The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans fighting for two victories in World War II only got one

The racial disparities in coronavirus outcomes remind us that we still haven’t vanquished the enemy at home

New Yorkers gather around a youth wearing a mask of Adolf Hitler to cheer the news of the surrender of Germany in New York's Times Square on May 7, 1945. (Harry Harris/AP)

Americans often think of the end of the Second World War as a moment of jubilant triumph — a time of ticker tape parades, large crowds gathering in New York City’s Times Square cheering the Allied victory and exultant strangers embracing. The war stands out as the United States’ defining and ascendant moment, one that represented the global vindication of democracy over fascism and the triumph of good over evil.

Yet the actual reality on the day the United States triumphed on the European front — Victory in Europe Day 75 years ago — complicates such recollection.

The brutal, often racialized war in the Pacific waged on unabated, and for many Americans, war on another front continued as well: the struggle against racism and discrimination at home. As news of V-E Day arrived, nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of them U.S. citizens, continued to sit in internment camps scattered across the American West. And for black Americans who had mobilized for double victory, victory against fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home, V-E Day was a humbling reminder that the promise of democracy and freedom still remained elusive.

Tragically, the second victory for which they fought has never truly been won. Even as we engage in another global fight, this time against a deadly virus, the realities of racism and inequality remain stark. On this anniversary of V-E Day, we need a double victory once again.

In the winter of 1942, as the United States entered the war, the Pittsburgh Courier published a letter from cafeteria worker James G. Thompson, who exhorted his fellow black Americans to adopt the “double VV for a double victory” against the “Axis forces” abroad and those who perpetrated “ugly prejudices here.”

Thompson knew far too well that the democratic values enshrined in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime rhetoric were a mirage for black Americans living under white supremacist terrorism and the second-class citizenship of Jim Crow America. For these Americans, the racial prejudice that permeated Nazi Germany was all too familiar. The Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws had actually drawn inspiration from America’s own racist eugenics and anti-miscegenation laws.

Despite this noticeable gap between the lofty rhetoric of America’s war aims and the compromised reality of American freedom at home, nearly one million black Americans joined the armed forces. In fighting, not only to advance the national cause, but also to secure their own basic rights, their enlistment paralleled that of prior generations — of Crispus Attucks fighting for freedom from tyranny during the Revolutionary War, of freemen and fugitive slaves joining the Union ranks to abolish slavery during the Civil War and of the Harlem Hellfighters endeavoring to make the world, and their own nation, safe for democracy in the First World War.

Upon enlisting, many discovered that the military was not immune from racial injustice. In the armed forces, black service members were often assigned to segregated units or given work to support operations behind the front lines, though many saw combat action as well. Their contributions inspired praise and challenged such limits. Dorie Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions at Pearl Harbor, while the Tuskegee Airmen flew thousands of missions over Europe and North Africa, receiving the congressional Gold Medal in 2007. 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson served in the 761st Tank Battalion — the Black Panthers — that helped liberate Germany.

On the home front, black labor activists, led by A. Philip Randolph, also mobilized. Petitioning against discrimination in federally funded defense factories, Randolph, along with T. Arnold Hill and Walter White, planned a massive march on Washington. Despite facing intense pressure not to protest during wartime, Randolph understood the opportunities that the war offered to the black freedom struggle and called for the “arsenal of democracy” to be truly democratic in the workplace. In the end, Roosevelt forestalled the march with Executive Order 8820 banning discrimination throughout the defense industry.

When V-E Day came, The Courier celebrated the noble service of all those who had helped “hasten” the “German surrender.” But they knew this was just one victory in a much longer struggle.

Courier columnist and leading black sociologist Horace R. Cayton Jr. wrote “the real fight for democracy has only begun.” Americans may have won the war against Hitler, Cayton recognized, but the progress against racism at home had been far more incremental. Black citizens in the southern states, he pointed out, lived under conditions all too close to “Nazi fascism.” We must destroy the “Hitler that lives in us,” Cayton asserted.

Some white Americans acknowledged this reality, too. “The Nazis aren’t licked yet,” Protestant divine G. Bromley Oxnam argued. The “seedlings” of Nazism — racial and religious prejudice — continued to grow even within American society. Upon returning from the front, black servicemen were frequently attacked, and even lynched, for wearing their uniforms. Black veterans, too, often found themselves left out of postwar federal programs like the GI Bill.

For these Americans, the war’s end was a summons to continued engagement against the prejudice that persisted. The Courier announced a new Single V campaign, demanding the pursuit of a more perfect union at home, and supporting decolonization movements abroad.

Many black veterans, notably Robinson, Medgar Evers and Hosea Williams, joined the NAACP and became increasingly outspoken about racial inequality in America. Their efforts produced important gains. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which abolished discrimination in the armed forces on “the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.” This action was cheered not only by activists but also by many white veterans, whose time in the war had shifted their perception of American race relations.

These veterans, joined by ministers and seamstresses, activists and workers, black and white Americans, continued to insist their nation make good on the promise of liberty and justice, to make true its founding ideals, over the coming decades.

But even then, while new laws, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, created legal defenses against the most overt forms of racism, its legacies persisted. Wars on crime and drugs targeted minority neighborhoods and created a mass incarceration state that became “the new Jim Crow.” White flight and resistance to “forced busing” kept America’s cities and schools segregated. Federal policies perpetuated a racial wealth gap, and urban neighborhoods continued to see the “residue of redlining” in uneven economic growth and limited access to jobs and health care. The victory remained incomplete.

And now the new global crisis, one that has drawn comparisons to past wars, has exposed anew these deeply rooted racial and class disparities. Black and brown Americans, including American Indians, seem to be suffering from covid-19 at higher rates, owing to preexisting health inequalities, a lack of access to hospitals and other medical services, dense, multigenerational housing and jobs that require exposure to co-workers and the public. Initial data also indicates that minority-owned businesses are at risk of being left out of federal aid programs, reminiscent of prior patterns of exclusion. Poorer Americans, of all races, are especially vulnerable to both the health and economic burdens of the virus.

Today, on the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, we should remember the Double V campaign and those Americans who believed a more democratic, just and equitable world had not yet fully been secured even as they fought for it. Their courage and devotion might inspire us to continue such work, which remains as urgent and necessary today as then.