To what extent did the position of black Americans improve by the end of the Second World War?

In 1865 the confederate states of the south joined the northern American states to make the United States of America. The south had been rooted in slavery and still had an extremely racist attitude, the North was not as extreme but African Americans were still seen as lower class citizens. In 1896 the Plessy vs. Ferguson case ruled that segregation was constitutional as long as ‘separate but equal’ facilities were maintained. This was not the case though; public facilities for black people were consistently lower than that of whites. The decision also gave the de facto Jim Crow laws legal standing.

The Second World War broke out in 1939, mainly considered a European war but America joined in 194? . The Second World War was a turning point in the history of civil rights, many Americans did not know much about the world outside their country and few knew that Racism and segregation was not as much of an issue in other countries. The war gave African American soldiers, as well as White soldiers the chance to see how the rest of the world lived, to see the differences between the societies and also was America’s chance to prove they were a good country and gain a good reputation.

Socially there was an extreme change during the war years, as a result of agricultural machinery many African Americans moved north in search of work, they found the north much more tolerating than the southern states such as Alabama and Texas. There was not de jure segregation however there was a degree of segregation socially, not enforced by law but an accepted situation. The move increased black urbanism and again exposed African Americans to different situations; they had accesses to more facilities and this lead to increased self awareness. The increased consciousness lead to more activism, membership of NAACP increased from 50,000 to 450, 000 during war years. Entertainment industries also saw a rise in African American entertainers again raising black consciousness and getting African Americans into places with a high public profile, gaining them more respect. African Americans and white people began to integrate more as a result of war; however it was not all a success. The sudden move of African Americans to the north states caused tension between the races in some areas, the population of Chicago doubled during the war, the migration of African Americans contributing to this greatly. There was jealousy from White people believing African Americans were getting above their status, using facilities there were not entitled to use.

Economically there were more jobs available to African Americans, machinery replaced workers in farming states but work in armament and other war jobs were created in the north, the demand for extra workers gave black people more power, for once they were needed to work alongside white people, although many employers still segregated workers. Again there was jealousy from white people as they thought African Americans were stealing their jobs. This led to violence from white workers such as at the Alabama Dry Dock Company, where African American workers were attacked over blacks and whites working in such close proximity. However moving to the cities meant there was greater economic gain and African Americans had access to better education, breaking the vicious circle of no education leading to menial jobs. Although for many this was short-lived as when White soldiers returned back from the war African American workers were thrown out of their jobs

In the second world war African Americans were called up to fight for their country, many travelled aboard to places like England and France, there they saw that those countries were not segregated, that they were not deemed lower class citizens, this exposed the hypocrisy of their own country, many African American woman served as nurses, going against the social norm, although some found the idea of white soldiers being treared by black women appalling. Being treated with respect and equality abroad made African Americans more aware of how differently they were treated at home. There was a great irony in African Americans fighting for America during the war. They were asked to fight for a country where many didn’t consider them fit enough to be citizens. They were fighting a fascist regime whilst still segregating their armed forces. Black soldiers and White soldiers were not allowed in the same regiments, they had separate training areas and African American troops were led by white officers. African Americans counted for one eighty of Americans armed forces but were often given menial jobs and non combat positions. How could America claim to fight for freedom abroad when they denied it to many of their own citizens at home? This damaged the Morale of many black people but caused many to protest, people like A. Philip Randolph fought for equality within the defence industries. This led to the establishment of The Committee on Fair Employment Practices which dealt with discrimination complaints. Although it has been said that they achieved very little. After the war many black soldiers arrived back in America determined to get the equality they had seen abroad.

There was also pressure in politics, black leaders such as Randolph, Walter White, and Du bois were forming groups and leading protests, pressuring Politicians to pay attention to their cause. Roosevelt had to deal with the Washington march in 1941 calling for fair employment, and a civil rights department was set up to try and decrease the amount of lynchings. As African Americans were becoming more aware they became a large electorate forcing politicians to realise that the ‘black vote’ was important. More groups were set up such as CORE- the congress of racial equality which campaigned to challenge segregation. The NACCP raised activism and had successes in the Smith v. Allwright case which made white primary illegal. African Americans were also inspired by the work of Gandhi in India, fighting for Indian independence and Asian equality; this motivated many to fight for change.

The Second World War was a catalyst for change in America, good and bad. It could be said that practically not much was achieved, African Americans had seen brief successes economically in finding more jobs however this was short lived when soldiers returned home, politically over the 5 years not much was achieved either. Socially however African Americans felt more pride in themselves, the move northwards and experiences of other countries inspired African Americans to do something about their situation. Although there were no big changes to American laws and attitudes leading up to 1945, the effort of black people, and white people who fought for civil rights, laid the foundations for the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s. The situation of African Americans may have not improved immediately but the actions and awareness raised during world war two led the way for even more change.