A (unwelcome?) blast from the past

Here is another uncomfortable and disturbing excerpt about race relations in the post-war years from James Patterson’s wonderful book Grand Expectations: The United States 1945 – 1974, part of the famed Oxford History of the United States series:

By 1944 the protests of blacks—for Randolph and other leaders military desegregation was a top priority—had a modest effect on the armed services. The navy slowly moved toward integrated units. The army, at a loss for manpower during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, pressed blacks into combat, with positive results. But segregation persisted in the army, and racial tensions became intense.

“My God! My God!” army chief of staff General George Marshall exclaimed, “I don’t know what to do about this race question in the Army.” He added, “I tell you frankly, it is the worst thing we have to deal with. . . . We are getting a situation on our hands that may explode right in our faces.”

Though Marshall did nothing about the situation, he correctly assessed the more militant mood. A black Alabama corporal explained in 1945, “I spent four years in the Army to free a bunch of Dutchmen and Frenchmen, and I’m hanged if I’m going to let the Alabama version of the Germans kick me around when I get home. No sirreee-bob! I went into the Army a nigger; I’m comin’ out a man.”

Expectations such as these unavoidably sharpened racial conflict in the postwar South, where more than two-thirds of American Negroes still lived—mass migrations notwithstanding—in the late 1940s. There, little had changed since the late nineteenth century. Most southern blacks—at least 70 percent—lived in poverty in 1945.

Virtually everything remained segregated: schools, churches, parks, beaches, buses, trains, waiting rooms, restaurants, hotels, rest rooms, drinking fountains, and other public accommodations. All but a few white southerners believed theirs was the superior race, with a natural right to supremacy. Mississippi senator James Eastland, later to become an influential national spokesman for white racism, expressed this view without embarrassment in a wartime speech against the FEPC: “What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”

Myrdal conceded that whites in the South “do not see the handwriting on the wall. They do not study the impending changes; they live again in the pathetic illusion that the matter is settled. They do not care to have any constructive policies to meet the trends.” Racist feelings promoted institutional discrimination and a virtual totality of white power. Deep South states in the early 1940s admitted almost no black lawyers, judges, or policemen.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court decision against white primaries, Negroes in the lower South faced a range of ruses and outrages—poll taxes, impossibly designed “literacy” tests, violent intimidation—that deprived them of any voice in politics. The emblem of the Democratic party in Alabama (Republicans did not matter) was a lusty gamecock under a scroll that read WHITE SUPREMACY.

Resting very close to the surface of these white concerns, especially in the South, were complicated feelings about sex between the races. There was irony here, of course, for white men continued, as they had throughout American history, to demand sexual favors from economically and legally defenseless black women. Miscegenation was the great open secret of sexual life in the South. But state laws criminalized interracial sex as well as racially mixed marriages. (Until 1956 Hollywood’s Motion Picture Code forbade interracial marriage to be shown; no black man embraced a white woman on screen until 1957.)

And woe to black men in the South who seemed too friendly with white women. By 1945 whites less often retaliated against such behavior by lynching—there were nineteen reported lynchings of Negroes between 1940 and 1944, compared to seventy-seven between 1930 and 1934 and forty-two between 1935 and 1939—but all black American men knew that white violence was an ever-present possibility following any kind of “uppity” behavior, no matter how exaggerated by whites, especially if it was thought to threaten the supposed purity of southern white womanhood. Southern blacks who escaped violence, only to be brought to trial for such alleged offenses, faced all-white judges and juries and had virtually no possibility of justice.

Patterson, Grand Expectations, 24-25.

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