How ‘Double V’ began abolishing segregation

Black voters became a potent force that white politicians could not ignore in November of 1940. That’s one insight in a book that explains how the military became integrated, especially in the wake of World War I and during and after World War II.

Author Rawn James writes:

“Because millions of (African Americans) had migrated to Northern states where they could vote, they were now poised to play a possibly decisive role in the 1940 presidential and congressional elections. After the war erupted in Europe on September 1, 1939, few issues mattered more to millions of black voters in 1940 than abolishing segregation and race-based inequality in the armed forces.”

James’s book is dedicated to his grandfather Cornelius James Sr, who served in a segregated U.S. Army during WWII so that his sons, including Rawn James Sr. (U.S. Navy, Ret.), “might serve in a better military and live in a fairer nation.”

The fight for freedom and democracy abroad as well as at home became known as the “Double V” campaign — victory for civil rights and a struggle against the enemies of equality.

This insightful book touches on early American history, but concentrates mostly on events and consequences of the world wars that helped the United States live up to its original ideals.

Pivotal figures highlighted in this book include Corporal Freddie Stowers, Messman Doris “Dorie” Miller, Thurgood Marshall, Walter White, Philip Randolph, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adm. Ernest J. King and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.

The Double V

How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military” by Rawn James Jr. (Bloomsbury Press, 2013).

“Forrestal scheduled a meeting with King. He approached the venerated admiral respectfully but firmly. ‘I don’t think,’ he began, ‘that our Navy Negro personnel are getting a square break. I want to do something about it, but I can’t do anything about it unless the officers are behind me. I want your help. What do you say?’ Admiral King sat silently in his chair for a moment, staring out the window. Forrestal did not attempt to fill the ensuing silence. King finally turned his gaze back to the former banker. ‘You know, we say we are a democracy,’ King replied, ‘and a democracy ought to have a democratic Navy.’ The admiral pledged to support Forrestal’s program ‘all the way.'”

Discrimination during and after the war was intolerable to those who had served in the name of freedom:

“Like their civilian friends and family members back home, soldiers in the war viewed their battles against a white supremacist enemy abroad [not to mention imperial racism across the Pacific] as related in some unspoken but logical way with the struggle against white supremacy in America. A navy steward first class from Baltimore named Willie W. Booth, Jr., explained to a reporter aboard the USS Missouri, ‘All of us, of course are hoping that our service to country will be rewarded by better chances to live in our various communities as first class citizens … A chance to work where we show ability for the job, to continue our education in schools of choice, to have a vote in whatever community to which we return, [that] is what we’ve fought for and will continue to fight for when we go back home.’ Booth and tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors like him believed that their service abroad was a vital contribution to black Americans’ widening struggle for equality.”

This book includes painful and poignant examples of the hatred and bigotry that impacted service members, including lynchings and beatings. Both were more common prior to Truman’s order to integrate the armed forces, which was led by the Navy and the Air Force.

When segregation still occurred in the U.S. armed forces, trolls in the Soviet Union (Russia) jumped on the opportunity to try to shame the United States:

“In the dawning cold war era, America’s segregated military quickly had become a source of embarrassment. The United States was competing with the Soviet Union for allies among developing nations, many of which had majority nonwhite populations. Communist propagandists wrote derisively of an American military that purported to defend freedom while treating 10 percent of its men and women in uniform as second-class citizens. President Truman understood the foreign policy implications at stake.”

Truman is presented as a complicated and redeemed hero, a man who started life in an openly racist family and who advanced in politics as a moderate politician who succeeded over more progressive elected officials only to find himself vice president and suddenly president in the waning months of WWII. He was called upon to make difficult decisions, including ending the war, opening the military and, soon after, opening American society to greater opportunity for all.

His order to establish a committee on civil rights is still relevant. Here is a short excerpt:

“Freedom From Fear is more fully realized in our country than in any other on the face of the earth. Yet all parts of our population are not equally free from fear. And from time to time, and in some places, this freedom has been gravely threatened. It was so after the last war, when organized groups fanned hatred and intolerance, until, at times, mob action struck fear into the hearts of men and women because of their racial origin or religious beliefs …

…The Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these Constitutional rights.”

Truman’s executive order to establish the committee was issued Dec. 5, 1946, three months and three days after V-J (Victory over Japan) day.

It established expectations for the decades to come.

(An expanded version of this review is published at Navy Reads is an unofficial blog in support of the Navy Professional Reading Program, critical thinking, and books.)

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