I just noticed it this past year. In many of the funerals at which I officiated, the person who died had made his or her way to Detroit during World War 2 to find employment in factories. Securing a job in wartime wasn’t nearly as difficult as finding housing, public transportation and child care.
In just two years in the early 1940’s, Detroit experienced phenomenal growth. Added to the 2.5 million people already living in Detroit were 500,000 more men, women and children, 150,000 of whom were black. Blacks and whites competed for housing, jobs and transportation, and trailer camps were everywhere. The cauldron was simmering.
The issue of racial justice was a gradual awakening for Eleanor and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Eleanor inspected New Deal programs in the 1930’s, she discovered that blacks were discriminated against everywhere. In particular, The National Recovery Act, intended to establish codes of fair practices for labor, nevertheless allowed blacks to be forced to accept less money for the same work than whites or risk replacement. Discrimination was rampant in labor until President Roosevelt signed an order in 1935 barring discrimination in the Works Progress Administration.
Eleanor was always a friend to blacks, offering hope and supporting anti-lynching bills. Whereas FDR was more politically cautious, needing the support of the south in order to keep the country together, he would say more than once about Eleanor’s activities, “Well, that’s my wife. I can’t do anything about her.” Blacks, who had traditionally voted Republican, began voting Democratic in 1936.
In 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned in dramatic fashion from the Daughters of the American Revolution after singer Marian Anderson was barred from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. because she was black. In a letter dated February 26, 1939, to the DAR president general, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way, and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”
From the beginning of World War 2, African-Americans struggled for the right to fight alongside white soldiers. That struggle was especially fierce in the Navy because of the close quarters in which blacks and whites lived on ships and submarines. African-Americans were allowed to enlist in the armed forces but were often restricted to lesser jobs.
Meanwhile, discrimination in the defense industry came to a head in the summer of 1941 when certain companies refused to hire blacks. Blacks threatened to march on Washington to abolish workplace discrimination and were supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, who gave them hope. Afraid of such a march, FDR finally agreed to a meeting with two civil rights leaders, A. Philip Randolph and Walter White. This was followed by an executive order issued on June 25, 1941, guaranteeing “full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries without discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin.” A Fair Employment Practices Commission was set up to insure compliance, and the response of black community was overwhelmingly positive.
When the Navy only allowed blacks to be messmen, FDR’s direct reply to the Navy was that 10% of Americans were black. White officers, however, felt that abandoning segregation would adversely affect morale and might result in serious conflict. Eleanor Roosevelt did not back down on human rights, though, and was a strong advocate for integration. While experience and time proved that people could and did overcome their prejudice by working together, some white southerners excoriated Mrs. Roosevelt, making her the scapegoat for integration. They claimed she was the most dangerous person in the United States.
The Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name for the first African-American military pilots in the United States Armed Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen, who trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, were subjected to racial discrimination, both within and outside the army. Some of the pilots were never called up to serve in combat, including the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which was ready to fly by September 1942. It was only after Eleanor intervened that the 99th flew 1,578 missions over North Africa, Italy and Germany without losing a bomber to an enemy pilot.
At the height of the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive near the end of the war, the army called Negro units to fight alongside whites for the first time. Most black units had been in the rear guard for the entirely of the war, despite their requests to fight on the front line. The experience of fighting together made a huge difference in the improvement of race relations.
Meanwhile, racial tensions on the home front reached the boiling point in Detroit, which was affectionately known as the “arsenal of democracy.” Housing was scarce, and in 1941 blacks were only allowed to use one of the many public housing facilities. In addition, blacks often had to pay twice as much as whites for poor living conditions. In 1943 the Sojourner Truth housing project opened for African-Americans, only to elicit intense protests from whites who felt that blacks did not deserve such quality housing.
The government subsequently gave the housing project back to whites. However, after Eleanor Roosevelt criticized the government for destroying the morale of blacks, who were an integral part of the war effort, others followed suit and the housing project was returned to the black community.
Tensions increased. White workers in defense factories protested the promotion of three black workers and thousands of white Packard plant employees walked off the job, with one worker saying, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work beside a N***** on the assembly line.” In response, blacks in Detroit started a “bumping” campaign, where they would intentionally bump into white people on sidewalks and refuse to move out of the way.
The tipping point was reached on June 20 when a riot broke out in the late evening at Belle Isle, a popular, integrated amusement park. Between June 20 and 22, thirty-four people were killed (nine white residents and twenty-five black residents, seventeen of which were killed by white policemen). 433 people were wounded, 1,800 were arrested, and property valued at $2 million was destroyed, ($27.5 million in 2015 US dollars).
Criticism was swift and vehement, and Mrs. Roosevelt became the scapegoat. A Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper blamed the race riots directly on Eleanor Roosevelt, writing, “BLOOD ON HER HANDS: It is blood on your hands, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. More than any other person, you are morally responsible for those race riots in Detroit.” In response to the criticism, Eleanor said, “I suppose when one is being forced to realize that an unwelcome change is coming, one must blame someone or something.”
Not wanting to alienate southern lawmakers, President Roosevelt was silent and liberals were disappointed. However, in a subsequent fireside chat in 1943, Roosevelt attempted to reassure the American people by reminding them that they were all interrelated – management and laborers – and that everyone was needed in the war effort, both at home and abroad.
Civil rights remained the greatest unfinished business of World War 2, but a watershed had been crossed as white and black soldiers learned to fight together and white and black workers learned to support the war effort together. During the war, the number of black military officers increased from a mere five to seven thousand. In fact, more was accomplished in civil rights in the five years between 1940 and 1945 than in the seventy-five years between the Civil War and World War 2. Little of that progress would have been made without the enlightened leadership of Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I am in Charleston, South Carolina as I write this blog, seventy years since the end of World War 2. How are we doing? This last year has revealed in so many ways that our God-given call to justice and equality for all people in our country has yet to be fully realized. Yes, we’ve made great strides. As I walk by Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, dozens of flower bouquets, signs and messages of condolence line the sidewalk, and people still gather to pay their respects to the families of those who died. At the same time Ku Klux Klan members demonstrate outside the state house building in Columbia, protesting the removal of the confederate flag from the state house grounds.
We are reminded that the journey is still not over, not until that day when liberty and justice for all become more than simply words that trip off our tongue when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Will we be part of the problem or the solution? Will we be out in front or lag behind? I thank God for all those who lead in an enlightened way, encouraging us to live up to the ideals upon which our country was founded and guaranteeing to every person in our world the right to become all that God created him or her to be.
P.S. The next Leading from the Heart will be on Monday, August 3.