Hard Times Again
THE new Negro of the 1920s who had struck out for "the Promised Land" found, in the 1930s, that his old enemies of hunger, cold, and prejudice were lurking outside the door of his newly chosen home. Hope slid into despair and cynicism. The dynamic, self-confident Harlem which Johnson had described in 1925 as the Culture Capital of the Negro World became choked with disillusionment and frustration, and, in 1935, it was the scene of looting, burning, and violence.
While the Depression which swept America in 1929 was a national disaster, it did not hit all segments of society equally, In America, poverty and starvation are also discriminatory. To quote the old adage again, "The Negro is the last to be hired and the first to be fired." The Depression also proved that Harlem, like other Afro-American communities, was not as economically self-sufficient as Johnson had imagined. Although such communities had many Negro-owned businesses thriving on a Negro trade, these businesses were still dependent on the economy at large. Therefore, they were not at all free from the racial discrimination in the nation. Their clientele was largely employed in white-owned businesses. Many Negroes were laid off,and Negro-owned businesses immediately felt the pinch.
Although Negro businesses had grown significantly during the 1920s, most were small establishments and, in the age of mass production and mass marketing, always had to struggle hard in order to compete. In 1929, the Colored Merchants Association was established in New York City, and it attempted to buy goods for independent stores on a cooperative wholesale basis. This aided them in competing with chain stores. The Association also urged blacks to patronize stores owned by Afro-Americans. Nevertheless, the Association only survived for two years. The Afro-American community felt the Depression sooner and harder than did the rest of the country.
By 1932, the government believed that 38 percent of the Afro-American community was incapable of self-support and in need of government relief. At the same time, it considered that only 17 percent of the white community fell into this category. In October of 1933, between 25 percent and 40 percent of the blacks in many of the large cities, to which they had moved to find a brighter future, were on relief. This percentage was three or four times higher than that of the whites in the same cities. As affluent whites felt the economic pinch, one of the first items to be trimmed from their shrinking budgets was the maid or the gardener. In 1935 the number of unemployed Negro domestics was at least one and a half million. In that same year, the government estimated that 65 percent of the Negro employables in Atlanta were on public assistance while, in Norfolk, 80 percent of the Afro-American community was on relief.
As Negro unemployment statistics skyrocketed in the early thirties, The-Jobs-for-Negroes Movement strove to alleviate the crisis. It was begun by the Urban League in St. Louis. A boycott was organized against white-owned chain stores which catered to Negroes, but refused to employ them. The movement spread throughout the Midwest and had some success in "persuading" white-owned stores in the heart of the ghettoes to hire Negro employees. When the idea reached Harlem, it resulted in the establishment of the Greater New York Coordinating Committee. One of its founders and organizers was the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell,Jr., and the Committee received considerable support from his church, the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
It was Powell's claim that the Committee was shunned by most "respectable" Negroes but that its supporters included an unusually wide variety of radicals. The group referred to its members as antebellum Negroes by which, Powell said, they meant before Civil War II. Some of them, he claimed, favored repatriation to Africa; others were for black capitalism; still another group, including Powell himself, wanted the Negro to achieve full dignity within the American system. In spite of the variety of their objectives, all of them believed that the Afro-American must first achieve economic security before any of these specific goals could be attained.
It was on this primary tactical necessity that they were able to coordinate their activities. They picketed white-owned stores on 125th Street. They carried signs advocating, "Don't buy where you can't work," and Powell maintained that they were able almost to stop trade totally at any target they chose to picket. He claimed to be able to call a meeting with only forty-eight hours notice and have 10,000 persons in attendance. The 125th Street stores soon negotiated and began employing Negro employees. Next, the Committee hit the city's utility companies. They urged Negroes not to use electricity on specified days. They harassed the telephone company by urging Negroes to demand that the operator place their calls instead of their dialing the number and utilizing the automatic exchanges. Both companies changed their employment patterns in response. The Committee also boycotted the bus company until it began employing Negroes as drivers as well as on other levels of the company's staff.
By 1935 Harlem had become a pressure cooker which was heated to the boiling point by economic and racial frustrations. When a young Negro stole a knife from a 125th Street store, it became the incident which triggered a social explosion. Although he had escaped from the pursuing officer a rumor spread around the community that he had been beaten to death. A mob soon gathered and began to protest everything from the discrimination practices of merchants to slum landlords and police tactics. Window-breaking, looting, and burning soon followed. Before peace was restored, three Negroes had been killed, some two hundred stores smashed, and it was estimated that approximately $2,000,000 worth of damage had been done. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia appointed a study commission which was headed by the noted black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. The commission concluded that the causes of the riot were rooted in resentment against racial discrimination and poverty. The "promised land" of the large northern cities had not lived up to expectations.
The Depression, however, brought its own kind of hope. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been elected in 1932, promised the country a "New Deal." It was to be a new deal for the workers, the unemployed and, it seemed, for the Negro too. In response, black voters switched to the Democratic party in droves. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was not the first president to appoint Negroes to government positions, his appointments were different in two major respects. First, there were more of them. Second, instead of being political payoffs, the appointees were selected for their expert knowledge, and their intellectual skills became part of the government's decision-making processes.
This group, which became informally known as the "Black Cabinet," included such prominent Afro-American leaders as Robert L. Vann of The Pittsburgh Courier, William H. Hastie of the Harvard Law School, Eugene Kinckle Jones of the Urban League, Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune of the National Council of Negro Women, Robert C. Weaver, and Ralph Bunche, who later became the first Negro to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The number of Afro-Americans hired by the Federal Government mushroomed rapidly.
Between 1933 and 1946 the number rose from 50,000 to almost 200,000. Most, however, were employed in the lower, unskilled and semi-skilled, brackets. It was also during this period that the civil service terminated its policy of requiring applicants to state their race and to include photographs. Individual personnel officers, nevertheless, could and did continue to discriminate.
In spite of the attempt of the Roosevelt Administration to elevate the status of the Afro-American, the New Deal itself became enmeshed in racial discrimination in three ways: through discriminatory practice within government bureaus, through exclusion carried on by unions, and also as an indirect by-product of the success of the New Deal programs. In a government bureaucracy, power and authority are distributed throughout the administrative hierarchy. Officials at varying levels were still influenced by their personal prejudices, and they continued to use their positions in a discriminatory manner. Regardless of the intentions at the top, prejudice continued to exist in varying degrees throughout the lower levels of the structure.
In 1935 the Wagner Act protected the rights of labor unions, but because most unions practiced racial discrimination, it served indirectly to undercut the status of the Negro worker for a short time. Actually, with the heightened competition for jobs, unions tended to intensify their discrimination.The American Federation of Labor largely consisted of trade or skilled workers. Its member unions regularly practiced racial exclusion and kept blacks out of the trades. To the contrary, the United Mine Workers Union which had been organized on an industry-wide basis rather than a craft basis had encouraged the participation of Negroes within the union since at least 1890. In 1935, several union leaders, led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, decided that the union movement must break away from its craft orientation and begin to organize the new mass production industries on an industry-wide basis.
While the A. F. of L. dragged its feet, the dissidents withdrew and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Immediately they began to organize the steel workers, the meat packers and the automobile workers. These were all industries which employed significant numbers of Afro-Americans, and the CIO followed an aggressive, nondiscriminatory policy. In the beginning, black workers were suspicious, but they soon joined the new unions in large numbers. In the long run, both black and white labor benefited from the Wagner Act.
Finally, the New Deal failed to extend its program to include either agricultural or domestic workers. These were areas in which Afro-Americans were employed in unusually high proportions, and this meant that a large portion of the Afro-American community was not covered by this legislation. For example, both the Social Security and the Minimum Wage laws excluded both agricultural and domestic workers. Nevertheless, it was estimated that in 1939 some one million Negroes owed their livelihood to the Works Progress Administration. If it had not been for the W.P.A., the National Youth Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other similar organizations, Afro-Americans would have suffered even more during the Depression.
Some relief was brought to farmers through the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. However, white landlords usually kept the checks which had been intended for the sharecroppers. This resulted in the formation of The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, an interracial organization. Despite the landlords' attempts to use racism to destroy it, the Union showed that white and black farmers could cooperate on the basis of their common economic plight. This alliance of poor whites and poor blacks was reminiscent of the earlier Populist Movement.
Although the New Deal did much to help the Negro, it tended to further undercut his self-confidence and independence. Alain Locke has argued that the significant fact about the northward migration by blacks had been that the Afro-Americans had made a decision for themselves. The fact of having made a decision and of taking action on it, Locke maintains, was the event which created the aggressive self-confident New Negro. In helping him to survive the Depression, the New Deal turned him again into a passive recipient. The large number of Afro-Americans who were receiving government aid in one way or another were aware of their dependency. Afro-American communities, which had been regarded as "The Promised Land," slid into poverty and dejection.
The Second World War
As ominous war clouds began to gather over Europe in the late 1930s, most Americans were preoccupied with domestic problems resulting from the Depression. Those who took notice of the ascendancy of Mussolini and Hitler were apt to be impressed with their successes in combatting the effects of the Depression in Italy and Germany. The Afro-American community, however, was more concerned with the imperialistic and racist elements in the teachings of Fascism and National Socialism. Usually, American Negroes were prevented from looking beyond their own problems by the immediacy of racial prejudice which they faced daily, but this time they were among the first to warn of impending danger.
Racist thought in Germany did not begin with the rise of Adolf Hitler. European anti-Semitism can be traced back into the past for centuries. Although it originally had its roots in a religious feeling, racism became secularized and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, took on political overtones and tried to assume a scientific foundation.
Aggressive nationalism began to bloom at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and went on to spread across Europe. The political unification of Germany, instead of being the glorious culmination of this nationalistic drama, only signaled the end of one act and the beginning of another. Even the German defeat in the First World War did not persuade ardent nationalists to be content with the victories they had already achieved. Instead, they probed the heart of the nation to find an explanation for their defeat. These nationalists contended that the defeat had been due to pollution of racial purity by the presence of a large, alien element--the Jews. If it had not been for this impurity, it was argued, Germany would certainly have been victorious, and it would have demonstrated its global superiority. Aggressive nationalism became virulent racism.
Adolf Hitler exploited this need for a political scapegoat and turned it into a national, anti-Semitic campaign. The racial stereotypes and accompanying feelings were already widespread. Nineteenth century popular German literature was full of such trite symbols. The Jew was always portrayed as a villainous merchant, shifty-eyed, large-nosed, unscrupulous, and wealthy. In contrast, the German was invariably portrayed as a solid, blond-haired peasant, hard-working, loyal, and exploited.
The drama in such literature sprang from the tension between the wealthy Jewish merchants and the hard-working but poor German peasants. Here could be found the same kind of exploitation which Hitler used to explain the German defeat in the war. These popular stereotypes were then joined to the teachings of Houston Stewart Chamberlain which had built on elements from biology, anthropology, sociology, and phrenology. In his book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, Chamberlain had developed them into a philosophy of world history which centered on the concepts of racial conflict. Human progress and racial purity were equated. He predicted an eventual struggle to the death between the Jewish and the Teutonic races. The Germans, he believed, would emerge victorious. Through the survival of the fittest and the destruction of the weak, mankind would reach a higher stage of evolution. Although Nazi racist thought was concerned almost exclusively with the conflict between the Germans and the Jews, it was clear that the Negro race was, if anything, consigned to an even lower level of importance than the Jews. In the survival of the fittest, Negroes were also destined for extermination in the name of human progress.
Afro-American suspicions about the nature of Mussolini's imperialism proved to be justified when Italy invaded Ethiopia. Mussolini's dream of reviving Roman glory included rebuilding a powerful empire. However, underdeveloped countries which were not already dominated by European nations and which could easily be colonized, were few in number. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, Afro- Americans saw it as another white nation subjugating another black nation. At the very time when Africans and Afro-Americans were looking forward to the liberation of Africa from European domination, Italy was extending imperialism even further and conquering the last remaining independent supposedly black nation in Africa. Afro-Americans were outraged. They looked to the League of Nations hoping that it would take decisive action against the Italian aggression. Their hopes were in vain.
The war that began in 1939 came to be expressed in terms which were even more ideological than had been true of the First World War. The Allies depicted themselves as being the champions of freedom and humanity while they portrayed their enemies as tyrants and barbarians. Afro-Americans were painfully aware of some of the imperfections in this simple dichotomy. While aghast at the racist teachings propagated by Germany, they could not forget the racism which confronted them daily within the United States.
They were also aware of the imperialism which was practiced by both the British and the French who dominated and exploited Africa almost at will. Nevertheless, Hitler's form of brazen racism did give a note of validity to this ideological formulation. Afro-Americans viewed the war both with more enthusiasm and with more pessimism than they had felt at the outbreak of the First World War. On the one hand, they could eagerly support a war to defeat Hitler's racist doctrines. On the other hand, they did not believe that any display of patriotism on their part would significantly diminish racism at home. During the First World War they had thought that a demonstration of patriotism would help to knock down the walls of antagonism. Instead, they found that manliness on the part of Afro-Americans, even in the name of patriotism, was a threat to those whites who believed that Negroes should be kept in their place. Afro-Americans were prepared not to be disillusioned in that way again. For them, the war would still be a double struggle-fighting racism at home as well as abroad.
The Second World War began to affect Americans long before the country was actually drawn into the fighting. Although the American nation stood on the sidelines for the first two years, America became a major source of money, supplies, and encouragement for Britain and France. Providing materiel for the Allies gave new life to the sagging American economy. There were still some five million unemployed in the nation, and something more seemed to be needed. Unfortunately for the Afro-American, most of the new jobs were not open to them. Aside from the fact that he was the first to be fired and the last to be hired, many of the new defense industries made it clear that they would hire no Negroes at all or, at most, would restrict their employment to janitorial positions regardless of the training or education of the applicant.
Hostility was expressed quite openly by some leaders in the West Coast aircraft industry. As better jobs became available, they were quickly filled by white workers eager to improve their economic status. This left some of the more undesirable jobs to go begging, and, as the result, the war boom benefits began to trickle down to the Afro-American community. Afro-Americans, however, were not content with the crumbs from the industrial table. Complaints began to flood into Washington. Several government officials made pronouncements condemning discrimination in defense industries, but they were not heard. It became clear that nothing would change without strong government action, and it was also evident that this would not occur unless the entire Afro-American community could exert united, political pressure.
Early in 1941, A. Philip Randolph put forth the idea of a gigantic March on Washington, and he expressed the belief that a hundred thousand Afro-Americans could be organized to participate in such an undertaking. The immediate response from most of the leaders of both black and white America was one of skepticism. Most of them felt that there was too much apathy in the Afro-American community for such a grandiose scheme to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, interest on the grass-roots level gradually grew and Randolph's idea was transformed into a project involving scores of organizers all across the country, all of whom were working diligently to enlist potential marchers. In the meantime, Randolph began to formulate the complex plans for organizing the actual march. By late spring, skepticism had turned to worry. Many government leaders and finally President Roosevelt himself tried to talk Randolph into canceling the march. They suggested that such an aggressive protest would do more to hurt the Afro- American than help him.
Randolph remained unyielding. Others tried to suggest that the protest would be bad for the American image and therefore was unpatriotic. When they suggested that it would create a bad impression in Rome and Berlin, Afro-Americans retorted that white racism had already created such an image. Finally, Roosevelt contacted Randolph and offered to issue an executive order barring discrimination in defense industries and promised to put "teeth" in the order, provided Randolph call off the march. When Randolph became convinced that Roosevelt's intentions were sincere, he complied.
Roosevelt fulfilled his promise by issuing Executive Order 8802, which condemned discrimination on the grounds of race, color, or creed. Then, he established the Fair Employment Practices Commission and assigned to it the responsibility for enforcing the order. Many Afro-Americans felt that Executive Order 8802 was the most important government document concerning the Negro to be issued since the Emancipation Proclamation. Their immediate joy was somewhat dampened when they found that discrimination still continued in some quarters. Nevertheless, the F.E.P.C. did condemn discrimination when it found it, and, as the result, many new jobs began to open up for Negroes.
Once America was drawn into the fighting, Afro-Americans hurried to the enlistment centers to volunteer their services in the war against Hitler's philosophy. However, it soon became clear that America intended to fight racism with a segregated army. The fact that Negroes were confined to the more menial positions in the armed forces was what irritated Afro-Americans the most. The Negro army units were obviously going to be led by white officers. The Marine Corps was still not accepting any Negroes in its ranks at all. Complaints again began to pour into Washington.
Afro-Americans generally admitted that the Selective Service Act per se was not discriminatory and that it was applied impartially in most places. One of the reasons for this impartiality, undoubtedly, was the fact that both local and national Selective Service Boards included Afro-American representation. In the course of the war, about one million Afro-Americans saw service on behalf of their country. Their ratio within the armed forces was almost the same as that within the nation. This had been the stated goal of the Department of War.
Gradually, the armed forces modified their discriminatory policies in response to the flood of complaints. The Air Force began to train Negro pilots although they still received segregated training and served in segregated squadrons. The Marine Corps accepted Negro recruits for the first time in its history. They, too, served in segregated units. The Navy, which had restricted Negroes to menial positions, gradually began to accept them in almost all noncommissioned positions. Eventually, it even began to commission some Negro officers. The Army, too, introduced an extensive program to prepare Negro officers. It trained most of them in integrated facilities, but they continued to lead segregated units. As the war grew to a close, the Army announced that it intended to experiment with integration. However, when the experiment took place, the integration proved not to be quite what had been expected. Instead of putting individuals from both races together in the same unit, the Army took segregated black and white platoons and merged them into an integrated fighting force although the platoons themselves remained segregated.
This integrated unit did fight well in the field and made a significant contribution to the defeat of Germany in 1945. Negro units, as well as individual Negro soldiers, made outstanding contributions to the war effort both in Europe and in the Pacific, and they received numerous commendations and citations. Skeptics noted, however, that not a single Negro soldier had received the Congressional Medal of Honor in either the First or Second World Wars, and they suggested that the nation's highest award was being reserved for whites.
Although most of the hostilities were focused on the enemy, racial tensions still ran very high within America. Southern whites were displeased with the self-confidence and manliness brought out in Negroes by military experience, and they were unhappy with the dignity which a military uniform conferred upon them.
At the same time, Negro soldiers in the South were angry over the harassment and segregation with which they were confronted. In particular, they were irritated by the fact that German prisoners of war were permitted to eat with white American soldiers in the same dining car on a railroad train traveling through the South, while Negro soldiers could not. Racial riots occurred at Fort Bragg, Camp Robinson, Camp Davis, Camp Lee, Fort Dix, and a notorious one at an American base in Australia. The policy of the War Department was to gloss over these events. Casualties which resulted from riots at bases in the United States were officially listed as accidental deaths. Those which resulted from riots overseas were officially reported as being killed in action. On several occasions, Negro soldiers refused to do work which they believed had been assigned to them purely because of their race. For this they were charged with mutiny.
There was also one serious civilian race riot during the war; it occurred on June 20, 1943, in Detroit. A fist fight between a white man and a Negro sparked the resentment which had been mounting in that city. Thousands of Afro-Americans had been moving again from the South into the North to fill vacant jobs in war industry, and this was resented by local white residents. Before the Detroit riot ended, twenty-five Negroes and nine whites had been killed. President Roosevelt had to send in federal troops to quell the disturbance. Another factor which irritated Afro-Americans was that the Red Cross blood banks separated Negro and white blood. This was particularly humiliating in that it had been a Negro doctor, Charles Drew, who had done the basic research that made the banks possible.
In spite of this, Afro-Americans were eager to demonstrate their patriotism and to support the war effort. Besides the hundreds of thousands who were involved directly in the military, millions more supported the war effort in countless other ways. Besides growing their own vegetables, saving tin cans and newspapers, they were avid contributors to the War Bond issues. Others volunteered to serve as block wardens in case of enemy air raids. Negro newspapers had their own journalists at the front, and the Afro-American community eagerly kept up with the war news. They took special pride in stories of heroism about Negro soldiers. When Hitler and his racist philosophy went down in defeat, they felt that they had achieved a personal victory and that at the same time they had made a contribution to America and the world.
Thus, as the war came to a close and Afro-Americans looked forward to the postwar years with both apprehension and determination, they feared that, with the foreign antagonism eradicated, racist feeling at home might increase. At the same time, they were possessed by a new drive to make American democracy into a reality. The ideological character of the war had reminded them of America's expressed ideals of brotherhood and equality. Their participation in the war convinced them that they were worthy of full citizenship. Many had broken the bonds of tradition which had held them in fear and apathy. Some had left their communities to fight in the Army, and some had moved into large urban centers to work in defense industries. Although the war against racism abroad had ended, they were intent to see that the struggle for racial freedom and equality at home would continue.
The U.S. and the U.N.
The San Francisco Conference which founded the United Nations organization was looked upon by peoples around the world as the sunrise of a new day of peace and brotherhood. While hope ran high in most quarters, some of these same peoples were suspicious about its lofty ideological character. Humanitarian ideologies had made their appearance before, but there had always been a gap between theory and practice. Colored peoples and other minorities around the world observed the San Francisco Conference with hope mixed with caution. They wanted to see whether it was mere ideological rhetoric which would salve the consciences of the exploiters and dull the senses of the exploited, or whether, perhaps, its aims might spring from genuine conviction and become established in a framework which would be fully implemented.
The U.N. was to be more sweeping in its goals and programs than the League had been, and it was hoped that it would have more power to carry out its decisions. Its very initials signified that the peoples of the world were to be one people bound together in brotherhood, freedom, and equality. This should have meant the end of imperialistic exploitation as well as the end of minority persecution. The Afro-American community wondered if the U.N. would apply these principles to them. Many skeptics suggested that the U. S. initiative in founding the U.N. was only part of a plan to create a world image which would help America in her new role as a world leader.
Several Afro-Americans were accredited as official observers at the San Francisco Conference. Their number included Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson of Howard University, W. E. B. DuBois and Walter White, both of the N.A.A.C.P. Ralph Bunche was an official member of the American staff. There were also a large number of Negro journalists, and the conference was widely covered in the Negro press. Once the U.N. was organized and in operation, several other Afro-Americans worked for it in a number of ways. While some held diplomatic posts, others used their specific scientific and scholarly skills to help various branches of the U.N. They were particularly interested in the departments concerned with the treatment of colonial nations and with the various scientific organizations involved in helping underdeveloped countries.
The United Nations Charter defended universal human rights more clearly than any previous political document in world history. The Charter proclaimed human rights and freedom for all without respect to "race, sex, language or religion." Minority groups were particularly interested in the work of UNESCO which, among other things, studied the nature of prejudice and racism and tried to develop programs to eradicate these evils. The U.N. also formed a Human Rights Commission, and Afro-Americans expected that whatever action the U.N. took to support human rights throughout the world would also have an impact on their situation.
The first test came in 1946 when India charged South Africa with practicing racial discrimination against Indian nationals and their descendants who were living within South Africa. Minority groups throughout the world eagerly waited to see what, if any- thing, the U.N. would do. When a resolution was passed by a two- thirds majority, charging South Africa with the violation of human rights, and requiring it to report back on what steps had been taken to alter the situation, religious and national minorities were overjoyed. However, the enthusiasm of Afro- Americans was dampened by the fact that both the United States and Britain had voted against the resolution. While posing as the leaders of democracy and humanitarianism, they seemed more concerned with protecting their sovereign rights as nations against similar future charges which might impinge on their sovereignty, than they were with protecting the human rights of oppressed peoples.
The attitude which the U. S. Government took towards human rights sheds considerable light on the internal conflict concerning race within America itself. The U. S. led the fight at the U.N. for the approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the American government has been reluctant to support the inclusion of specific economic and social rights in a draft treaty. The U.N. had endeavored to write a draft treaty which its member nations would sign and which would be binding on them. If the U. S. Senate had ratified such a document, its terms presumably would then be binding on the entire nation. At that time, senators from the Southern states were still staunchly defending legal segregation and disfranchisement of Afro-Americans. The government found itself supporting human rights ideologically while backing down on them in practice.
As the Cold War deepened, the U. S. became increasingly sensitive about its world image. While fighting for world leadership, Russia and America each claimed that its way of life was based on the principles of brotherhood and humanitarianism. Each, in turn, tried to prove to the rest of the world that its ideology was genuinely humane and democratic, while its opponent's ideology was, in reality, oppressive and dehumanizing. The communist bloc attacked the West for being purveyors of imperialism and racism. This forced the American government to face up to the discriminatory policies within the nation and, especially, to reexamine the legal discrimination existing within the Southern states. It was particularly embarrassing to the American ambassador to the United Nations to have to be berated by the Russian delegate concerning some unpleasant racial events which had happened somewhere in the South. The Federal Government had always followed a policy of "hands off," at least since the days of Hayes and the end of Reconstruction. Party politicians always opposed taking a strong federal stand against an established state policy within the South for fear of what would happen to that party within the South. Party unity had almost always been put above civil rights or justice.
However, these same party politicians could not ignore world opinion. Even from a narrow political point of view, a party could not permit the nation's world image to become tarnished, lest the electorate become dissatisfied. World leadership brought with it the need to be concerned with world opinion. Racism was no longer a local or state question. In fact, as W. E. B. DuBois had predicted, it had become the leading question of the twentieth century. At the end of the Second World War, Walter White, then executive director of the N.A.A.C.P., toured Europe and drew conclusions concerning the effect of the war and the course of the future. In his book Rising Wind, White demonstrated a relationship between the oppressed peoples of the world, racism, and imperialism. Though a relative moderate, White warned of a future worldwide racial conflict.
As the war was drawing to an end in the Pacific theater, the Japanese cautioned Asiatics about American racial oppression. What they called attention to was that the British dominated colored peoples in Africa and Asia and that the Americans persecuted their racial minority at home. White believed that this propaganda was taking root in the hearts of many Asiatics. He also believed that most of Asia would slide into the Russian camp, thereby preparing the way for a third world conflict. He contended that Britain and America had a choice between ending their policies of racial superiority and preparing for the next war.
In 1948 A. Philip Randolph began to advocate civil disobedience on the part of Afro-Americans, rather than ever again allowing themselves to be part of a segregated army. He recommended that they refuse to serve in future wars, and the idea received widespread attention. In a Senate committee inquiry, Senator Wayne Morse from Oregon suggested to him that such civil disobedience in wartime could well be viewed as treason and not merely as civil disobedience. Clearly, Randolph's suggestion had hit a sensitive nerve. A nation which had been skeptical about permitting Afro-Americans in its armed forces was now becoming extremely uneasy at the thought that Afro-Americans might not want to serve. In the same year President Truman appointed a commission to study race relations in the military. Its report, Freedom to Serve, recommended that the Armed Forces open up all jobs regardless of race, color, or creed. As a result, the military began to move slowly in the direction of integration. However, when the communists invaded South Korea, the issue quickly came to a head. Unless integration was achieved, America would have to fight communists and colored Asiatics with a segregated army and would have to do it in the name of the United Nations.
In 1950 General Matthew Ridgway began to accelerate integration in the forces under his command. He did this partly as a matter of philosophy and partly from necessity. The Army needed the fullest and most efficient use of the few troops available in order to stem the flow of a much larger communist force into South Korea. This integration proceeded very well, and when he was put in charge of all forces in the Far East, he asked the Defense Department for permission to integrate all of the forces in the area. Within three months, the extent of integration in the Armed Forces jumped from nine percent to thirty percent. While Afro-Americans were pleased, they were also convinced that it had been done more from the pressure of world opinion than from a genuine humanitarian conscience.
During this period, the Federal Government took a more active role in several other ways in regard to improving race relations. How much of this action sprang from internal motivation and how much resulted from the pressure of world opinion is a matter of conjecture. In any case, the Truman Administration deliberately created an atmosphere favorable to changing race relations within America. In 1946 Truman appointed a committee on civil rights which, after intensive study, published its report, To Secure These Rights.
The report set forth that the Federal Government had the duty to act in order to safeguard civil rights when local or state governments either could not or did not take such action. The committee recommended enlarging the size and powers of the civil rights section of the Justice Department and also recommended that the F.B.I. increase its civil rights activity. The threat of federal intervention in state racial policies led to a revolt by several Southern Senators within the Democratic Party. In 1948 they formed the Dixiecrat Party and refused to support many of the policies and candidates of the Democratic Party. Truman also appointed a committee to study higher education in America, and its report recommended an end to discrimination in colleges and universities. In 1948 Truman issued an executive order aimed at achieving fair employment within government service. He also continued the practice of attacking discrimination within industries working under government contracts. In 1948 the Supreme Court declared that restrictive covenants in housing were unconstitutional. Many state and local governments across the country also took action against discrimination in the fields of housing and employment.
Thus the principles underlying the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights had the effect of stirring democratic and humanitarian ideals in many parts of white America. Sensitivity to world opinion had made all branches of the Federal Government more willing to act on racial matters. Although most Americans would have insisted that these activities sprang from a genuine concern for racial justice, Afro-Americans were convinced that it had been the pressure of world opinion which had turned these humanitarian convictions into action.