What Was Black America's Double War?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A paper's call for blacks to support the World War II effort had a twist.

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More than 2.5 million African Americans registered for the draft when World War II began; 1 million served. And though they faced segregation, even in combat, the Courier was there to tell their stories, to fight against racial discrimination within the armed forces and to insist that the quest for civil rights at home was just as important as the fight against fascism abroad. 

The Campaign

The story of the campaign and its antecedents is quite fascinating. When the war broke out, the overwhelming number of black soldiers served in segregated units. Rather than tackle integration of the military head-on, civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph, Walter White and others organized a March on Washington to protest discrimination in the defense industry, which, well before Pearl Harbor, was receiving lucrative contracts from Uncle Sam to build up Britain's and the nation's defenses.

Eleanor Roosevelt met with Randolph and White to ask them to call the march off, but they refused; FDR then met with them, but they still refused -- unless he signed an executive order banning discrimination in the defense industry. Facing a public relations disaster, FDR came around, and on June 25, 1941, he issued Executive Order 8802, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce a new rule -- that "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin." 

The march was called off, but it laid the groundwork for MLK's March on Washington in 1963. And it established the mood within the black community to monitor race relations at home, even amid the war against fascism abroad. One man, deeply concerned about all of this, sat down and wrote a letter to the most influential black newspaper in the country.

On Jan. 31, 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier published a letter to the editor from James G. Thompson of Wichita, Kan. It was titled "Should I Sacrifice to Live 'Half American?' " In it, Thompson wrote: "Being an American of dark complexion and some 26 years, these questions flash through my mind: 'Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?' 'Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow?' 'Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life?' 'Is the kind of America I know worth defending?' 'Will America be a true and pure democracy after this war?' 'Will colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been heaped upon them in the past?' These and other questions need answering."

Then he proposed what he called "the double V V for a double victory … The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery, and tyranny. If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict, then let we colored Americans adopt the double V V for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory for our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetuate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces." [Read Thompson's full letter to the Courier here.]

The Courier was the most widely read black newspaper during the war, with a national circulation well above 200,000. It had already run stories protesting the Navy's use of black sailors only as "messmen," and on Jan. 3, 1942, the paper denounced the American Red Cross' refusal to accept black blood in donor drives, under the title "The Red Blood Myth." But nothing could prepare the editors for the enthusiastic response of the public to Thompson's letter. 

A week later, on Feb. 7, 1942, two months to the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Courier published on its front page an insignia announcing "Democracy At Home Abroad." The following week, the paper announced that it had published the insignia "to test the response and popularity of such a slogan with our readers. The response has been overwhelming." Henceforth, "this slogan represents the true battle cry of colored America." As the editors conclude, "we have adopted the Double 'V' war cry -- victory over our enemies on the battlefields abroad. Thus in our fight for freedom we wage a two-pronged attack against our enslavers at home and those abroad who would enslave us. WE HAVE A STAKE IN THIS FIGHT … WE ARE AMERICANS TOO!" (Read the full editorial online here. [pdf])

The Double V Campaign ran weekly into 1943. To promote patriotism, the Courier included an American flag with every subscription and encouraged its readers to buy war bonds. Double V clubs spread around the country. Among the campaign's features, the paper published a weekly photo of a new "Double V Girl" frequently lifting two fingers in a "v" sign; celebrity and political endorsements followed, including Lana Turner (who, in a bit of cross-promotion, mentioned that her movie Slightly Dangerous featured blacks in the cast) and former presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, wearing a Double V pin, which the Courier sold for five cents, as William F. Yurasko reports. A Double V hairstyle called "the Doubler" also became popular, historian Patrick Washburn recalls, as did Double V gardens and Double V baseball games. Other black newspapers soon joined the Courier's campaign.