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Matthew F. Delmont on history of Black Americans in World War II

Matthew F. Delmont joins Washington Post Live on Thursday, Nov. 3. (Video: The Washington Post)

More than 1 million Black Americans served in World War II. Even as they defended their nation abroad, they battled racism at home. Join Washington Post associate editor Jonathan Capehart for a conversation with historian Matthew F. Delmont about his new book, “Half American,” which looks at the war from the perspective of Black soldiers.

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“The entire military is segregated in World War II. At the start of the war, the Marine Corps doesn’t allow any Black men or women to serve at all… Within the Army, by and large, Black troops were not allowed to participate in combat… More than a million Black Americans that served in the military and the Army, they were in supply and logistical roles… A lot of the grueling, back-breaking labor that isn’t glamorous… The military did almost everything they could to try to denigrate Black patriotism and Black service. But despite all of that, Black Americans served their country proudly and played really important roles in helping America and its allies win the war."- Matthew Delmont (Video: Washington Post Live)
“Medgar Evers’ story really encapsulates the much broader African American experience during the war. He actually drops out of high school when he’s 17 and volunteers for the Army. He enlists in 1943 and by 1944 his unit deploys to Normandy… When he’s in France, it opens up his eyes to what’s possible. Encountering White people in France he says, was the first time he ever felt like he was treated fully as a human by a White person. And it was radically different than what he encountered when he was in Mississippi… When he comes back at the end of the war, he moves back to Mississippi and dedicates his life to fighting for civil rights because he sees that another world is possible… When we think of what it means to be an American, we should be thinking about people like Medgar Evers. Because he truly gave everything in his life to make America a better place."- Matthew Delmont (Video: Washington Post Live)
“This was a difficult book to write for that reason. To read these stories, to listen to the oral history interviews of Black veterans and the utter disrespect they encountered when they returned to the country… At least 12 Black World War II veterans were killed in the years immediately after the war, in part because they were starting to fight for civil rights. What’s inspiring about the stories of these Black veterans is that they didn’t give up. That they were truly fighting for America, not only in the military sense, but fighting for the country to be a better version of itself… We need to understand that America has been trying to reckon with this history of racism and racial discrimination for decades and decades. And we have to include World War II as part of that story."- Matthew Delmont (Video: Washington Post Live)
“It’s important for us today to understand that for Black Americans, the American flag has always been a very, very complicated symbol. World War II helps to give us a perspective on what it meant for these Black veterans to both fight for the flag, but also fight to make the flag worth something to fight for. Patriotism and dissent were always intertwined for these Black veterans … If we can't understand that history, if we can’t reckon honestly with that history of World War II, we really have no chance of understanding the kind of America we're living in today."- Matthew Delmont (Video: Washington Post Live)

Matthew F. Delmont

Author, “Half American”

Professor of History, Dartmouth College