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Undergraduate Research Journal

Abstract

For most of history, military service has been directly linked to citizenship and the rights that come with it. Although African Americans have been involved in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War, they were particularly limited to support units because of the connection between fighting in military combat and civilian rights. During the First World War, there was hope that honorable service of African Americans in Europe would help secure more rights in the military. This would not be the case. African Americans learned during World War I that “you don’t do your duty and hope for reward. You make your demand, strike your bargain, and then go fight.” The Second World War would see active, organized resistance to the racial discrimination faced by those African Americans seeking to participate in the war effort. While some historians have pointed to this time as the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, others have attributed this time to disillusionment and futile struggle, brushing aside words like “watershed” and “turning point” to place emphasis on the later Civil Rights Movement. This view, however, fails to recognize the impact the World War II experience had on African American society, the U.S. military, and American society as a whole. To view this time exclusively in the shadow of the larger, more overt movement of the 1960s is to take away the very tangible effect these efforts had. By changing the lens through which we view the struggle of African Americans in the World War II Era, we can see it not as a lead in to the Civil Rights Movement but as a stand-alone conflict with strategic and organized efforts to change the African American’s place in the military and war industries. Though undoubtedly linked to later movements, this unnamed fight of the 1940s is not simply the prelude to a bigger, better story. This struggle of the 1940s can be identified as a Military Rights Movement with its own agenda, tactics, and palpable results, including the integration of American troops by President Truman in the years immediately following the conflict.

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