The Aftermath of World War II

Start Free Trial

How did World War II economically impact African Americans?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

During the Great Depression, African Americans were often not eligible for government work programs, and the Depression hit them hard. However, once defence plants started gearing up for wartime production, the employment picture for African Americans improved. Even before the US entered the war, there were jobs available in defense...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access


After the US entered the war, more and more plants opened to make planes, trucks, tanks, and other weapons and materials needed for the war. At first, these plants were segregated, but after A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, objected, President Franklin D. Roosevelt integrated the defense plants. Randolph threatened to lead a march if Roosevelt did not integrate the plants, and Roosevelt did so in response. These plants provided African American men and women with relatively well-paying jobs. In addition, African Americans served in the military in segregated units and as quartermasters and in other positions.

At the end of the war, however, these opportunities were lost to African Americans, and many faced retaliation when they returned in military uniform to their homes in the South. Whites resented them for dressing in uniform and for demanding their civil rights. African Americans had launched a "Double Victory" campaign during the war for civil rights gains as well as for Americans' victory in the war. After the war, this campaign led in part to the modern Civil Rights movement.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

African Americans benefited economically from World War II. US factories supplied the Allies with badly needed war materials that ranged from tanks, battleships, and planes to guns, bullets, and boots. The insatiable demand required around-the-clock production. The labor shortage was severe, not only because of high demand, but because so many men were fighting in the war.

As a result, African Americans, often at the bottom of the employment totem pole during the difficult years of the Depression, suddenly found all the work they could desire. Many flocked from farms to factories and were able to find higher-level jobs and wages than had ever before been attainable. Even black women were moved up the work hierarchy from the lowest janitorial positions to better jobs because the demand for labor was so great. African Americans also won rights in the workplace that whites already had, often with the backing of labor unions and the US government, which did not need strikes and unrest in the middle of a war.

The war was a boon for blacks economically, and some of these gains remained after the war ended. Many blacks stayed in the cities that still needed their labor as the factories converted to peacetime production. Much of the world was in shambles and still depended on US factories to supply their many needs for basic items like clothing and canned goods after the war ended. As white males returned to the shop floor, unions set up strategies to insure work integration proceeded smoothly.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Despite the best efforts of President Roosevelt during the New Deal, it wasn't until America's entry into World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack that full employment was finally achieved. With every sector of the US economy now working at full capacity, there was a job for everyone who wanted one.

That included African Americans. The shortage of labor, especially in such key industries as munitions, meant that African Americans were able to enter the workforce in large numbers, taking up jobs that, in many cases, would not previously have been available to them. Such workers still had to face numerous challenges not faced by their white counterparts. But the country's wartime needs generally won out over racial prejudice, just as they did over sexism, as more and more women entered the workforce.

Increased African American participation in the economy helped lay the foundations for the emergence of a rising middle class after the war. It was this social group more than any other which would spearhead the post-war civil rights movement. Having experienced the kind of prosperity previously only available to white Americans, middle-class African Americans saw that the overall standard of living for people of color could be so much greater than it was. In that sense, they were invoking the spirit of wartime.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As for many Americans, the Second World War boosted the economic prospects of many African Americans. In particular, war industries created a demand for labor, which many black workers, including black women, were able to fill. Thousands of African Americans moved north to industrial centers, but also to places like California, which saw tremendous population growth during the war due to the war industries that developed there.

Many black Southerners also moved from their farms to cities like Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta to take jobs created by the war. Their presence there was a big reason why lunch counters, city buses, and other municipal spaces and services became the early battlegrounds of the civil rights movement.

Black workers faced discrimination during the war, however, and it was only by a threatened march on Washington by labor leader A. Philip Randolph that the Roosevelt administration agreed to act to eliminate racial bias in hiring in the defense industries. The war opened opportunities for African Americans, and their eagerness to take advantage of them was a driving force behind the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

World War II generally had a positive economic impact on African-Americans. There are several reasons for this.

The first is that the economic activity associated with the war generally revived the United States economy through a massive infusion of government money to military projects. This meant a massive growth in job opportunities for all Americans.

Second, African Americans participated in large numbers in the military forces, often quite heroically. Not only was there an immediate impact from military salaries, but it served to reduce racism.

Third, the GI bill enabled many African American to attend university, something that they could not have done otherwise.

Approved by eNotes Editorial