1.2 million black men enlisted during the Second World War—a display of commitment to, and faith in, America that is as moving as it is mind-boggling. Initially, these men were barred from combat, and instead assigned to service duties such as cleaning white officers’ quarters and latrines. Just as in the Civil War, only mounting casualties convinced the generals to allow black soldiers the privilege of risking their lives on the front line. And just as in the First World War, a vast chasm quickly sprang up between wartime rhetoric and wartime reality. Black soldiers stationed at military bases in the segregated South were forbidden from eating in restaurants that opened their doors to German prisoners of war.
After the war, multiple veterans were attacked almost immediately, often by drivers or fellow-passengers on the buses and trains transporting them back to their homes. Many more soon realized that the G.I. Bill had been constructed in such a way that most of its benefits—including mortgage support, college tuition, and business loans—could be denied to them. Racial violence spiked.
The experience of service did boost black veterans’ sense of entitlement to basic rights. So did the more equal treatment they received, during the First and Second World Wars, from Europeans whom they met while stationed abroad. Often, military service elevated black soldiers’ sense of themselves as people more capable of pushing back. (As Du Bois put it in a 1919 Crisis editorial on the subject, “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”) It is no coincidence that so many veterans, including Hosea Williams and Medgar Evers, went on to play key roles in civil-rights organizations.
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