After the Day of Infamy: “Man-on-the-Street” Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor
African American Views on the War and American Racism
The interviews in the After the Day of Infamy collection revealed a deep desire among African Americans to support the president in the war effort, despite the prevailing racism in the nation. One unidentified man in New York candidly remarked
"As a black American I'm quite naturally interested in democracy. However, I do feel that what we should do is get a little democracy in America first. In the United States, we haven't achieved any democracy."
An unidentified woman in Texas spoke of lynching in the South and called for "democracy, and equal rights, justice, and freedom for all." She told the president that African Americans loved this country:
"We want to stay over here and work, live, live peacefully and lawfully. And I think we just ought to have that chance and I know you think so too because I've seen write ups in the papers about what you and Mrs. Roosevelt thought about everything."
A social worker in Nashville, Tennessee, spoke of the irony many black Americans saw in an unusual event staged by several newspaper reporters:
"There was also a story recently of some newspaper men donning the garb of Nazi officers and assuming a German accent walking through the streets of one of our largest cities visiting the industries of defense without being challenged by anyone. One of our colored newspapers had a comment about that too, it sounded rather cynical I thought, they said, 'Their faces were white.'"
Other African Americans called attention to racial segregation and discrimination in military camps and the refusal to enlist African Americans in the Marines. One unidentified man remembered the way African-American soldiers returning from World War I were treated in his hometown of Nashville:
"When quite a small child standing in front of the capital in the state of Tennessee, I saw an Armistice Day parade in 1919 . . . [they] had a big welcome sign on the streets of Nashville welcoming the soldiers back home. When the Negro soldiers got to this welcoming sign they were asked to turn to their right and go down a block and come around. They weren't allowed to come under the sign. Now that thing stayed with me a long time, but it hasn't dampened my spirit to the extent that I don't want to do what I can for the betterment of my country during this crisis."
African Americans during World War II fought for the "Double V" — victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home. Use the Subject Index to locate interviews that present the views of African Americans or examine racism in the United States. Consider the following questions:
- How do the recordings of African Americans addressed to the president emphasize the dual struggle for victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home?
- List the specific problems that African Americans faced. Which problems were longstanding? Which problems were created or worsened by the war?
- What percentage of African Americans, despite the discrimination they faced, expressed strong support for the U.S. war effort? Under similar circumstances, do you think you would have been able to wholeheartedly endorse the U.S. war effort? Why or why not?
In 1941, before the outbreak of war, Asa Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, called for a massive march on Washington to protest discrimination in defense industries. In order to avert the demonstration, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 creating a temporary Fair Employment Practices Committee to help promote equal opportunities in hiring workers in defense industries that held government contracts. Mr. Gilchreist of Nashville, Tennessee, in a "Dear Mr. President" recording, remarked:
"Well, I think to just tell them, Mr. President, just to tell the labor heads alone that they must not discriminate is not enough. I think you'll have to do something about it. Although the Negroes are going to fight, I know that, they talk a lot about what they ain't going to do, but when the time comes you can always depend on them. But I do think that you could ease the strain a lot by putting in some kind of method whereby you could force these people that's making the money from the government by making airplanes and different things to give these Negroes a job."
Research Randolph's proposed march on Washington and the efforts of the Roosevelt administration to dissuade him from calling a massive demonstration.
- How effective was the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) in carrying out its stated purpose?
- To what extent did the creation of the FEPC help Roosevelt in marshalling support among African Americans?
- What were some of the other goals Randolph pursued during the course of the war?