America’s World War II military was a force of unalloyed good. While saving the world from Nazism, it also managed to unify a famously fractious American people. At least that’s the story many Americans have long told themselves…
But the reality is starkly different. The military built not one color line, but a complex tangle of them, separating white Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in various configurations—effectively institutionalizing racism and white supremacy throughout the military to devastating effect. The segregation impeded America’s war effort; undermined the nation’s rhetoric of the Four Freedoms; further naturalized the concept of race; deepened many whites’ investments in white supremacy; and further fractured the American people.
Yet freedom struggles arose in response to the color lines, and succeeded in democratizing portions of the wartime military and setting the stage for postwar desegregation and the subsequent Civil Rights movements. From the women who were the first Black WAVES to a decorated Japanese American soldier and his friendship with a white comrade, the following slideshow is just a portion of the sweeping, yet personal, stories of resistance to racism within America’s World War II military.
St. Clair Drake
As America’s first peacetime draft began in 1940, an organization sprouted up in Chicago calling itself the Conscientious Objectors Against Jim Crow. Led by a brilliant University of Chicago graduate student named St. Clair Drake, who would go on to have an illustrious career as a scholar of Black and urban life, it urged African American draftees to claim exemption from military service, based on their opposition to military Jim Crow. “We are ready, if it is necessary to do so, to go to jail or go to court to prove our point,” Drake insisted. He served during the war in the Merchant Marine, a civilian organization, to avoid “Jim Crow in uniform.” St. Clair Drake, c. 1947. Courtesy of the Roosevelt University Archives.