Like they had following the Great War, black soldiers returned from WWII as champions of democracy to a society that treated them as second-class citizens. That older generation of “new negroes,” the first to come of age after both slavery and Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous case that legalized racial segregation in 1896, had pushed a civil rights agenda during the 1920s with minimal success. The Great Depression had hit black Americans especially hard, and little gain had been made since the New Deal. Despite the Great Migration of 1910-1940, most blacks still lived in the South under Jim Crow, where state laws kept them segregated in all areas of public life—parks, restaurants, theaters, sporting events, cemeteries, beaches, hospitals, public transportation, and in the public schools. Even blood for transfusions was segregated. Blacks had made no real progress in political power either. At the beginning of WWII only 2 percent of eligible southern African Americans were registered to vote.
But WWII had brought about irrevocable change. Over a million black soldiers had served in uniform. The share of defense jobs held by blacks had increased from 3 to 8 percent. Nearly half a million people belonged to the NAACP. In 1944, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued before the Supreme Court that all-white primaries in the South violated his black client’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection. The case, known as Smith v. Allwright, was an 8-1 victory. A new sense of mission was forged as black Americans, joined by some white allies, began to express resistance to passive acceptance of the pre-war status quo. Black soldiers led the way as the number of black registered voters in the South increased to 12 percent by 1947.
These efforts at democratic expression met with stiff resistance by southern whites. When Medgar Evers and four others went to vote in Mississippi, they were driven away at gunpoint. White supremacist Eugene Talmadge won the Georgia governorship in 1946 by promising to defy Smith v. Allwright (he died before taking office). Several blacks who attempted to vote in Georgia were murdered, and when one of the victim’s wives recognized one of the murderers, she was murdered too. In rural Mississippi, war veteran Etoy Fletcher tried to register to vote and was told by the registrar, “Niggers are not allowed to vote in Rankin County, and if you don’t want to get into serious trouble, get out of this building.” Fletcher was then grabbed by 4 whites at the local bus station, driven into the woods, and beaten.
The Columbia Race Riot, 1946
In Columbia Tennessee, on February 25, 1946, a dispute erupted between James Stephenson, a black Navy veteran, and a white shopkeeper, who was threatening violence against Stephenson’s mother over a disputed radio repair bill. The subsequent scuffle resulted in the clerk crashing through a store window. The Stephensons were arrested for disturbing the peace, pleaded guilty, and paid a fifty dollar fine. Later in the day, a new arrest warrant was issued for Stephenson on the charge of assault with the intent to commit murder. Later that night several police officers were wounded in the segregated black business section of town known as Mink Slide. The next day, White police and citizens swarmed through the district, violating civil rights, illegally confiscating weapons, and arresting a hundred blacks. Two days later, Columbia policemen killed two black prisoners in custody. Thurgood Marshall flew in from Nashville to mount a legal defense. Several blacks were convicted for the shooting and wounding of white officers. A federal grand jury was convened to investigate charges of police misconduct, but the all-white jury absolved them of any wrong doing. On the way out of town, Thurgood Marshall was arrested on trumped up drinking and driving charges. After a long and anxious drive though the countryside, apparently intended as a warning, he was set free.
The Isaac Woodard Story
In February 1946 a black soldier named Isaac Woodard was on his way home in South Carolina, having just been mustered out of the Army. At a stop along the way, Woodard had a verbal altercation with the driver over permission to use the restroom. After using the restroom, he returned to his seat without incident. At Batesburg, the next stop, the diver contacted Sheriff Linwood Shull, who forcibly removed Woodard from the bus. After demanding to see his discharge papers, a group of officers took Woodard, still in uniform, to a nearby alleyway and beat him with nightsticks. He was then taken to jail and arrested for disorderly conduct. Overnight, more beatings and jabs in the face with a nightstick resulted in both of Woodard’s eyes being ruptured, and the onset of partial amnesia. The next day, Woodard was brought before a local judge, found guilty, and fined fifty dollars. Not knowing where he was and still suffering from amnesia, Woodard ended up in a nearby hospital receiving substandard care. It took his family ten days to find him. The story eventually reached the ears of President Truman, who angrily demanded that the Attorney General take action. The resulting trial of Sheriff Shull, who admitted he had blinded Woodard, was a shameful failure, resulting in the courtroom breaking into applause when Shull was acquitted after 30 minutes of deliberation [Read lyrics to the song, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” by Woody Guthrie].
President Truman’s Response
The postwar era was characterized by a total lack of response to the needs of Black Americans from the legislative branch of government. President Truman, however, was angry over the treatment of black Americans, particularly war veterans, and although his commitment to civil rights was tempered somewhat by political necessity, several milestones were achieved during his administration. On December 5, 1946, Truman established by executive order the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The committee was instructed to investigate the status of civil rights in the United States and propose measures to strengthen and protect the civil rights of American citizens. In the meantime, Truman became the first president to address the NAACP, at the Lincoln Memorial on July 29, 1947.
In December the committee produced a 178 page report. Its recommendations included improving the existing civil rights laws; establishing a permanent Civil Rights Commission, a Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, and a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice; development of federal protection from lynching; creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC); and abolishment of poll taxes, among other measures. On February 2, 1948, Truman became the first president to send a Special Message to Congress on Civil Rights, in which he requested that Congress implement the committee’s recommendations.
On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, banning segregation of the armed forces. Although this was done over the protests of senior military officials, the Korean War soon necessitated the integration of combat units, without the predicted loss of combat effectiveness. In fact, by the end of the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration was promoting the integrated military as an example of American freedom that served to deny communist propaganda which claimed that American-style democracy was institutionally racist.
President Truman, despite his call for aggressive federal action on the issue, gave his backing to party platform language that duplicated the 1944 plank. Liberal Democrats insisted on the insertion of a “minority plank” to the party platform that would commit the Democratic Party to calling for an end to segregation in public schools, legislation against lynching, and an end to job discrimination based on race. Truman’s aides lobbied to avoid forcing the issue on the Convention floor, but the Mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey, defied them. Humphrey passionately told the Convention: “To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” Humphrey and his allies succeeded in getting their “minority plank” adopted. Consequently, the South revolted. The Mississippi and half of the Alabama delegation, 35 in all, stormed out of the hall. Many Southern Democrats subsequently formed the Dixiecrat Party, and nominated South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond. The Dixiecrats called for States Rights, Social Conservatism, and continued racial segregation. The goal of the Dixiecrats was to see the Democrats suffer such a defeat that they would forever abandon the civil rights cause. What they hadn’t anticipated, however, was the surge of black votes for Truman in the North that allowed the President to win a surprise victory over Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Humphrey was elected to the Senate.
The actions by President Truman, though important, were largely symbolic without congressional legislative action, and they failed to have an impact on the day-to-day lives of black Americans. The president failed to use the power given to him by the 14th and 15th amendments to execute laws strong enough to combat discrimination. Especially in the critical arena of voting rights, black Americans in the South continued to be denied. In Florida in 1948, a black voting rights activist’s home was bombed, crippling one of his children. D.V. Carter was severely beaten in Montgomery County, Georgia, after ignoring warnings from the KKK to cease voter registration efforts there. Army veteran Isaac Nixon, whom Carter had persuaded to vote, was murdered in 1948 for exercising his voter rights. Two whites were charged in the murder but where acquitted by an all-white jury. And justice continued to be denied African Americans when accused of other crimes against white society. In Albany Georgia, sharecropper Rosa Lee Ingram and her two sons were sentenced to death in the self-defense killing of an armed white farmer who had attacked Mrs. Ingram with a rifle butt while she and her sons were working in the field.
In May 8, 1951, Willie McGee was executed for raping a white housewife in Laurel, Mississippi; even though the evidence suggested that the charges were brought out of fear that their consensual affair was about to become public knowledge. Despite the attention his case received from such notable personalities as William Faulkner and Albert Einstein, President Truman resisted calls to pardon McGee, and he was executed by electric chair. That same year, the Florida home of Harry T. Moore, founder of that state’s Progressive Voters’ League, was bombed on Christmas night, killing Moore and his wife.
And these civil rights violations were not confined strictly to the south. In 1948, six African-American defendants were convicted by an all-white jury of the murder of an elderly white shopkeeper in Trenton, New Jersey. The victim, William Horner, had been hit over the head with a soda bottle in his second-hand furniture store. Mrs. Horner could not agree on how many men were actually involved, nor could she identify the “Trenton Six,” as they came to be known, as the men in her store. The men were all arrested without warrants, were held without being allowed access to legal representation, and were questioned for as long as four days before being brought before a judge. As a result, 5 of the 6 were coerced into signing confessions. No forensic evidence was introduced in court, all of them subsequently repudiated their false confessions, and all six were able to provide alibis. Nevertheless, all were convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, the Trenton Six received high profile legal counsel from the Communist Party USA (who championed civil rights causes for ideological reasons), and the NAACP, including Thurgood Marshall. Two of the six were ultimately declared guilty, while the remaining four were found not guilty.
In 1952, the country elected as its President, the former Supreme Allied Commander of WWII, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republican showed no real signs of interest in the race issue. But the forces of change had been set in motion. When real change came, it would arrive from both ends of the social strata. It would be championed from the churches and tenant farms of Georgia, and from the Supreme Court of the United States, where former California Governor Earl Warren would shock traditionalists and president Eisenhower, who had nominated him, by rallying the court for the most activist era of judicial decisions in that body’s history.
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