As the government recruited Americans to enlist in the Armed Services during the second World War, thousands of African Americans joined and fought bravely against the Nazi threat.
At the same time, in a painful irony, back home they continued to face something that had nothing to do with freedom at all: segregation and Jim Crow laws that mandated a “separate but equal” treatment favoring blacks over whites. Even as African American soldiers were fighting to defend freedom overseas, their families back home were still confined by the evils of racial segregation laws.
As the historical exhibit “The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany” notes, for African American soldiers, the freedoms they were fighting to defend belonged to someone else, based on the color of their skin.
“Beginning with World War II, the systematic discrimination, violence and disenfranchisement of African Americans no longer remained a family affair that could be hidden from the world,” the exhibit’s liner notes point out. “When the U.S. decided to enter World War II to ‘make the world safe for Democracy,’ African American civil rights advocates like W.E.B. DuBois called on their fellow black Americans to ‘close ranks’ in the hope of advancing the cause of civil rights.”
But it did not quite work out that way. It would take another two decades – until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — to end racial segregation in this nation. In the 1940s, separation of the races was still socially accepted.
This exhibit, on loan from the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, is now being shown at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland. Starting with the role that African-American soldiers played in World War II, it advances to the 1960s and 1970s – covering both the push for civil rights at home, and the unique bond that many civil right advocates in this country formed with German protest movement students in the late 1960s.
As the exhibit notes, African-American GIs in World War II were challenging prejudice both within and outside the United States.
“The rise of Nazism in the early 1930s provided civil rights advocates with a whole new arsenal to take on Jim Crow laws and indiscriminate violence against African Americans,” the exhibit notes. It was a two-front battle, fighting the enemy overseas and racism and prejudice at home. Historian Stephen Ambrose noted, “Soldiers were fighting the world’s worst racist, Adolph Hitler, in the world’s most segregated army. The irony did not go unnoticed.”
The exhibit chronicles this period with photos taken in Europe of the African American GIs interacting with local people – such as the photo of Corporal James Doughty hanging out his laundry in the city square of Coburg, Germany, which had been captured by the 71st Infantry Division, third U.S. Army, in a photo taken on May 16, 1945 — and with cartoons printed at the time that aimed to raise awareness of this contradiction. A cartoon by Oliver Harrington called “Achtung!” showed a Bavarian pub with a sign out front that read “Attention! Off limits to black troops” — chronicling the prejudice directed at the very soldiers fighting to defend freedom.
Another cartoon published in June 1939 in The Philadelphia Tribune showed an illustration of Hitler with the title “Another Klansman.”
The exhibit also chronicles the popularity of Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspirational figure in Germany, one who had a significant impact on the West Germany student protest movement.
“For Germans of all ages, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became an icon of civil and human rights who exposed America’s failure to fulfill its democratic promise,” the exhibit notes. “When he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Germans across the country gathered in mourning. To them, King represented a voice for a better America that spoke to people’s aspirations worldwide.”
That sentiment lasted well beyond King’s death, the exhibit pointed out.
“When Barack Obama addressed more than 200,000 enthusiastic Berliners during his presidential campaign in 2008, the German press evoked not only the memory of John F. Kennedy’s visit to the city in 1963, but also that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the following year,” the liner notes point out.
The exhibit is a reminder of how far this nation has come since a world war that was supposed to have united Americans behind the concept of freedom for all.
“Intent to prove to the Germans ‘that the whole concept of superiority is evil’ and that America was the ‘living denial of Hitler’s absurd theories of a superior race,’ the U.S. nevertheless conducted its mission of democracy with a segregated and deeply racist military,” notes the exhibit, which will be shown at the Holocaust museum through Dec. 14.
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