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.

The Inkspots promote Double V. (Memorial Hall Museum's American Centuries)

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. 

To measure the campaign’s impact, the Courier ran a survey. On Oct. 24, 1942, it published the results: In response to the question, “Do You Feel that the Negro Should Soft Pedal His Demands for Complete Freedom and Citizenship and Await the Development of the Educational Process?” 88.7 percent of readers responded no, with only 9.2 percent responding yes. 

Needless to say, not everyone was pleased with the Double V Campaign: As Washburn writes in A Question of Sedition, the federal government systematically monitored the black press, including this campaign, during the war. Accordingly, to avoid charges of disloyalty or aiding and abetting the enemy, the Courier’s editorial added a caveat to its poll results: “No one must interpret this … as a plot to impede the war effort. Negroes recognize that the first factor in the survival of this nation is the winning of the war. But they feel integration of Negroes into the whole scheme of things ‘revitalizes’ the U.S. war program.”

Legacy of the Campaign

In September 1945, the Double V insignia disappeared from the paper, replaced in 1946 by a Single V, indicating that more work combating antiblack racism needed to be done at home. But as Clarence Taylor concludes, “Although the Courier could not claim any concrete accomplishments, the Double V campaign helped provide a voice to Americans who wanted to protest racial discrimination and contribute to the war effort.”  

While the Courier’s campaign kept the demands of African Americans for equal rights at home front and center during the war abroad, we can also argue that the Double V Campaign had at least two important legacies following the war: First, through the columns of its sportswriter, Wendell Smith, which featured prominently in the film 42, it doggedly fought against segregation in professional sports, contributing without a doubt to the Brooklyn, N.Y., Dodgers’ decision to sign Jackie Robinson in 1947, which in turn had a ripple effect. And on July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. With that action, the Double V Campaign had at last realized one of its principal goals.

The military service of black men and women before and after the desegregation order, and the strength of the Double V Campaign, helped to inspire the modern civil rights movement that began in earnest just after the war ended. Both efforts remain worthy of remembrance on this Memorial Day holiday.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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