I am a Negro American

Out to defend my land

Army, Navy, Air Corps—I am there.

I take munitions through,

I fight—or stevedore, too.

I face death the same as you

do everywhere.

 

I’ve seen my buddy lying

Where he fell.

I’ve watched him dying

I promised him that I would try

To make our land a land

Where his son could be a man—

And there’d be no Jim Crow birds

Left in our sky.

 

So this is what I want to know:

When we see Victory’s glow,

Will you still let old Jim Crow

Hold me back?

When all those foreign folks who’ve waited—

Italians, Chinese, Danes—are liberated.

Will I still be ill-fated

Because I’m black?

 

Here in my own, my native land,

Will the Jim Crow laws still stand?

Will Dixie lynch me still

When I return?

Or will you comrades in arms

From the factories and the farms,

Have learned what this war

Was fought for us to learn?

Langston Hughes1

Throughout American history, African Americans have served in the U.S. military and defended the country that purchased them as slaves and, once freed, continued to deny them civil rights. The Buffalo Soldiers, a segregated unit, were members of the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, formed on September 21, 1866, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  They served in the Border War, Philippine-American War, Spanish-American War, and WWI. Despite their service, the military continued to disparage African Americans and treat them as inferior and incapable.

Efforts and a loose activism to gain employment freedom along with better wages and treatment began in the 1920s. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), founded in 1925 by A. Philip Randolph, lobbied with other activists for such provisions due to the systemic employment discrimination faced by African Americans across the U.S.  In 1935, the BSCP was legitimized when it gained full affiliation as a union with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).  With this affiliation, it became the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids.2

World War II was a turning point. In advance of U.S. entry into the war, Randolph contacted NAACP leader Walter White, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady. Together, they inspired President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 in June 1941.  The order outlawed discrimination in unions and in companies doing business with the government and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to oversee compliance.  The order stated that “there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”3

Before this order, minorities were restricted to the lowest paying jobs. The changes mandated by the order were not immediately accepted and implemented by industry across the U.S.  In particular, Southern states resisted.  Additionally, while the Executive Order focused on employment, it did not mention the military. There, segregation and discrimination continued.  Still, a million African Americans enlisted.

Double Victory became the battle cry, first, victory over fascism abroad and then, victory over racism at home — military desegregation, the abolition of the Poll Tax, integration of higher education and housing, and a right to medical care. African American soldiers returned home to the familiar Jim Crow status quo.  Their disappointment and unwillingness to remain second-class citizens energized the movement towards civil rights.

References:

1Excerpted from, https://www.poets.org, Langston Hughes poem Will V-Day Be Me-Day, Too? 1994

2RECORDS OF THE BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS, Series A, Holdings of the Chicago Historical Society and the Newberry Library, 1925–1969, Part 3: Records of the BSCP Relations with the Pullman Company, 1925–1968, Edited by William H. Harris A microfilm project of UNIVERSITY PUBLICATIONS OF AMERICA, An Imprint of CIS.

3 Fair Employment Practice Committee, Wikipedia

Notes: Executive Order 8802: Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry (1941), Our Documents, Executive Order 8802 dated June 25, 1941, General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives

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