How war veterans impacted the civil rights movement

By Terrance BellFebruary 24, 2017

How military veterans impacted the Civil Rights Movement
Medgar Evers, Whitney Young and Ralph Abernathy were among the many figures of the Civil Rights Movement who served during World War II and the Korean War. The wars, especially the segregated conditions of WWII, sparked collective aspirations amongst... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. -- Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran who participated in the famed Red Ball Express logistical effort, marched head-first into the teeth of the civil rights struggle years later, muddying himself in the trenches of the movement's fight against segregation in Mississippi. Amid the commitment to the cause, he conceded danger was a lurking proposition.

"I'm looking to be shot any time I step out of my car," he said. "If I die, it will be in a good cause. I've been fighting for America just as much as the Soldiers in Vietnam."

Hosea Williams, like Evers, also was a World War II veteran. Having survived a Nazi bombing in Europe under the command of Gen. George Patton, Williams had teetered on the steps of death after being hospitalized for nearly a year as a result of the attack. He was reacquainted with the pain of his experience and introduced to the companions of rebuke and humiliation -- after he was beaten by whites "like a common dog" upon his return home for using a whites-only water fountain, he said.

"At that moment, I truly felt as if I had fought on the wrong side," Williams said later, noting his U.S. Army uniform worn at the time did not deter his attackers. "Then, and not until then, did I realize why God, time after time, had taken me to death's door, then spared my life ... to be a general in the war for human rights and personal dignity."

The experiences of civil rights icons like Evers and Williams and a long list of others form a collective narrative of those who served in the U.S. military during WWII and the Korean War and then returned to their communities with newfound hope and aspirations to improve their lot in American society through various efforts of the civil rights movement.

From the perspective of retired Army Lt. Col. John Boyd, black war veterans were critical to the fight for civil rights.

"They had a great impact on the movement," said the Mechanicsville resident and veteran of the Vietnam War. "I would go as far to say if it wasn't for the black Soldiers who came back from World War II and the Korean War and lent their expertise to the cause, Dr. King and the other ministers would not have been able to effectively organize [the masses] as they did."

Civil rights for African-Americans, or the "human rights and personal dignity" Williams referred to, have been elusive commodities for the better part of their existence. WWII, like all wars before it (and many since), was yet another opportunity to validate their place as American citizens and claim the rights and privileges they were persistently denied. Retired Col. Porcher "PT" Taylor, a combat veteran of WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars, said risking life and limb for one's country makes a powerful argument for reciprocation.

"When you go out there on the battlefield and you're fighting for your life and the lives of the people you're serving with, it's a big difference compared to the ordinary citizen who did not serve," said the 91-year-old Petersburg resident. "The country is then indebted to that person. It's an obligation."

African-American men and women who served during WWII and the Korean War numbered more than 1.5 million, despite enduring racism and discrimination on the homefront and within the ranks. In addition to returning with heightened expectations because of their battlefield sacrifices, many returned with unique perspectives on life and liberty, especially since many had been exposed to Europe and its more tolerant racial climates. Black military members also gained communication, organizational and leadership skills they might have never acquired as civilians, Taylor said.

Take, for example, Whitney Young. Enlisting in the Army in 1942, he attained the rank of first sergeant in just three weeks, according to His rapid ascent in a segregated unit caused some resentment among his fellow Soldiers and members of his unit's white leadership. As a result, he was often called upon to mediate between the two groups.

"It was my Army experience that decided me on getting into the race relations field after the war," Young said. "Not just because I saw the problems, but because I saw the potentials, too. I grew up with a basic belief in the inherent decency of human beings."

Young eventually became executive director of the National Urban League in 1961 and a major player in the civil rights Movement.

In addition to the varied and once-in-a-lifetime experiences common to military service, black veterans who served in WWII also were provided with unprecedented educational opportunities. The Servicemen Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, provided them access to a free college education, although discrimination prevented many from receiving benefits. Williams and Evers were both educated under the GI Bill as well as others like Ralph Abernathy, a confidante of King, and Harry Belafonte, an entertainer and activist.

Education was an important factor in the civil rights movement, Taylor said, but the African-American war experience, especially the segregated conditions of WWII, was the rock-solid premise for civic action and responsibility. He noted how blacks desired more important roles in the war effort than the menial jobs most were relegated to, and how they longed for some measure of human dignity in light of the humiliating subjugation they experienced in comparison to German prisoners of war.

Further, Taylor cited those like championship boxer Joe Louis, who enlisted in the Army while still the world heavyweight champion. Louis was familiar with the challenges blacks faced during the war and gladly gave up thousands of dollars in profits to advocate for their cause. His efforts resulted in helping future baseball player Jackie Robinson and others gain acceptance into officer candidate school. Robinson would go on to assume the lead role in knocking down major league baseball's walls of segregation.

There are various other examples of this wartime service-civic responsibility dynamic. The work of Amzie Moore and Aaron Henry, both WWII veterans who noted the racism inherent in military segregation, were spurred to wage war against segregation in postwar Mississippi. They did not command the spotlight like the high-profile Louis, yet their work as white establishment agitators was far more dangerous. The two eventually helped to organize such efforts as voter registration campaigns and economic boycotts all over the state despite looming threats of violence.

The sense of frustration African-Americans felt while serving their country is perhaps no better illustrated than by the work of one Grant Reynolds. He, like so many before him, entered a WWII Army with high aspirations to do his part for the war cause. He was trained as a chaplain but resigned his commission a few years later due to the "brazen racism" he had witnessed, according to Ironically, Reynolds channeled his experiences and with A. Philip Randolph, established the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training in 1947. The group's efforts led to President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9981 that integrated the services in 1948.

Truman's mandate, which did not erase military segregation all at once (complete integration did not occur until the mid-1950s), served in many respects as the basis for the various legislation signed into law years later to include the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that guaranteed civil and voting rights for all people.

Those two pieces of legislation are the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement and the signature of warriors like Williams and Evers, who committed themselves to the well-being of their country in and out of uniform, despite the cost. Perhaps their earlier brushes with mortality served as the opening salvos in their fight for human rights and dignity.

It's plausible they believed they had little to lose in light of what could be gained. Evers seemed to be at peace with the notion.

"Freedom has never been free," he said. "I love my children and I love my wife with all of my heart. And I would die, die gladly, if that would make a better life for them."

Williams, one of King's top lieutenants, fought long and hard for civil and human rights over the course of his life. He is best known for courageously leading the first Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. He died in 2000.

Evers participated in numerous causes in the name of equal rights and justice. He carried the title of NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi when he was tragically gunned down in 1963 at the hands of a white supremacist.

In 1994, Evers' killer was brought to justice. Today, the state of Mississippi is far removed from its segregationist past.

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