Medgar Evers, a key figure in the civil rights movement, was 19 years old when his Army unit arrived in Normandy in June 1944, shortly after the D-Day invasion. Evers was part of a segregated unit during WWll that loaded weapons and supplies onto trucks, after which Black drivers on the Red Ball Express truck convoy navigated treacherous roads to move the supplies to the front. It was not glamorous, but it was vital work that helped the Allies win the war. Evers earned two bronze stars for his service. When he returned home, Evers faced discrimination and racism despite his service. His experience, and the experiences of so many veterans like him, is an integral part of America’s history.
I have taught about the history of World War II for more than a decade, but I now wonder if it is still legal to teach students about what Black soldiers and veterans like Medgar Evers experienced, as the push to restrict the teaching of racism, especially in higher education, becomes more widespread across the U.S.
Over the past two years, 42 states have considered such legislation. Nine states—Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, and North Dakota—have passed legislation banning critical race theory, an academic framework that has become a catchall term for curriculum that examines the role of race in American history. (Arizona’s law was later overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court.) South Carolina’s law, Bill H.4100, for example, outlaws any teaching that “an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
As a historian and college teacher, I worry these laws will make it impossible to talk honestly about World War II and what the war meant for America. At stake is the ability of educators to discuss historical evidence. Several basic facts about the war require discussing racism and systemic inequality: the U.S. armed forces were racially segregated, the Red Cross segregated blood donations, Black veterans returned to the country only to be denied jobs and housing, and 125,284 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated in camps during the war.
In my classroom, students engage with this history through numerous primary sources—archival documents, diaries, newspaper accounts, and oral histories. Like other teachers, I strive to put these primary sources into conversation with each other so that students can understand how people navigated historical eras that were no less complex than our own. For legislators or parents to deem certain historical facts to be too controversial or divisive threatens the basic tenets of teaching history. It’s like trying to put together a puzzle after someone has hidden dozens of essential pieces.
For example, it is not possible to understand World War II without understanding the experiences of Black Americans. More than one million Black troops served in the armed forces in the war. They fought courageously in combat when given the opportunity and formed the backbone of the U.S. military’s logistical and supply forces, serving in units like Evers’ 325th Port Company. After defeating fascism abroad, these Black veterans then returned home to fight for freedom and democracy in America.
In researching my new book, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, I found that Black WWII veterans exhibited tremendous patriotism in serving their country, that they experienced horrific racism at home, and that they joined with other veterans and citizens to fight for civil rights after the war. While some may consider these stories to be “divisive,” they are part of the shared history of America.
The European Theater—where Black troops saw combat in France, Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere—was a long way from Evers’ hometown in Mississippi. While stationed in France he became close friends with a French family. It was the first time in his life that white people had treated him like a full human being, and he questioned if he could ever return to Mississippi. Ultimately, he did go home, and his service in Europe steeled his resolve to fight white supremacy in America.
When Evers returned from fighting Nazi Germany, he found that a similar racial ideology continued to hold sway in the Jim Crow South. On June 29, 1945, for example, Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland rose to speak on the floor of the Senate. He described Black soldiers as “dismal failures” in combat and said they “have disgraced the flag of their country.”
Eastland and his ilk understood that Black Americans greeted victory abroad by redoubling their fight for civil rights at home and that Black veterans like Evers would be important leaders in this battle for freedom and equality. For Americans committed to upholding Jim Crow segregation, Black veterans and their military service were extremely dangerous.
That day on the floor of the Senate, Eastland described African Americans as “an inferior race,” before concluding, “I am proud that the purest form of white blood flows in my veins. I know that the white race is the superior race. It has ruled the world. It has given us civilization. It is responsible for all the progress on earth.”
Eastland, the junior senator from Evers’ home state, was not elected democratically. Due to decades of racial discrimination, poll taxes, intimidation, and violence, less that 1% of Black adults in Mississippi were registered to vote. In a state with a population of more than 2 million people, nearly half of whom were Black, Eastland won his Senate seat on the strength of fewer than 75,000 white votes. In Washington, D.C., Eastland nominally represented more than a million Black Mississippians whom he held in utter contempt.
After the war, Evers celebrated his 21st birthday in 1946 by leading a group of Black veterans who attempted to register to vote in Decatur, Miss. They were turned away by a white mob with guns. “I had been on Omaha Beach,” he recalled. “All we [Black soldiers] wanted to be was ordinary citizens. Now, after the Germans and Japanese hadn’t killed us, it looked as though the white Mississippians would.”
This is the system that Evers and other Black veterans fought against when they returned from the war. And this is the system that Eastland and the white citizens who chased Evers from the polls were fighting to defend. The story of World War II must include both Evers and Eastland, as well as the millions of citizens who battled over racial apartheid in America during and after the war. It is impossible to understand the voting rights battles of the 1960s and today without understanding how Black soldiers went from the “European Theater of Operations to the Southern Theater of Operations,” as one veteran put it.
If teachers are unable to talk honestly about this history, students and citizens will have an impoverished idea of what it meant for Black soldiers to fight for America during World War II.
Patriotism and dissent are intertwined in these stories of Black WWII veterans. Evers and other Black veterans fought for civil rights because they believed a better future for America was possible. This is a history that deserves to be celebrated, not banned.
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