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Better Day Coming: Civil Rights in America in the 20th Century

By Professor Adam Fairclough
A picket line of African-American men and women demonstrates against segregation in South Chicago, Illinois
A picket line of African-American men and women demonstrates against segregation in South Chicago, Illinois, 1941 ©

Adam Fairclough focuses on the period from World War Two to the present day, to discuss the struggle of black Americans to achieve civil rights and equality of status in the country of their birth.

World War Two

In 1941, when America entered World War Two, most blacks still lived in the Southern states. There, they could not vote. Laws requiring separation of the races required black children to attend segregated schools that were grossly under-funded and, in many cases, consisted of falling-down shacks. Blacks travelling by bus were made to sit in the rear seats; if journeying by train, in separate carriages. Whites addressed blacks by their first names only and never used courtesy titles like 'Mr' or 'Mrs'.

'Racial discrimination infected the entire nation ...'

Racial discrimination infected the entire nation, not just the South. Blacks in the North lived in ghettos, because they were unable to buy or rent houses elsewhere. Many trade unions routinely excluded blacks from membership. Although no laws required them, segregated schools were common in Northern cities. Above all, racial segregation was still the official policy of the federal government. Within the armed forces, for example, blacks served in segregated units or, in the case of the Navy, were virtually excluded. The constitutional amendments that had been enacted after the Civil War to protect blacks from discrimination were dead letters. For most white Americans, racial discrimination did not appear to be a problem: they accepted it as normal.

'Blacks were quick to compare the racial theories of the Nazis with the racist beliefs of Southern whites.'

Nevertheless, blacks had high hopes that World War Two would enable them to regain some of their lost rights. For one thing, they believed that if they fought for their country they should be rewarded with equal citizenship. In the second place, President Roosevelt defined the conflict as a war for democratic freedom. Blacks were quick to compare the racial theories of the Nazis with the racist beliefs of Southern whites. They vowed to conquer 'Hitlerism without and Hitlerism within'. Finally, the expansion of the wartime economy enabled blacks to enter industries that had previously barred them, leading them to hope for promotion and access to more decision-making positions.

The outcome of the war, however, proved a massive disappointment. The government refused to abandon racial segregation in the forces, and was even reluctant to send black troops into battle. Roosevelt did nothing to challenge the mass disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. And although the president ordered an end to discrimination in the defence industries, white workers stubbornly resisted the recruitment and promotion of blacks. When a shipyard in Alabama, under government pressure, employed a dozen black welders, thousands of white welders rioted.

Published: 2003-04-01



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