In 1941, with the United States at war against Hitler in Europe, the African American civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph took the government to task for ignoring racism at home while fighting against it on the other side of the world.
The Second World War is often thought of as the one truly ‘good war’ of the modern era.
Without a doubt, World War II was a different kind of fight to any international war waged before or since by the USA, because Nazism was a different kind of enemy.
There was no nuance to Hitler and his fascist allies – they were the well-armed ideologists of a barbaric program for race hate and genocide. The struggle against Nazism was a struggle against pure evil.
But the war's moral imperative didn't mean America’s effort against Hitler was free from self-contradiction.
"The Sight of a Jim Crow American Army"
The racist principles of Nazism which the United States claimed to be fighting in Europe were still widespread in American society, eight decades after the Civil War.
At the time, this was most visible in the continued segregation of the US Armed Forces, with separate units for black and white service personnel.
Segregation left black Americans in a tough spot.
On the one hand, if Hitler's storm troopers made it to US shores, the Nazis would surely treat African Americans as monstrously as they treated Jews, homosexuals, Roma Gypsies, and other "undesirable" minorities in Europe.
On the other, black service members were being asked to fight in an American military which segregated and demeaned them on the basis of race.
Some, like the NAACP, decided to stomach the segregation issue until the war was over.
Others, not least Asa Philip Randolph (born this week in 1889), believed that for the United States to fairly claim it was fighting racism in its war with Hitler, it would have to live up to those same standards at home.
A. Philip Randolph's Stand Against Military Segregation
When the US entered World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, A. Philip Randolph was already a leader of both the socialist and civil rights movements.
In 1925 he had founded the first successful trade union for black workers in US history, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Martin Luther King would later refer to Randolph as “the Dean of Negro leaders.”
It was as a leader of black America that Randolph confronted white supremacy in the wartime United States.
He gave a great deal to the cause of a black New Yorker called Winfred Lynn.
When Lynn was conscripted in 1942, he wrote to his draft board: “Please be informed that I am ready to serve in any unit of the armed forces which is not segregated by race.”
Though he ultimately agreed to join up, fighting bravely in the Pacific, Winfred Lynn took the government to court over the segregation of the military, and Randolph was key to organizing support for his case.
In 1943, he set up a mass pro-Lynn meeting in Harlem, and signed a public letter lamenting “the sight of a Jim Crow American army fighting against Nazi racialism.”
In 1944, he was even more scathing, writing:
“This is not a war for freedom. It is not a war for democracy … It is a war to continue ‘white supremacy’.”
US military segregation survived World War II, with Lynn’s case thrown out by the Supreme Court in January 1945.
But Randolph continued the struggle. In July 1948, he forced President Harry S. Truman to issue Executive Order 9981, at long last desegregating the US Armed Forces.
Randolph had threatened to organize a mass boycott of any future draft by African-Americans, telling Truman:
“Negroes are in no mood to shoulder a gun for democracy abroad so long as they are denied democracy here at home … We are just sick and tired of being pushed around, and we just do not propose to take it, and we do not care what happens.”
Battles Past and Future
A. Philip Randolph’s struggle against the military's underlying racism during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that an American protested government hypocrisy during wartime.
In the immortal words of Emma Goldman, spoken as she was arrested for demonstrating against the First World War a generation earlier:
“If America has entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America.”