Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2015: Civil rights and the Second World War (1)

DECEMBER 7, 1941:

When Dorie Miller took gun in hand-
Jim Crow started his last stand.
Our battle yet is far from won
But when it is, Jim Crow'll be done.
We gonna bury that son-of-a-gun!

- from "Jim Crow's Last Stand" (1943) by Langston Hughes
Doris (Dorie) Miller was a black Navy cook who received the Navy Cross for his bravery at Pearl Harbor. This recuiting poster featured him:

The experience of both blacks and white in the Second World War in the United States was a decisive moment in the fight for recognition of African-American civil rights.

Dennis Mitchell in his A New History of Mississippi (2014) writes about the effects of the war in my native state:

The infusion of federal funds revolutionized the state. The military buildup began with the New Deal alphabet agencies still in place, and for a brief period funds continued to flow from those agencies and the military. During the war, Mississippians doubled their per capita incomes ...

Relative economic prosperity mattered, but perhaps more important, Mississippians met new people, traveled the world, and encountered an infinite variety of cultures. More Yankees came to train at the state's thirty-six military bases than invaded the state during the Civil War. Many of them took Mississippi wives home with them, forging new ties of kinship across the country. Hundreds of thousands of Mississippians served in the armed forces dispersed to every conceivable corner of the globe, where they encountered cultures very different from their own. Japanese American soldiers trained in the state, befuddling the caste system, which usually recognized only black and white. Northern, city-raised black troops also trained in Mississippi, generating conflict and confusion. Mississippi women worked in factories building ships and manufacturing ammunition. They learned auto mechanics when the men got drafted. They acquired new skills, such as shopping. Traditionally, farm men went to the general store and brought home the family's few store-bought goods, often including the material the wife asked for to make a new dress. The war emancipated women and provided a new independence as well as loneliness at times. (p. 350) [my emphasis]
American Imago recently published the presentations of four psychoanalysts recalling their experiences in the Second World War at a 1995 conference ("Future Psychoanalysts and Memories of the Second World War" Vol. 72/1 Spring 2015).One of them, M. Donald Coleman, talked briefly about his encounters with racial and other kinds of diversity in the Army:

While exact figures are not available, much of the act of fighting — certainly by enlisted men — was done by those aged eighteen, nineteen, and twenty. In many units a man of twenty-six or twenty-eight was likely to find himself called “Dad.” Those few enlisted men thirty to thirty-four [years] were of an age that defied comprehension by most of us, and their preoccupation with writing long letters to wives and family was observed but barely understood emotionally.
The youth of the soldiers presumably made them relatively open to new experiences, although they may also have brought more simplistic stereotypes than some of those more senior thirtysomethings.

But before bonding could take place each unit had to sort itself out and test the true value of each member against stereotypes of rank, education, and ethnic, regional, or religious groupings. In this process there were often conflicts, sometimes physical fights, but once the true worth of an individual was established, good or bad, the old stereotypes were of little use. Intelligence, honor, capability or the lack of it were discovered to reside in individuals not the group. It was an eye opener for many big-city-bred soldiers to discover that high native intelligence could reside with a southern backwards farmer or for that farmer to be disabused of some of his big-city stereotypes. Others found that some highly educated men from socially elevated backgrounds didn’t seem as smart or dependable as poorly educated, ethnic Americans.
And he gives this example:

To give a concrete example: for the surgery department of a great Boston teaching hospital to tell those who had worked beside Captain Howard Schlossman and others like him in the field that we don’t want Jewish surgical residents because they are not team players became unacceptable to the experiences of the generations who had returned, and after several postwar years such contentions were heard no more.
Of course, this doesn't mean that whites who made an adjustment to a light-skinned Jewish surgeon would easily extend the same level of acceptance to working-class blacks. But it does mean that many whites North and South were forced to deal with a wider variety of people on more equal basis than they would have at home. Coleman says: "Millions of such discoveries were made, so many that those twelve million servicemen who returned to civilian life after the war shaped a very different America, where previous exclusions in professions and workplace were no longer tenable."

And he recognized the bitter irony of African-Americans fighting for a country that deprived many of them of the basic rights of citizens:

A significant group in every company were Americans whose ethnic or religious background had made them subject to a degree of discrimination and contempt now almost erased from our social memory. Black Americans served in segregated units - and for a nation which enforced their segregation. Yet, when faced with the danger to a way of life that was for so many a dream still unfolding, this generation chose the dream as something worthy of all they had — even their lives.
And a lot of those black soldiers came back expecting to see that "dream" unfold much faster than it had.

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