By Justice Eileen C. Moore
Justice Eileen C. Moore sits on the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Three. In a former life, Justice Moore served as a combat nurse in Vietnam in the Army Nurse Corps. She was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Cross of Gallantry with Palm. Since 2008, she has chaired the Judicial Council’s Veterans in the Court and Military Families Subcommittee. For nine years, she served as a mentor in a Veterans Treatment Court, primarily to women veterans. Her 2009 book, Race Results, received four national awards, including Book of the Year by Foreward. In 2015, her book Gender Results received a Benjamin Franklin award.
The greatest generation grew up during the depression and fought in World War II. The greatest of the greatest did all that and battled Jim Crow as well.
Since pre-revolutionary times and during America’s wars, African Americans have been true patriots, always defending America. Enduring indignities and dangers Whites did not face, Blacks improved their circumstances bit by bit after each war. Many of their major achievements followed World War II.
WORLD WAR I
In the book, The Unsteady March, historians Klinkner and Smith describe how fully invested African Americans served in the first World War. Almost 400,000 volunteered in the military. Black clergy led bond drives and Blacks contributed over $250 million in Liberty Loan drives.
In Europe, Black soldiers often fought alongside French troops as equals and comrades, which was a new experience for them. But the U.S. military remained segregated. Blacks were assigned menial jobs and suffered the bite of Jim Crow.
The African American Registry describes how Blacks fought with bravery, courage, and selflessness. Freddie Stowers, the grandson of slaves, was drafted into the Army in 1917 and sent to France in a segregated unit nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers. His unit was attached to a French division and saw sustained combat. In a brutal battle with the Germans, Stowers ended up in command when his unit was reduced by half. He led a charge into the German trench line and was wounded. He died on September 28, 1918 at the age of 22. He is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Stowers was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the recommendation was “misplaced.” Congress launched an investigation and in 1991, Stowers’ descendants received the award from President George H.W. Bush. The outcome of the investigation led to an Army study in 1992, which found several Black soldiers were not awarded Medals of Honor because of racial bias on the Army Decorations Board. Medals of Honor were eventually presented to their survivors by President Bill Clinton.
In 1917, Needham Roberts enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the New York Fifteenth Infantry Harlem Hellfighters. He was also sent to France and placed under French Army control. Roberts and a fellow member of the regiment, Henry Johnson, were on watch in the Argonne Forest when Germans attacked them. Though both were wounded, they continued to fight. Germans attempted to drag Roberts away as a prisoner. Johnson attacked the Germans with a bolo knife, rescuing Roberts. For these events, Roberts and Johnson were the first Americans honored with the Croix de Guerre medal. However, neither received recognition from the U.S. upon their return. It was not until decades after his death that Roberts was awarded the Purple Heart in 1996.
When the war was won, African American veterans, knowing they faithfully fought for their country, expected a grateful nation but came home to hostility, resentment, and violence.
Blacks’ nobility in battle meant naught to Jim Crow. According to Klinkner and Smith, Whites wanted “normalcy” and lashed out at Blacks. The Ku Klux Klan expanded to over 100,000 members nationwide. One of the worst periods of interracial violence in American ensued. History.com describes great violence against Blacks following World War I. Centers of Black economic independence and success were targeted. During the summer of 1919, Black veterans grabbed their guns and stationed on rooftops in Washington D.C. to protect themselves from mob violence. (< www.history.com/new/red-summer-1919-riots-chicago-dc-great-migration >.) In 1921, a White mob spent 18 hours attacking and killing Blacks in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. (< www.history.com/this-day-in-history/tulsa-race-massacre-begins >.) In 1923, crowds of White aggressors obliterated the African American town of Rosewood, Florida. (< www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/rosewood-masacre >.)
WORLD WAR II
Despite the nation’s lack of appreciation for African Americans in World War I, almost a million Blacks served during World War II. While defeating Nazi persecution, they realized the hypocrisy of segregation in the U.S.
Langston Hughes penned his poem “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943,” with the stanza:
“You tell me that hitler
Is a mighty bad man.
I guess he took lessons
From the ku klux klan.”
Black veteran Charles W. Dryden published his memoirs in 1997. He related how German prisoners of war, easily identifiable by the letters PW painted of the back of their fatigues, entered the “Whites only” entrance to the post exchange cafeteria, but Blacks could not. In another incident, Blacks had to eat out of the back window of a train where they saw Italian prisoners of war sitting inside, chatting with the staff while enjoying their meal.
On the home front, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People scrutinized the military’s treatment of Blacks. Historians North and Holton describe in their book, Hard Road to Freedom, how the NAACP found racial bias in the grading of tests administered to potential draftees. Whites needed a score of 15 on the Army intelligence test, while Blacks needed a 39.
A Black chaplain was not permitted in half-empty officers’ quarters; instead, the Army built “colored officers’ barracks” for him. Decades later, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., who served in World War II, said when he visited Black soldiers in Vietnam, “They’re regarding men as individuals. When I was in the Army, I was on a post where a colored guy couldn’t get his hair cut.” The Army excluded from its baseball team a Black lieutenant from California who had been a multisport star athlete at UCLA. He would later break the color barrier in major league baseball. Daringly, Lieutenant Jackie Robinson refused to move to the back of the bus in Colleen, Texas. He faced a court martial and was found not guilty.
Despite receiving despicable treatment in the armed forces, African Americans served with honor and gallantry during the Second World War. Leonard Harmon enlisted in the Navy in 1939. He was killed in 1942 when he placed himself between enemy fire and a mate who was caring for a wounded sailor. As part of the newly named Women’s Army Corps, Charity Adams served in Europe, commanding the first unit of African American WACs to go overseas. She reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Sailor Dorie Miller was the USS West Virginia’s heavyweight boxing champion. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, even though he was assigned to the laundry and had no machine gun training, Miller manned an anti-aircraft gun and shot down several enemy aircraft. Miller died in action a few years later.
At the end of World War II, many Black veterans came home with racial improvements on their minds. They faced the same violence and resentment shown those who returned from World War I. But this time, change was in the air. African American veterans flexed their collective muscles and found minor defiances helped fight Jim Crow.
Richard Gergel’s book, Unexampled Courage, describes how former Corporal Marguerite Nicholson was dragged off a railroad coach and arrested in Hamlet, North Carolina after she refused to move to a segregated section when the train crossed into the South. The Hamlet Police Chief beat the 120-pound woman and charged her with violating a local ordinance. She spent two days in jail and paid a fine and court costs.
World War II veteran Wilson Head’s trip on a Greyhound bus is described in Ralph LaRossa’s book Of War and Men. Head undertook his own personal freedom ride from Atlanta to Washington in 1946. He sat in the front of the bus, braving angry drivers and enraged passengers. He somehow made it to his destination without being arrested or injured.
Some veterans fared much worse when they challenged Jim Crow while traveling by bus, even when the challenge was slight. Gergel relates the horrific experience of Sergeant Isaac Woodard. Woodard returned to the U.S. in early 1946 after surviving 15 months in the Pacific theater where he earned a Battle Star and other medals. He was discharged in Georgia and was still in his Army uniform traveling home to South Carolina on a Greyhound bus. He asked a bus driver for time to relieve himself during a stop. The driver replied, “Boy, go on back and sit down and keep quiet.” Woodard responded, “God damn it, talk to me like I’m talking to you. I’m a man just like you.” In response, the driver summoned police. The Police Chief of Batesburg, South Carolina violently smashed his billy club into Woodard’s eye socket, blinding him for life.
Bobby L. Lovett’s book, The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee, recounts a February 1946 incident involving Navy veteran James Stephenson and his mother. Both did something Black patrons in their time would not have dared to do. They complained to a White clerk about the faulty repair of a radio in a store in Columbia, Tennessee. The clerk assaulted Stephenson’s mother and Stephenson pushed back, sending the clerk through a storefront window. Crowds of Blacks and Whites gathered, and two Black men were shot and killed. The Tennessee Encyclopedia says the race riot that broke out, involving 5,000 Whites and 3,000 Blacks was like many outbreaks of violence after the war involving Black veterans who rejected the prevailing racial norms. In the end, Stephenson and more than 100 other Blacks were arrested. None was granted bail or allowed legal counsel.
Ralph Abernathy enlisted in the Army during World War II and rose to the rank of platoon sergeant. In his book, The Civil Rights Movement, Bruce J. Dierenfield describes how Abernathy became a preacher when he came home, using his pulpit to demand racial equality. He later collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. to form the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group that organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. The New World Encyclopedia says Reverend Abernathy and Dr. King were best friends, partners, and colleagues and shared many a jail cell together for their peaceful protests.
Marine Robert Franklin Williams came home convinced that Blacks could achieve racial equality. He later wrote the book Negroes With Guns. Another Black veteran, Bennie Montgomery, working as a sharecropper in 1946, defended himself after a White landowner attacked him. The White man died. Montgomery was executed by the state of North Carolina. The Ku Klux Klan wanted to lynch Montgomery, and feeling robbed of the opportunity, stormed the funeral home to claim Montgomery’s body. The Klan was met by 40 Black veterans with guns. Using their military prowess, Williams and the others defended their fellow veteran’s body. Not a shot was fired, and the Klansmen retreated. When the Klan tried to burn down the home of another Black man trying to integrate the county swimming pool, Williams and other veterans again rebuffed the Klan. International notoriety of Williams was achieved when he raised protests over the arrest of two little Black boys, aged seven and nine, after they kissed a little White girl. The boys were prosecuted and sent to a state reformatory in 1958. Williams’ NAACP chapter hired an experienced appellate lawyer from New York. A London newspaper reported on the incident throughout Europe and Asia. Eleanor Roosevelt tried to intervene. Demonstrations against the United States over the case were held in Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Rotterdam. In 1959, the Governor of North Carolina pardoned and released the boys.
Hosea Williams served in a Black unit attached to General George Patton’s Third Army from 1941 to 1945. He earned a Purple Heart after he was seriously wounded in battle and left with a lifelong limp. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Dr. Martin Luther King acknowledged Williams for making Savannah the most integrated city in the South. But Williams’ civil rights journey was fraught with danger. During the 1950’s, he took a drink from a “Whites only” water fountain and was beaten so badly, he spent five weeks in the hospital. He later served as the vice president of the Savannah chapter of the NAACP. He was jailed for 65 days after leading protests in a crusade to register voters. In 1965, along with John Lewis, Williams led a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery to deliver to Alabama Governor George Wallace a petition for African American voting rights. In this protest known as “Bloody Sunday,” Williams and Lewis were beaten with clubs and whips and fired upon with tear gas while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Medgar Evers served in the Army from 1943 to 1945, reaching the rank of sergeant and fought in the Battle of Normandy in June 1944. A law review article describes how Evers gathered a group of young Black veterans and headed for the courthouse intending to vote in the Democratic Party primary in Decatur, Mississippi in 1946. They were prevented from voting by armed White men. (Lyons, Courage and Political Resistance (2010) 90 Boston U. L.Rev. 1755.) Evers spent the rest of his life fighting for civil rights. He and his brother spearheaded boycotts against gas stations that refused to let Blacks use their restrooms. In 1963, when he was the field secretary for the NAACP, he was shot in the back by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council in Jackson, Mississippi. A 2007 article in the Journal of Law and Religion quotes what the minister said at Evers’ memorial service: “Our generation can claim Medgar Evers as a star of destiny, its martyr of our age. For Medgar helped in a dramatic way to bring about the changes he will never see. Like Moses, he saw from afar that Promised Land into which his people must enter.” A 2007 article in Prosecutor relates how Evers was the most respected civil rights leader in Mississippi and how De La Beckwith was tried to two deadlocked White juries in 1964. Decades later, Mississippi District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter devoted himself to reopening the case. In 1994, 30 years after De La Beckwith murdered Evers, a jury of eight Blacks and four Whites found him guilty. He died in prison in 2001.
The Mississippi Historical Society website has an article about veteran Clyde Kennard, who ended up a civil rights pioneer from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. After serving in the Army for seven years, he was honorably discharged. He studied at the University of Chicago for three years. But when his father died, he returned to Mississippi to help his mother run the family farm, intending to finish his studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. Local Whites prevented Kennard’s attending the university, including trumping up criminal charges. The last time he was arrested, it was for burglary, a felony. A White jury took 10 minutes to convict him. Kennard was sent to the penitentiary where he worked long days on the prison’s cotton plantation and died a few years later. Two years after his death, the first Black students were admitted to the University of Southern Mississippi. (< mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/349/clyde-kennard-a-little-known-civil-rights-pioneer >.) In 1991, the Clarion-Ledger published documents showing Kennard had been framed. The Mississippi Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring Kennard as the “forgotten civil rights pioneer,” and a circuit judge declared him innocent of the “bogus charges” in 2006.
CIVIL RIGHTS ACHIEVEMENTS IN POST-WORLD WAR II ERA
Many civil rights were achieved by African Americans in the post-World War II era. Here are some highlights.
In 1946, the Supreme Court issued Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373. The case concerned a Virginia statute that required a woman on a bus in Virginia on her way to Maryland to move to the back of the bus while in Virginia. She refused and was arrested. Morgan was represented by Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed the first Black justice of the nation’s highest court. In Morgan, the Supreme Court held Virginia’s statute interfered with interstate commerce and was invalid. So widely known was the Morgan case, there was a ditty that went:
“You don’t have to ride jim crow, You don’t have to ride jim crow, Get on the bus, set any place, ‘Cause Irene Morgan won her case, You don’t have to ride jim crow.”
In 1948, the Supreme Court issued Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, holding that courts would no longer enforce restrictive covenants excluding persons of a designated race from ownership or occupancy of real property. The plaintiffs were represented by Thurgood Marshall and Loren Miller, who later became a judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, came down in 1954, ordering the desegregation of public schools.
President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9808 in 1946, establishing his President’s Committee on Civil Rights. In 1948, he issued Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, desegregating the federal work force and abolishing discrimination in the Armed Forces.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 in response to violent public hostility when Black children tried to integrate a high school. That same year, he signed the first civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and elevated the Civil Rights Section within the Department of Justice to a full-blown division.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 11063, banning segregation in federally funded housing. In 1963, he delivered a speech calling for Americans to recognize civil rights as a moral cause.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. According to the think tank Capital Research Center, Johnson supposedly told an aide after the bills passed, “We’ve lost the South for a generation.”
After serving in Europe in both World Wars, African Americans gained awareness their lives at home could be much improved. Those who served in World War I returned home to disdain and violence. Those who served in World War II were on notice their situation in American life would not improve merely as a result of their military service, no matter how noble and patriotic. If matters were to progress, they would have to take concerted action. Working within the system they fought so hard to protect, Black veterans waged peaceful campaigns to defeat Jim Crow. So much happened in the advancement of civil rights after World War II, that it’s hard not to connect the dots between the actions of Black veterans and those developments.