Forest Whitaker starred in a 2003 Showtime film inspired by the group.
World War II Navy veteran James Stephenson was at the center of the 1946 Columbia Race Riot in Columbia, Tennessee. Accompanying his mother to return a radio that had not been repaired, Stephenson and his mother were attacked by the white repairman. But, when Stephenson fought back, he was jailed but was snuck out of town to avoid a riot, an act which angered four white police officers, who descended upon Mink Slide, the black pulse of Columbia.
What the officers and the angry white mob ready to back them up didn’t anticipate is that the men of the Mink Slide, many of them World War II veterans like Stephenson, were armed and ready to fire back. Eventually, scores of black men were arrested for defending themselves and their community. In response, the NAACP sent Thurgood Marshall and Walter White there to defend them. The incident attracted national attention but, unfortunately, such attacks were not an anomaly.
Black veterans, especially those who fought in World War II, served critical roles in raising national and international awareness about Jim Crow. When sensible people learned of the unjust treatment men such as the Tuskegee Airmen, Medgar Evers, Charles Sims and countless others received despite exhibiting extreme bravery on behalf of the world, many were unsettled and spurred to action.
For their part, World War II veterans refused to leave the quest for freedom in Europe and, when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in 1963, not many people objected to them serving a critical role in the security detail. After all, they, perhaps more than any group present, had already proven their willingness to pay the ultimate price for freedom and justice for all.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha