Thursday, April 28, 2016

Homefront: How WWII and the US Military Provided the First Spark for the Civil Rights Movement 2 / 2

by Nomad

In Part One, we took a look at how the approaching World War provided an opportunity to reform hiring practices in the defense industry.
In this part, we examine the post-war years and the momentum from that initial reform were about to push for an even more astounding shift in attitudes.

Upon Roosevelt's death, the torch was passed to Truman who was far less reserved support for income equality for all. After the war was over, the pressure was off the defense industry to hire minorities.
The question was: would the federally-imposed hiring practices for the defense industry during the war be recognized as a standard for all hiring?

G.I. Bill and the Discovery of Two Americas

As we mentioned in the first installment in this series, Roosevelt signed the G.I Bill of Rights on June 22, 1944.
It was an attempt to prevent the miserable situation that Depression-era veterans faced. The Bonus Army March on Washington was a shame for the entire country and, the president felt, should never be allowed to happen again.

In real terms, the law provided enough support so that vets who had served their country should not be burdened economically after his service.

Among the benefits offered to veterans: low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend university, high school or vocational education, as well as one year of unemployment compensation

Professor Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University, points out:
Four out of five men born in the United States during the 1920s served in the military, and about half of them used the G.I. Bill for education and training.... Vocational training also led to jobs with middle class incomes and benefits.... The G.I. Bill helped make U.S. democracy more vibrant in the middle of the twentieth century.
By 1947 half of all college students were veterans and thanks to the G.I. Bill, one-fifth of all single-family homes built in the 20 years following World War II were financed with help from the GI Bill's loan guarantee program, symbolizing the emergence of a new middle class.

The rise of the middle-class in the Eisenhower years was, it has been argued, based on the positive economy-enhancing effects of the G.I. Bill. 

The results of Roosevelt's law enriched the prestige of the future administrations and gave the post-war American society was transformed from the days of the Great Depression and the austerity that followed.
By the time initial GI Bill eligibility for World War II veterans expired in 1956 – about 11 years after final victory – the United States was richer by 450,000 trained engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-educated individuals.
*   *   *
According to the law, these benefits were open to all veterans, regardless of race. However, in practice, it was a different story. Discrimination was such a widespread feature of American society at the time that its unequal application was practically guaranteed.

The law was clearly being interpreted differently for African American veterans. Here are some figures to support that view:
Of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites
The G.I Bill inadvertently shone a spotlight on the disparity between education for white Americans and the education for black Americans.   In war time, the US had manifested a unity against the common enemy of fascism but, in the post-war era, African Americans were expected to accept a return to second class status. 

By 1946, only one-fifth of the 100,000 blacks who had applied for educational benefits had registered in college. Across the nation, universities were under tremendous strain to accommodate the new flood of veteran-students.

Worst hit were underfunded and understaffed black colleges and universities. These institutions were unable to handle the increased enrollments and were forced to reject an estimated 20,000 veterans.
In the segregated South, white schools were officially off-limits to African Americans.
Colleges accepting blacks in the South initially numbered 100. Those institutions were of lower quality, with 28 of them classified as sub-baccalaureate. Only seven states offered postbaccalaureate training, while no accredited engineering or doctoral programs were available for blacks. These institutions were all smaller than white or nonsegregated universities, often facing a lack of resources.
Even for those that  lucky enough to be accepted into universities, the generally sorry state of public education for African Americans, at elementary and secondary levels, guaranteed failure.
Many would discover that, despite their training in the military, they had not been adequately prepared in civilian life, for college level work.

According to some sources, there were other problems too. Many saw the lack of minority representation in government agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs. as a sign that discrimination was not just a failure of individuals, but of the system itself.

Two groups, American Legion and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), challenged the reforms and, according to critics, placed obstacles in the path of many African American veterans. 
One source explains how that worked:
Though the program was federally funded, its implementation was directed at the state and local level by the Veterans Administration (VA), which was almost entirely white and closely affiliated with the pro-segregation American Legion. VA job counselors frequently steered African American veterans who applied for tuition benefits towards vocational training instead of university courses. In some cases, black applicants were told that they needed no further education, since the job market had no place for blacks as skilled workers--only as menial laborers.
Additionally, banks and mortgage agencies refused loans to blacks, making the G.I. Bill even less effective for blacks.

In a stark and undeniable way, the G.I Bill revealed two Americas, distinguished primarily by skin color. It was something that the white majority could no longer deny or excuse.

African American veterans who had made equal sacrifices in wartime wanted to know why they did not receive equal compensation when the war was over.
They had every right to demand an answer.

An Imperfect Catalyst for Change

To put it bluntly, President Truman, as an individual, was an unlikely and imperfect catalyst for change. 

The Missouri-born politician's attitudes about social equality were hardly sophisticated. (In his old age, he made controversial statements about the later civil right movement that many regarded as bigoted.)

Paradoxically, Truman was, in many ways, a suitable bridge between white and black ideas at the time. If he failed to appreciate black America's demands, he was also aware of the connection between civil rights for blacks and civil liberties for all Americans. 
It was not simply a matter of race but of justice.

Here's a quote:
In giving Negroes the rights which are theirs, we are only acting in accord with our own ideals of a true democracy. If any class or race can be permanently set apart from, or pushed down below the rest in political and civil rights, so may any other class or race when it shall incur the displeasure of its more powerful associates, and we may say farewell to the principles on which we count our safety.
This view of the issue was something that both whites and blacks could support. It also appealed to our highest ideals as a nation- even when those ideals were in some regions, little more than a bitter joke.

Before Truman's pressure, Congress had shown little interest in civil rights. For one thing, race relations was exactly the kind of issue could be ballot box poison. It was one thing for a politician to support a crusade against Communists, but quite another to supporting equal rights for Negroes. Racism could be hidden even in the most sophisticated circles and could cost the righteous Senator his seat. 

Perhaps another reason why Congress was hesitant to uphold civil rights was because many saw it as something that the Marxist could easily exploit. At this time, the Red Scare was just beginning and was still considered a realistic national security threat. Nobody wanted to be seen as helping the Communists by supporting "black insurgency."

According to one historical account Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 :
Blacks were thought to be "antisouthern, anti-American, and [still] susceptible to manipulation by foreign agents," which was essential for tying integration to a Communist conspiracy.
These ideas were later to be widely promoted amongst the John Birch Society (JBS) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In Alan Stang's book published by the JBS , It's Very Simple: The True Story of Civil Rights, Rev. King, Jr. is portrayed as "an agent of a massive communist conspiracy to agitate among otherwise happy Negroes to foment revolution, or at least promote demands for more collectivist federal government intrusion."
(I personally recall as  child reading an article in American Legion Magazine which claimed the MLK was part of Red Chinese plot.)

From the White House, it was clear that that any attempt at social reform legislation would have to somehow overcome the conservative coalition within his own party, made up largely from "racially reactionary southerners." 

For this, Truman realized that it would require laying the groundwork. A strong case first had to be made that social reform was even necessary.

Essential Dignity That Must be Respected

In 1946, President Truman assembled a distinguished panel to serve as the President's Commission on Civil Rights. Its mission was to investigate the status of civil rights in the country and propose measures to strengthen and protect them.

When Truman established this committee, he wrote the introduction to the final report:
The preservation of civil liberties is a duty of every Government-state, Federal and local. Wherever the law enforcement measures and the authority of Federal, state, and local governments are inadequate to discharge this primary function of government, these measures and this authority should be strengthened and improved.

The Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these Constitutional rights.
He put his finger exactly on what he saw was the problem. Institutionalized injustice. Change and reform could only occur when all levels of government recognized the respective obligations to defend and protect the Constitution.

Truman explained:
Yet in its discharge of the obligations placed on it by the Constitution, the Federal Government is hampered by inadequate civil rights statutes. The protection of our democratic institutions and the enjoyment by the people of their rights under the Constitution require that these weak and inadequate statutes should be expanded and improved. We must provide the Department of Justice with the tools to do the job.
In late 1947, the commission issued its report, "To Secure These Rights." All in all, for its time, it was an amazing step forward. 

The document opens with basic principles:
The central theme in our American heritage is the importance of the individual person. From the earliest moment of our history we have believed that every human being has an essential dignity and integrity which must be respected and safeguarded. Moreover, we believe that the welfare of the individual is the final goal of group life.
These were very ideas that separated the Western model of governance from its newly-emerging opponent in the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Communist China.
Our American heritage further teaches that to be secure in the rights he wishes for himself, each man must be willing to respect the rights of other men. This is the conscious recognition of a basic moral principle: all men are created equal as well as free.
All well and good but the reality in Alabama or Mississippi was very different. There were still plenty of Americans, particularly in the South, who were prepared to argue that fact that African Americans even deserved equal status.
Stemming from this principle is the obligation to build social institutions that will guarantee equality of opportunity to all men. Without this equality, freedom becomes an illusion. Thus the only aristocracy that is consistent with the free way of life is an aristocracy of talent and achievement. The grounds on which our society accords respect, influence or reward to each of its citizens must be limited to the quality of his personal character and of his social contribution.
Those last lines would be picked up by a later civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said that a man should be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.

The report continued with another shot at the Communist ideals: 
This concept of equality which is so vital a part of the American heritage knows no kinship with notions of human uniformity or regimentation. We abhor the totalitarian arrogance which makes one man say that he will respect another man as his equal only if he has "my race, my religion, my political views, my social position." In our land men are equal, but they are free to be different. From these very differences among our people has come the great human and national strength of America.
The panel returned with a series of recommendations in order to set up a "more adequate means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States."

Among the panel's proposals were an anti-lynching legislation and an end to poll tax laws. It also advised a strengthening the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.

In February 1948, President Truman called on Congress to enact all of these recommendations. When Southern Senators made up of Democrats (or Dixie-crats, as they were known) immediately threatened a filibuster.

A Needless Expression of Fear

In her column from 9 February 1948,  the widowed First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote:
I wish these Southern gentlemen had a little more faith in the white race and believed that we were capable of associating with and doing justice to another race without of necessity being swallowed up by that race. It seems to me that this hue and cry on the subject of segregation is nothing but an expression of fear. This fear is more understandable in the South, where in certain areas a larger section of the population is colored. Yet if proper conditions existed and there was equal opportunity for education, for economic security and for decent living, there need be no fear. It is because we do not grant civil and economic rights on an equal basis that there is any real reason for fear.
There can be no excuse for open disrespect and fear of your neighbor in a democracy. It will always be an exercise in futility.  At best, it will provide us only with a false form of democracy. Not something, if the tables were turned, we should be satisfied with.

Roosevelt continued:
There can be no real democracy where 15,000,000 people feel that they are discriminated against and cannot live on equal terms with their neighbors. Neither will there be real unity in this country until we conquer our prejudices. All of us have them in one form or another, but the time has come when the fight must be made by each one of us to live at home in a way which will make it possible to live peacefully in the world as a whole.
She adds one more idea that many of her white readers had never considered:
It is the white people who really are a minority in the world population, and I sometimes wonder why our arrogance has been tolerated so long. We can be good friends and good neighbors.
At the same time, President Truman plowed on with progress on civil rights by using his executive powers.
Among other things, Truman appointed the first African American judge to the Federal Bench, named several other African Americans to high-ranking administration positions,
A revolution for the time when many Southern states forbid the African Americans from attending predominantly white schools and there were still places like diners and buses reserved for white Americans only.
*   *   *
As one study points out, executive and legislative interest in the civil rights of black Americans reached a level in 1948 unmatched since Reconstruction. This was largely a result of the president's initiatives- along with considerable pressure by powerful African Amercian groups.

By creating a presidential committee on civil rights and developing a legislative program based on its findings, Truman brought the black minority into the political arena and committed the federal government to a program of social legislation.

None of this could have been achieved through a "hands-off" or "limited government" policy advocated by later conservative politicians.

Executive Order 9981

Between the years 1947 and 1948, A. Philip Randolph, (the union and civil rights leader mentioned in Part One) continued to advance his cause.

His target was the racist policies of the armed services. In that effort, Randolph launched a two-stage assault. 
The first phase, the Committee against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, employed traditional legal strategies; the second phase, the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience against Military Segregation, encourage youths to resist induction unti a segregated armed forces.
As  Randolph well knew, Jim Crow policies were not limited to the South. Randolph had a checklist of reforms he demanded. 
Randolph was determined to prohibit Jim Crow activities in interstate travel for militaty trainees, abolish the military segregation policy for combat soldiers and eradicate the day-to-day degrading treatment that black soldiers endured.
Randolph used his powers of persuasion successfully to convince President Harry Truman to abolish Jim Crow in the American armed forces.  

In July 1948, Truman fired off another Executive Order (EO9981) which banned entirely segregation in all branches of the armed forces. 
The 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.
Truman wisely took a step back and allowed the services "to work out in detail the procedures which will complete the steps so carefully initiated by the committee." 
They were given their orders by the President and the freedom to put their houses in order. However, with that freedom came strict accountability.      

In effect, the President was guaranteeing the services the freedom to put their own houses in order when it came to integration. It was to be a move that would have profound consequences in race relations. 

Congress was slow to see that changes were gradually transforming the armed services. Between 1949-1950, the subject was widely discussed, moving from a philosophical debate to a much more hotly-contested issue, "with opponents and defenders raising the issues of military efficiency, legality, and principles of equality and states' rights."

Meanwhile, the US military was taking the initiative and following the President's command. 
(A much more complete picture of this project can be found HERE.)

To Overcome Those Who Would Evade or Oppose 

Writing for the New Republic, in the election year of 1952, Harry Conn noted that, only four years earlier: 
..the entire concept of integrating whites and Negroes in our armed forces was roundly denounced by many politicians and top military brass among them the Republican Presidential nominee, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Conn observed that the debate had undergone a stunning shift. Not one of the top commanders, he said would fundamentally question the policy of integration.
Everyone will tell you that it has immeasurably bolstered the morale of our fighting forces, increased their efficiency and has been successful. Even Southern Congressmen have no desire to make an issue of it, and General Eisenhower now accepts it.
However, progress wasn't something that just happened. It required "intelligence, hard work, ingenuity and sheer force to overcome those who would evade or oppose it."
Prejudice is no more easily eradicated in our military than in our civilian population. Yet, progress has been made, basic progress.
The New Republic article also quotes James C. Evans, top civilian assistant to the Secretary of Defense and monitor of the program,
"Integration is now over the hump. We still have some obstacles but the rest of the program is proceeding routinely."
According to Evans, percentage-wise, the program was 1952  "four-fifths effective, at least from the physical standpoint of segregation and discrimination."

The psychological barriers, he believed, were falling. Two-thirds of the enlisted men were now convinced of justification of integration and had fully accepted it.
Those in the one-third category were "a rapidly diminishing figure." 

The success of the program was, Evans implied, something that the generally conservative members of the Pentagon were proud enough to publicize.  
In many unexpected ways, the military services appeared to be at the cutting edge in the struggle for racial equality. A silent revolution was happening in the armed forces and it was to become an overwhelming or unstoppable juggernaut.  

However, ironically, with the election of one of Pentagon's brightest star, the struggle for reform and race equality would lose the backing of the White House. 

Fortunately, public pressure through non-violent civil disobedience would become a driving force independent of Washington. In additional, the Supreme Court was prepared to pick up the slack  and force the Republican president's hand.  And the military would play a critical role there too.


In the final installment, we will see how the civil rights movement was now coming of age and even foot-dragging by the Truman's successor could do little more than delay the inevitable.