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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

Depression, New Deal, and World War II

The collapse of the economy in 1929 and into the 1930s created hard times across the United States. While some African Americans gained employment through President Roosevelt’s New Deal, many others suffered tremendously during this period.

With the Nazis in power in Germany and the Berlin Olympics of 1936 looming, NAACP leader Walter White wrote a letter to the great African American athlete Jesse Owens, urging him not to compete in the Games. Although the letter was not sent, White makes interesting arguments. Read the letter and consider these questions:

  • Why did White think participation of African American athletes in the Berlin Olympics would “do irreparable harm”? Do you find his argument convincing?
  • How did White relate the issue of Nazism and prejudice to the Great Depression? What did he predict might happen if the economy did not recover?
  • If you had advised Jesse Owens prior to the Olympics, would you have urged him to participate or to stay home? How would knowing that Owens would win four gold medals in the Berlin games change your advice?

The coming of World War II finally turned the economy around. African Americans were much more vocal about the discrimination they experienced in the military than they had been during World War I. Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington to protest segregation.

Pressure from civil rights groups and other black organizations convinced the military to provide training for African American pilots. Although they trained at a segregated base, the renowned Tuskegee Airmen served with great honor during World War II.

Charles White. The Return of the Soldier, 1946.

Charles White. The Return of the Soldier, 1946. Pen and ink on illustration board. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4886

  • Why do you think the mere threat of a march on Washington caused President Roosevelt to issue an executive order banning discrimination in employment in defense industries and the government?
  • Why would flight training for African American pilots have had both symbolic and practical importance?
  • Read about the heroism of Navy Mess Attendant Dorie Miller. Why were Miller’s actions especially notable? What lessons might observers taken from Miller’s actions?

Once again, when African American soldiers returned from war, they faced discrimination and violence.

  • What does the illustration below show? Who is the hooded figure in the picture?
  • What was the artist saying about the role of the police in the violence against African American?
  • How do you respond to this illustration? How effectively does it convey the situation faced by African American veterans? Explain your answer.