For Democracy, At Home and Abroad

On VE Day, we remember black Americans' Double V campaign: victory in Europe against fascism, victory at home against racism.

A group of Tuskegee Airmen, circa 1942–43. Wikimedia Commons

The American home front during World War II is often remembered as a place of national unity. It was, in public memory, the time when the Greatest Generation shook off the economic and emotional trauma of the Great Depression to defeat Nazism and fascism abroad, when people pulled together to buy war bonds and accepted rationing for the good of the cause.

But such a memory obscures how the home front was crippled by gender, class, and, especially, racial divisions. Because of the moral valence of the conflict, racism at home threatened to become a boon for Axis propaganda and damage the war effort. African Americans, in turn, recognized that the war was an opportunity to force the nation to finally, fitfully, live up to its creed as a nation of equality and justice for all.

The result was the Double V campaign: victory over fascism abroad, and victory over racism at home. The campaign emerged from the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s preeminent black publications. On January 31, 1942, the paper published a letter from reader James G. Thompson, in which he asked the question: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half-American?” Thompson, like many other African Americans, felt the war would be for naught if nothing changed domestically. He then urged black Americans to take up the fight for democracy at home and abroad:

The “V for Victory” sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny. If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict then let colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies within. For surely those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeing to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.

The Courier enthusiastically took up Thompson’s call. A few months after publishing Thompson’s missive, it reprinted the letter in full and attached an exhortation: “The editors of The Pittsburgh Courier suggest that everyone who reads this letter, clip it out and place it in a conspicuous place… where all may see AND read!”

African Americans asserted their political power and desire for freedom in a variety of ways. The Courier printed numerous letters from African Americans across the nation who favored an ideological war in the US coupled with a war against fascism overseas. Lester Rodney, sports editor for the left-wing Daily Worker, used the language of Double V to argue for an integrated Major Leagues; the campaign would play a role in pushing the MLB, after World War II, to sign a black player, Jackie Robinson. Smaller forms of resistance also flowed from the campaign. Robinson himself refused to sit on the back of a bus while serving in the Army. Many donned Double V buttons.

In 1944, the publication of What the Negro Wants stunned the editors at the University of North Carolina Press, as every author in the collection — from the radical W. E. B. Du Bois to conservative George Schuyler — argued for an end to Jim Crow segregation. That same year, activists from South Carolina mounted a challenge to the white supremacist ideology of the Southern Democratic Party by sending the Progressive Democratic Party, or PDP, to the Democratic National Convention. Made up entirely of African Americans, the PDP was the godfather of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which would challenge the Dixiecrats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

In another sign of the zeitgeist, organizations like the NAACP began thinking about the plight of people of color across the world. The Atlantic Charter, the August 1941 agreement between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, gave lip service to the ideals of self-determination. Anti-colonial groups, battling for independence within the Allied empires, and NAACP leaders, swept up in the winds of Double V, pushed to make those words real. In 1945, the NAACP sent representatives, including Du Bois, to the United Nations (UN) to argue for the self-determination and equality of African Americans — making clear that their subjugation was not merely an internal matter for the United States to rectify, but part of a worldwide struggle of nonwhite peoples for freedom. The move presaged Malcolm X’s attempt to bring the plight of African Americans to the UN’s attention in the 1960s — as well as the presentation, in 1951, of the document “We Charge Genocide” before the UN.

The Double V campaign also fueled street politics and made American politicians heed its demands. In 1941, faced with the threat of a massive march on Washington spearheaded by socialist labor leader A. Philip Randolph, President Roosevelt signed an executive order barring discrimination in the defense industry. While the federal body designed to enforce the policy was largely too weak to fulfill its objectives, its existence proved that the political muscle of African Americans was a force to be reckoned with. The demonstration also foreshadowed the 1963 March on Washington, which would propel the movement against Jim Crow closer to the finish line.

For the editors of the Courier and other relatively moderate African Americans, the Double V campaign allowed them to be patriotic, but on their own terms. Most proponents of the campaign took great pains to argue that they were not being anti-American but rather pushing a “We are Americans too” agenda. As the originator of the effort put it, “I love America and am willing to die for the America I know will someday become a reality.”

Yet the Double V campaign was also stitched into the fabric of a larger black freedom struggle, one that included more radical interpretations of what that freedom should look like. Black activism from the end of the Great War to the high tide of the Popular Front of the late 1930s — whether in the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey or the socialism of A. Philip Randolph, Hubert Harrison, and Claudia Jones — prepared black leaders for their multi-pronged assault against segregation during World War II. They’d protested Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, tying African-Americans’ civil rights to antifascist resistance. They’d criticized Hitler’s Germany even before the outbreak of the war, combining their outward-looking critique with a frontal attack on Jim Crow segregation in the South. Now they pointed out the cruel hypocrisy of fighting racial subjugation in Europe and supporting it in the US.

While African Americans pushed for democracy throughout the world, some white Southerners pursued a different Double V campaign — victory against fascism abroad, and victory against New Deal liberalism at home. For them, the pair were two sides of the same “big government” coin. Theirs was, in the words of one planter from Mississippi, a “conservative war” for “the white democracy of the South.” Many racist Southerners were well aware that the war and the Double V campaign could upend their world of segregation and white supremacy.

In fact, until the end of the war, it appeared to many African Americans that Southern segregationist politicians were a greater menace to black freedom than even the Nazis and European fascists. Numerous African-American soldiers saw the conflict as a “white man’s war,” as civil rights activist Grant Reynolds put it — a symptom of decades of white supremacy coming home to roost. For them, Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo and Georgia’s Eugene Talmadge appeared to be bigger threats than Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini.

But others saw the urgency of felling both foes. During World War I, Du Bois had urged African Americans to “close ranks” and “forget our special grievances.” Two decades later he would admit his mistake, the discrimination and lynchings of the post–World War I “Red Summer” still in his mind. Writing in a February 14, 1942 Amsterdam News editorial entitled “Closing Ranks Again,” Du Bois spoke the language of the Double V: “We close ranks again but only, now as then, to fight for democracy and democracy not only for white folk but for yellow, brown and black.”

A Broad Struggle

The onset of the Cold War helped stamp out the democratic vistas of the Double V campaign, constraining the political imagination of some activists and forcibly repressing others. The NAACP quietly dropped its radical stances in favor of a Cold War liberalism that was more palatable to the federal government. Prominent radicals like W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Claudia Jones either lost their passports (Robeson and Du Bois) or were deported (Jones). Meanwhile, racist violence after World War II — including numerous lynchings of African-American veterans still in uniform and the blinding of Isaac Woodard by police in South Carolina — threw into brutal relief the enduring incongruity between the stated aims of the war and the realities of American freedom.

Today, on the seventy-third anniversary of VE Day, the Double V campaign remains a testament to the perseverance of African Americans during a moment of worldwide turmoil. Ultimately, remembering the Double V campaign means remembering when African-American activists saw their struggle at home as part of a broader, internationalist struggle for self-determination among many different peoples of color.

That the Double V campaign took so many forms, and that African Americans were so adamant in their demand for freedom during the war, reminds us of the divisions that tore at the fabric of the “Greatest Generation.” The era was never as simple as a unified America struggling against the evils of fascism. It was, for many African Americans, a multi-front fight against white supremacy — whether it spoke in German, a Southern twang, or a Yankee accent.