During the war, a broad political coalition centered on the left but reaching well beyond it called for an end to racial inequality in America. The NAACP and American Jewish Congress cooperated closely in advocating laws to ban discrimination in employment and housing. Despite considerable resistance from rank-and-file white workers, CIO unions, especially those with strong left-liberal and communist influence, made significant efforts to organize black workers and win them access to skilled positions. AFL craft unions by and large continued their long tradition of excluding black workers. But during World War II, the CIO was probably more racially integrated than any labor organization since the Knights of Labor in the 1880s.
The new black militancy created a crisis for moderate white southerners. They now saw their middle ground evaporating as blacks demanded an end to segregation while southern politicians took up the cry of protecting white supremacy. The latter also spoke the language of freedom. Defenders of the racial status quo interpreted freedom to mean the right to shape their region’s institutions without outside interference. The “war emergency,” insisted Governor Frank Dixon of Alabama, “should not be used as a pretext to bring about the abolition of the color line.” Even as the war gave birth to the modern civil rights movement, it also planted the seeds for the South’s “massive resistance” to desegregation during the 1950s.
In the rest of the country, however, the status of black Americans assumed a place at the forefront of enlightened liberalism. Far more than in the 1930s, federal officials spoke openly of the need for a dramatic change in race relations. American democracy, noted Secretary of War Stimson, had not yet addressed “the persistent legacy of the original crime of slavery.” Progress came slowly. But the National War Labor Board banned racial wage differentials. In Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Supreme Court outlawed all-white primaries, one of the mechanisms by which southern states deprived blacks of political rights. In the same year, the navy began assigning small numbers of black sailors to previously all-white ships. In the final months of the war, it ended segregation altogether, and the army established a few combat units that included black and white soldiers.
This 1941 cartoon from the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, questions whether non-white peoples will be accorded the right to choose their own government, as promised in the Atlantic Charter agreed to two years earlier by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Churchill insisted the principle only applied to Europeans.
After a world tour in 1942 to rally support for the Allies, Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s opponent of 1940, published One World. It sold 1 million copies, faster than any nonfiction work in American history. Willkie’s travels persuaded him that Asia, Africa, and Latin America would play a pivotal role in the postwar era. But the book’s great surprise came in Willkie’s attack on “our imperialisms at home.” Unless the United States addressed the “mocking paradox” of racism, he insisted, its claim to world leadership would lack moral authority. “If we want to talk about freedom,” Willkie wrote, “we must mean freedom for everyone inside our frontiers.”