African americans

African americans
   The African American population (11.8 million in 1930) felt the impact of the Great Depression and World War II as much as their white counterparts, but those effects were reflected through a prism of continuing racial prejudice and discrimination. As the economy failed, black Americans were “last hired, first fired” and experienced unemployment at more than twice the rate of white workers. In 1935, 30 percent—approximately 4 million— African Americans were on relief. More than 75 percent were still located in the South, where falling farm prices meant that black sharecroppers were further impoverished and were often evicted from the land and their homes by landlords or banks. The number of black sharecroppers fell by almost 100,000 during the 1930s. The economic crisis increased feelings of racial prejudice. One slogan demanded “No Job for Niggers until Every Whiteman Has a Job.” Racial hatred was evident too in the continued lynching of African Americans—about 20 per year for most of the decade, except for 1932, 1938, and 1939, when the number dropped to single figures. While attempts to secure the passage of antilynching legislation in Congress gained publicity from these atrocities, southern congressmen were always able to prevent the passage of such measures.
   African Americans responded to discrimination in a variety of ways. They took enormous pride in the sporting achievements of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, who both undermined theories of white racial superiority. Some African Americans responded at a practical level. In the South, blacks joined white tenant farmers to form the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in 1934. The vice president of the STFU was an African American, O. H. Whitfield, and the approximately 25,000 black members constituted about one-third of the total. In the North too, African Americans organized in the form of “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” boycotts and protests in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by Walter White, was also more conspicuously active in campaigning for civil rights during this period. However, anger could also surface, and in March 1935, for example, Harlem, the black community in New York City where 100,000 people were on relief, erupted in a two-day explosion of frustration directed at the largely white-owned stores and buildings, inflicting more than $2 million in damage. The Depression years appeared to bring to an end the literary and artistic movement of the 1920s known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” but black writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston continued to produce during the 1930s and 1940s, while newcomer Richard Wright made a considerable impact with his work in the 1940s.
   Like Wright, a small number of African Americans looked to left-wing groups for support. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) did win some backing among African Americans for its role in the Scottsboro case and that of Angelo Herndon, an African American found guilty in 1933 of organizing insurrection in Atlanta, Georgia, where he had organized a demonstration of unemployed black and white workers. After five years, the Supreme Court overthrew his 18-year sentence. An African American, James W. Ford, was the vice presidential candidate for the CPUSA in 1932, 1936, and 1940. Although it failed to attract many votes, black or white, the CPUSA worked with the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress, formed in 1937. However, what little support the party had among African Americans was lost following the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 and even more so after 1941, when it opposed civil rights protests that might threaten the war effort.
   While President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not speak out on race relations himself, the presence of white progressives in his administration helped bring about greater recognition for African Americans in and by the federal government. The appointment of several leading African Americans, including Mary McLeod Bethune to the National Youth Administration, William Hastie to the Department of the Interior, and Robert C. Weaver to the Federal Housing Administration, led to talk of a Black Cabinet. As a consequence of this and the benefits from some of the New Deal measures, there was a dramatic change in black voting. Whereas in 1932, 70 percent of black votes were cast for the Republican Party, by the end of the decade this was reversed with 70 percent of votes going for the Democratic Party. This allegiance was to continue well into the late 20th century. Arthur W. Mitchell became the first black Democrat elected to Congress in 1934. In 1942, Republican William Dawson and Democrat Adam Clayton Powell were also elected to the House. Although African Americans did benefit from a number of political developments, the local operation of most New Deal agencies ensured that they also experienced a considerable amount of discrimination. The National Recovery Administration was known among the black community as “Negroes Ruined Again” because of the agency’s discrimination and because increases in wage levels meant it was now cheaper to mechanize such industries as tobacco producing rather than employ African American workers. Similarly, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration’s policies to reduce farm production to raise prices often encouraged southern landlords to simply evict their black tenants. Many African Americans were excluded from Social Security legislation because of their concentration in agricultural work or domestic service. Relief payments were also significantly lower for black families than for whites. Although African Americans constituted 11 percent of the workforce of the Tennessee Valley Authority, they received only 9 percent of the wages. Black Americans did, however, make up a considerable proportion of the people put to work by the Works Progress Administration and those provided federal housing by the Federal Housing Administration. Despite early discrimination and the continuation of segregation, the percentage of black Americans among the workforce of the Civilian Conservation Corps rose from 3 to 8 percent.
   African Americans were significantly affected by World War II. The war against Nazism and for the “four freedoms” had a particular resonance for an underprivileged minority. African Americans demanded inclusion from the start in A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement and later in the Pittsburgh Courier’s “Double V” campaign for victory at home and abroad. The combined challenge of war and black protest brought some change in military policies. More than 1 million African Americans served in the armed forces, including 4,000 black women. Half a million African Americans saw service overseas, the majority in service of supply regiments. While military segregation remained intact other than for an exceptional period during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, access to military service widened to include all branches of the services by the end of the war, including the air force and marines, from which they had previously been excluded. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first black general in 1940, and his son, Benjamin Davis Jr., became the highest ranking black officer in the air force. Initially the navy confined African Americans like Dorie Miller to service in the kitchens, galleys, or boiler rooms, but they were gradually admitted to all branches in auxiliary vessels. In total, 150,000 served in the navy, and 20,000 served in the marines. Beginning in 1941, African Americans were admitted into the air force, and almost 600 pilots trained at Tuskegee Institute after 1941 and served in most theaters of the war.
   During the war, the newly-established Fair Employment Practices Committee and more significantly mounting labor shortages ensured greater employment of African Americans. An additional 1 million black workers joined the labor force, and the number of African Americans in skilled and semiskilled occupations doubled by 1945. There was also an increase in the number of African Americans employed by the federal government during the war. Increased employment opportunities in war industries located in the North and West encouraged more than a million African Americans to leave the South. While they found work in defense plants, they also encountered resistance from white workers. When black streetcar workers were upgraded from porters to drivers in Philadelphia in August 1944, a transit strike necessitated the use of military force to persuade white employees back to work. In the South, conflict over the upgrading of black workers to the position of welders in the Alabama Drydock and Shipping Company was followed by a riot in 1943, a year when conflict over jobs, housing, and public transportation, heightened by wartime anxieties, led to an outbreak of more than 240 riots and racial incidents across the country, the worst occurring in Detroit. Other major outbreaks took place in Los Angeles and Harlem.
   At the war’s end, there was some fear that returning black service personnel would face the racial violence they had encountered in the aftermath of World War I, and there were some incidents in which black servicemen were the targets of racial hatred. There were also outbreaks of racial violence in Athens, Alabama; Columbia, Tennessee; Philadelphia; and Chicago. However, such events were not on the scale of the “Red Summer” of 1919. They were relatively few in number and were met with widespread condemnation, including that of President Harry S. Truman. Truman also took significant steps to bring greater equality in the federal civil service and to end segregation in the armed forces. The latter neared completion during the Korean War when more than 600,000 African American served in the military, many in integrated units.
   Other significant breakthroughs came in sports, where Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play for a white baseball team in the major leagues. The Supreme Court also issued a number of significant rulings against segregation in the immediate postwar years. However, while the Cold War may have encouraged the federal government to insist that America practiced what it preached, it also discouraged radical protest for fear of being labeled “communist.” The black singer and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson and former civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois both had their passports withheld in 1950 and 1951 because of their association with left-wing groups. Despite such actions, African Americans found encouragement in developments at home during the 1940s and early 1950s and also in the growing process of decolonization abroad.

Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . . 2015.

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