To what extent was WW2 the biggest turning point for African Americans? 

World war 2 was a period of great change for the African American civil rights movement. Labour shortages and black and whites fighting alongside each other essentially forced change onto the USA. Blacks found a new sense of identity and willingness to stand up while many whites found their views of blacks to be untrue and respected those whom they fought alongside. Perhaps the best figure to quote here would be the results of a poll which showed that before the war only 34% of white soldiers had “favourable” feeling about serving with blacks, yet by the climax of the war years this had increased to 77%. At the beginning of the war the army accepted blacks but only into separate segregated regiments, for example into the “369th Harlem Hellfighters”. Training bases, barracks and even troop movement was strictly segregated. Equipment was by and large poor compared to their white counterparts, with initial training often being with sticks rather than rifles. However as the war drew on black soldiers proved their worth to the war effort time and time again.

Stories of black sailors being the last to give up at Pear Harbour started to emerge. Black airmen successfully flew 200 missions with minimum losses and were some of the first to encounter the new German Me 262 jet fighters. Black regiments proved to be efficient and deadly and the reputation of the Harlem Hellfighters was knows by many. Perhaps the greatest significance of the war on the civil rights movement was that it raised awareness amongst whites and motivated even more blacks to protest for equality. Black soldiers were fighting for democracy and against blatant racism in Europe and to many this seemed rather hypocritical. The “double V” campaign grew massively during the war, calling for not just a victory in Europe and the Pacific but also at home. Groups such as the NAACP grew nearly 10 fold during the war years from a membership of around 50,000 to over 500,000. Labour shortages resulted in mass drafting in of black workers into factories and employment grew rapidly. With over 900,000 black men and women in uniform and an estimated 1.5million in the trade unions, a powerful campaign for change was really starting to emerge. However, when many of the black soldiers returned from the war, they found discrimination to still be rife at home.

For many, the confidence and fighting spirit they had acquired during the war made these conditions simply unacceptable and so stepped up their efforts. To some extent they did have success. The fair employment practises commission (FEPC) gained considerable power and forced many industries to desegregate, most notable the Philadelphia transport company. In 1944 the supreme court ruled in the Smith v Alwright case that the all white primaries of the democratic south were unconstitutional and must change. This opened up the only real election contest in the solidly democrat south to millions of black voters. The war period was also significant for the creation of CORE (congress of racial equality), the main forerunner of the activism of the 1950’s and 60’s. One of the biggest successes during the time period was that of 1948 when the army was officially desegregated marking one of the biggest legal victories for the movement until the full civil rights bill many decades later. It was also at this time that one of the most significant demographic changes took place in the USA. Many black soldiers returning from the war decided not to return south but instead go north and start afresh and take advantage of the new job prospects. The war on the whole led to a big growth in the “black consciousness” and changed the role of African Americans in US society, as well as for the first time gaining a general level of sympathy and even support from many whites, a factor that would help the movement greatly in the 1960’s. Yet it must be remembered that while things may have looked to have got better during the war, in reality little changed on the legal front, bar perhaps the desegregation of the army. Black men and women were still not equal in the eyes of both the law and many white citizens and it could be argued the as a turning point it was more mental than physical.

Other significant time periods must also be looked at to judge the significance of the war, especially those beforehand. Much of the success of the war period built upon actions from the post-reconstruction era. Arguably a very significant “turning point” must be the original civil rights act of 1866 and the 12th, 13th and 14th amendments which freed blacks from slavery and at least in theory gave them their freedom. Many blacks also entered politics for the first time with the 2000 odd “carpet baggers” elected to local positions. If it wasn’t for these changes a black civil rights movement wouldn’t have even existed as blacks would still have been a sub class of American society deprived of all civil rights. Yet in reality little did change and much of the newly passed legislation was easily undone by the Jim Crowe laws and the like. Share cropping replaced slavery on an almost like for like basis and the grandfather clause eliminated any real possibility of voting rights for blacks. Despite the fact conditions were barely better after reconstruction it was still a turning point in the sense that it signalled the beginning of the civil rights movements as the black community now had a starting position to work from. Contrasted to the 2nd world war we can see that it almost had the opposite effect.

The post reconstruction era had massive legal change yet little social advancement compared to the “social epiphany” of the war but which saw minimal legal ground being made. At the turn of the century and into the 1910’s and 1920’s the movement saw advancement similar to that of the war, perhaps its precursor. African Americans started to gain a better social standing within US society as white citizens became more used to their presence. The “Harlem Renaissance” was a period of social and emotion expression and to many marked a coming together of afro American communities. Especially in the north blacks started to live more normal lives, comparable with their white counterparts. However, the period also marked the dawn of a more radical approach for the movement. Marcus Garvey came onto the scene and with his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) introduced a new method of Black Nationalism and violence in response to white oppression. This did little to further the social standing of blacks, apart from perhaps create a sense of fear amongst white communities, and also by no means convinced law makers of the necessity of civil rights but it did mark the dawn of a new age of fighting back against oppression, a tactic that would come to symbolize some the most famous years of the movements history. It really was a textbook “turning point” in the movement’s history.

The events after the war are normally those first to come to mind when the civil rights movement is mentioned, and for a legitimate reason. The 1960’s were the movement’s golden age, and where its quantity and quality of success was at its greatest. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are often regarded as the two most significant leaders of the African American civil rights movement, and their victories were tremendous. The Brown v Board of education case marked the beginning of a series of mass forced instances of desegregation around the country. Its ruling was used countless times as a benchmark for racial equality in the years to come. The events of Montgomery 1955 introduced King to the spot light and resulted in the formalisation of the non violent campaign. Almost parallel to the life of King, Malcolm X rose through the ranks of the Nation Of Islam and became the figurehead of post-Garvey black nationalism campaign. In itself this marked a significant turning point as it showed a significant split amongst the black population in regards to methodology. Some even go as far as saying they hindered each other and limited the full extent of the victories that could have been achieved with their contradicting messages.

However it cannot be overlooked that the landmark victories made during this period were unrivalled. Schools were desegregated, busses were desegregated, interstate transport desegregated, cafes desegregated, hundreds of thousands convened on Washington in 1963 to voice their concern including many whites, and eventually the jewl in the crown, the Civil rights act of 1964 was passed shortly followed by the voting reform act of 1965. In essence this period marked the fruits of a 100 year struggle, with African Americans finally achieving equal civil rights to whites. It could be compared to the post reconstruction era in terms of the sheer amount of legislation passed in African Americans favour, but in this case it was not counter balanced by a lack of social change as well, as that had been achieved in the previous few decades. However, this did not mark the end of the struggle for complete equality, as although civil rights had been achieved, there were still significant tensions between some aspects of the white and black communities. This was typified in 1991 by the brutal treatment of Rodney King, an African American who after being caught speeding was repeatedly beaten by state police officers. To some extent this showed that an underlying feeling of racial tension still existed in America, and even to this day is still evident.

In conclusion we can see that WW2 was certainly not the most successful period for the civil rights movement as that mantle can probably be taken up by the events of the 1960’s but it did mark a momentous turning point in the social acceptance of African Americans and even though by matter of convenience forced integration of blacks into the everyday life of America. It turned the movement in the right direction it needed to go in order for the events of the 1960’s to take place. However, my personal feeling is actually that the most significant turning point overall was the Reconstruction period of 1965 to 1877. This period was by no means a massive success in reality as we have learnt that little actually changed, but if it was not for slaves being granted their freedom after the end of the civil war then none of the following advancements could even have been possible. It was this somewhat rather unassuming nudge than ignited the eventual movement that would bring about the practical changes of racial equality in the USA.