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The Post-War Civil Rights Movement

African Americans became increasingly restive in the postwar years. During the war they had challenged discrimination in the military services and in the work force, and they had made limited gains. Millions of African Americans had left Southern farms for Northern cities, where they hoped to find better jobs. They found instead crowded conditions in urban slums. Now, African-American servicemen returned home, many intent on rejecting second-class citizenship.

World War II acted as a catalyst for change at home. More than two hundred thousand black Americans served their country in the military. And yet, black veterans returning home south of the Mason-Dixon line were spat upon and continually designated to subordinate citizenship. The soldiers returned home ready to demand equal treatment.

One of them was Hosea Williams, who became chief lieutenant in Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Williams describes what many of the soldiers thought: “If we’ve got to fight and die for America, why should we be treated like slaves?” The violent homecoming he encountered in Thomasville, Georgia, began when he asked a woman behind a snack bar at a bus station for a drink of water. She wouldn’t give him one, so “I tried to lean inside and get me a cup of water,” Williams explains, “and those white people beat me ‘till I was unconscious. I was in the army uniform and had all these medals . . . and they beat me until they thought I was dead.” Someone called a black undertaker who realized Williams was still alive. The undertaker rushed him to a hospital. “And I laid there crying for eight weeks,” Williams continues, “wishing that Adolph Hitler had won the war.”

Jackie Robinson dramatized the racial question in 1947 when he broke baseball’s color line and began playing in the major leagues. A member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he often faced trouble with opponents and teammates as well. But an outstanding first season led to his acceptance and eased the way for other African-American players, who now left the Negro leagues to which they had been confined.

Government officials, and many other Americans, discovered the connection between racial problems and Cold War politics. As the leader of the free world, the United States sought support in Africa and Asia. Discrimination at home impeded the effort to win friends in other parts of the world.

Harry Truman supported the early civil rights movement. He personally believed in political equality, though not in social equality, and recognized the growing importance of the African-American urban vote. When apprised in 1946 of a spate of lynchings and anti-black violence in the South, he appointed a committee on civil rights to investigate discrimination. Its report, To Secure These Rights, issued the next year, documented African Americans’ second-class status in American life and recommended numerous federal measures to secure the rights guaranteed to all citizens.

Truman responded by sending a 10-point civil rights program to Congress. Southern Democrats in Congress were able to block its enactment. A number of the angriest, led by Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, formed a States Rights Party to oppose the president in 1948. Truman thereupon issued an executive order barring discrimination in federal employment, ordered equal treatment in the armed forces, and appointed a committee to work toward an end to military segregation, which was largely ended during the Korean War.

But President Truman's 1947 Executive Order 9806, aimed at identifying "subversives" in the federal govemment, forced progressives to retreat from positions they had advocated from the 1930s. By 1948 W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Claudia Jones, and other black radicals had come under attack, and some, like Robeson, were thoroughly isolated. The early Cold War sidelined radicals, and liberals shrank from being labeled "communists".

According to Mary Dudziak, "By silencing certain voices and by promoting a particular vision of racial justice, the Cold War led to a narrowing of acceptable civil rights discourse. The narrowed boundaries of Cold War era civil rights politics kept discussions of broad-based social change, or a linking of race and class, off the agenda.... The narrow terms of Cold War civil rights discourse and the nature of the federal government's commitment help explain the limits of social change during this period."

African Americans in the South in the 1950s still enjoyed few, if any, civil and political rights. In general, they could not vote. Those who tried to register faced the likelihood of beatings, loss of job, loss of credit, or eviction from their land. Occasional lynchings still occurred. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation of the races in streetcars, trains, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, recreational facilities, and employment.

The Brown vs Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court in 1954 was hailed by black leaders and white liberals as proof that the stated American ideals of freedom and equality were intended to apply to all citizens black and white. When southern whites (both leaders and rank and file) publicly declared their intention to preserve racial separation, and therebywhite supremacy, the general feeling was that opposition to the decision was to be expected but that it would be short lived, and segregated public education would cease "with all deliberate speed."

The importance attached to this decision stemmed, in part, from the feeling of nary blacks that racially integrated schools would ultimately lead to integration in other aspects of American life, thereby accelerating the process of assimilation. Integration was viewed in each of the major civil rights organizations as the logical means through which black people would achieve equality witn their white counterparts. The civil rights movement, from its beginnings in 1955 to its decline after 1965, championed the cause of racial integration, frequently to the point of viewing this projected ideal state of race relations as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

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Page last modified: 06-10-2017 19:05:48 ZULU