The Aftermath of World War II

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How did World War II change opportunities for African Americans?  

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World War II had profound short- and long-term impacts upon the opportunities available to African Americans both during and after the war due to conditions at home and in the military. So many men enlisting and being drafted into the military created job openings for African Americans on the home...

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World War II had profound short- and long-term impacts upon the opportunities available to African Americans both during and after the war due to conditions at home and in the military. So many men enlisting and being drafted into the military created job openings for African Americans on the home front. However, it was in the military that the greatest changes occurred, setting the stage for subsequent civil rights movements.

In 1941, there were less than 4,000 African Americans, including only a dozen officers, in the U.S. military. By 1945, the military in Europe, the Pacific, and at home included over 1.2 million African Americans in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. At first, most African Americans served behind the lines in service positions, but later on, as the need for combat personnel increased, they became more active on the front lines. African Americans stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, served in a tank battalion with General Patton as he moved through France, flew in fighter and bomber groups with the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and fought in the Pacific theater. By the end of the war, African Americans returned home as victorious veterans, determined to continue the struggle for civil rights.

In fact, shortly after the war in 1948, the U.S. Armed Forces officially desegregated. Returning veterans joined the NAACP as a means of securing their rights, and many of them also were integral in the ongoing civil rights movements in the 1950s. Changing attitudes after World War II also led to the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, in which racial segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional. All in all, the participation of African Americans in the military and in civilian workforces during World War II paved the way for radical changes in race relations for decades to come.

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During World War II, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened to lead a protest of African Americans through the streets of Washington, D.C. unless the government defense plants were integrated. As a result, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed Executive Order 8802, or the Fair Employment Act, which banned segregation in the war plants. This act opened up more opportunities for African Americans to work in defense plants. Though the army was still segregated, this act was, according to many historians, the first victory of the modern civil rights movement.

During the war, when many African Americans served in uniform, civil rights organizations launched the "Double V Campaign" to fight discrimination at home while soldiers were fighting Nazism and fascism overseas. This campaign and the call for African American rights led to Truman's passage of Executive Order 9981, which integrated the army in 1948, leading to opportunities for African Americans to advance in the military. The civil rights campaigns that took place during World War II paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

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World War II led to change for African-Americans in several ways. First, it created job opportunities for many African-American men and women in essential war industries. Most of the higher-paying jobs in industry had gone to whites before the war, but many Black men and women moved to cities around the country (especially the North and the Pacific Coast) to take advantage of these opportunities. This was a continuation of a process that began with World War I, and it marked a significant demographic shift in American history. 

Another change wrought by the war was that African-Americans served in massive numbers, and while many were relegated to non-combat roles, many were not, and their exploits (the "Tuskegee Airmen," for example) were followed with pride by African-American communities back home. These men still served in segregated units, however, and faced rampant discrimination in the military. 

Overall, the major opportunities opened by the war were ideological. The war was framed as a war of liberation from regimes whose claims of racial superiority were central to their ideology. Many pointed out the hypocrisy of African-Americans fighting to defend a Jim Crow society. At home, many black leaders called for a "Double-V" campaign--victory against totalitarianism abroad and racism at home. Many historians, in fact, view the war as a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement that began just a few years later. Black servicemen who had risked their lives for their country were in no mood to tolerate the systemic racism that confronted them when they returned home.

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