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The US South: A deadly front during World War II

The US Army recently gave a full military funeral to Albert King, a Black private stationed at Georgia’s Fort Benning who was killed by a white military policeman in 1941. With this act, the Army completed its acknowledgement of a racial murder it tried to cover up 83 years ago. What the Army or the nation has never fully recognized, however, is that during World War II, in and around Army facilities in the US South (where 80% of Black soldiers trained), an internal war zone raged, one with its own share of casualties, primarily African American GIs.

Ironically, the Army’s effort to enforce the laudable goal of nondiscrimination during wartime helped to stoke racial conflict and violence on this home front battlefield. During World War II, the Army built a biracial army, but one where all units remained strictly segregated by race. At the same time, the military tried to enforce the mandate enshrined in the 1940 Selective Service and Training Act, which officially disavowed racial discrimination. Segregation and nondiscrimination, however, were incompatible goals, especially in the South, where racial segregation was inherently discriminatory.

The Army’s effort to promote nondiscrimination within its own sphere did challenge existing southern racial practices and drew strident criticism from southern white leaders. In 1940, the Army desegregated its Officer Training School at Fort Benning; Black and white trainees lived and learned together before being assigned to their segregated units. Many army camps did not segregate sick or wounded soldiers by race in what was often a single base hospital. In 1942, the Army ordered a ban on the use of offensive language when referring to Black soldiers, a directive unevenly implemented, often dependent on the attitudes of individual commanders. In the summer of 1944, in large part in response to the racial upheaval ongoing in and around military facilities in the South and elsewhere, the Army made its boldest move to embrace nondiscrimination. It declared all recreation facilities and transportation under its control desegregated, although this order was also not always fully implemented by the officers charged with carrying out the directive. The Army took all these steps and others largely for reasons of efficiency and military necessity. For Black soldiers, these actions gave them some sense that they were part of a unified effort to defeat America’s enemies abroad and emboldened them to assert their rights as American citizens at home.

During the war, that home was the local communities that surrounded Army camps. While the Army could try to ensure nondiscrimination on base, off base the Army had no authority to enforce the principle of nondiscrimination. But the Army could not keep its Black soldiers locked on base; every soldier needed time away from their training and their military officers. And outside the camp perimeter, the harsh realities of southern racial segregation remained untouched by the upheaval of war.

As a result, many of the Black casualties of World War II’s “southern battlefield” occurred in the communities located near Army training grounds. In addition to Albert King, African American soldiers killed in the frequent wartime skirmishes in these locales include Henry Williams, a private from Birmingham, Alabama, stationed at Brookley Army Air Field and shot by a white bus driver in Mobile; Raymond Carr, a MP from Louisiana’s Camp Beauregard (and a Louisiana native), shot in the back by a Louisiana state trooper after the lawman told Carr to abandon his post in Alexandria, Louisiana; and William Walker, a private from Chicago, killed by local lawmen while fighting with a white MP just outside the fence of Camp Van Dorn, near the village of Centreville in southwest Mississippi. There were other Black casualties—including some deaths for which we will probably never know all the details, a common occurrence during wartime—as well as hundreds wounded in various beatings and assaults that occurred in the US South’s “war zone.”

Both Albert King and the MP who murdered him in 1941, Robert Lummus, were Georgia natives. Lummus had been at Fort Benning since the spring of 1940, when it was still a white outpost. After the draft began in the fall of 1940, the facility was soon transformed, as thousands of Black soldiers from all over the country arrived at what became one of the country’s largest training facilities. As the US Army began its experiment in promoting nondiscrimination, white soldiers like Lummus remained unmoved. He and others must have believed that Black soldiers at the facility would continue to abide by the South’s existing racial hierarchy. If not, the traditional use of violence to keep Black men in their “place” was a tried-and-true option, even if it meant opening another front at home in the global war of the 1940s.

During World War II, the US Army, through its nondiscrimination efforts, gave African American soldiers a glimpse of America’s racial future. And indeed, the US military would later be the first national institution to abandon racial segregation. The Army’s actions, however, had limits, both within the areas it controlled and certainly beyond. It simply could not change the hearts and minds of most whites, soldier or civilian, overnight.

Feature image: Black soldiers pinning their brass bars on each others shoulders, Ft. Benning, GA 1942. Courtesy National Archives (531137).

Recent Comments

  1. John Jujani

    Reminiscent of the Templers in Israel. Must be terrified of that Haitian voodoo, like the tavistock gigilosation conspiracy or some runic qaballah.

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