Fighting for Democracy: Black Veterans and the Struggle Against White Supremacy in the Postwar South

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Fighting for Democracy shows how the experiences of African American soldiers during World War II and the Korean War influenced many of them to challenge white supremacy in the South when they returned home. Focusing on the motivations of individual black veterans, this groundbreaking book explores the relationship between military service and political activism. Christopher Parker draws on unique sources of evidence, including interviews and survey data, to illustrate how and why black servicemen who fought for their country in wartime returned to America prepared to fight for their own equality.

Parker discusses the history of African American military service and how the wartime experiences of black veterans inspired them to contest Jim Crow. Black veterans gained courage and confidence by fighting their nation's enemies on the battlefield and racism in the ranks. Viewing their military service as patriotic sacrifice in the defense of democracy, these veterans returned home with the determination and commitment to pursue equality and social reform in the South. Just as they had risked their lives to protect democratic rights while abroad, they risked their lives to demand those same rights on the domestic front.

Providing a sophisticated understanding of how war abroad impacts efforts for social change at home, Fighting for Democracy recovers a vital story about black veterans and demonstrates their distinct contributions to the American political landscape.

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Editorial Reviews

Perspectives on Politics
[T]his is a beautifully crafted piece of scholarship. . . . The analysis is lucid, speaks to multiple theoretical domains, and smartly combines textured qualitative research with rigorous quantitative data. . . . [T]he principal findings of the research are well substantiated and provocative. Fighting for Democracy deserves to be avidly read by all those interested in the nexus of military socialization, political participation, and the struggle for racial equality.
— Joseph E. Luders
Journal of American History
Parker convincingly demonstrates that veterans played an essential role in the civil rights movement, challenging a narrative that has focused primarily on the agency of the black church, university students, and traditional civil rights organizations. . . . [H]is conclusions offer powerful insights that historians of the civil rights movement need seriously to consider.
— Jennifer D. Keene
Perspectives on Politics - Joseph E. Luders
[T]his is a beautifully crafted piece of scholarship. . . . The analysis is lucid, speaks to multiple theoretical domains, and smartly combines textured qualitative research with rigorous quantitative data. . . . [T]he principal findings of the research are well substantiated and provocative. Fighting for Democracy deserves to be avidly read by all those interested in the nexus of military socialization, political participation, and the struggle for racial equality.
Journal of American History - Jennifer D. Keene
Parker convincingly demonstrates that veterans played an essential role in the civil rights movement, challenging a narrative that has focused primarily on the agency of the black church, university students, and traditional civil rights organizations. . . . [H]is conclusions offer powerful insights that historians of the civil rights movement need seriously to consider.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2010 Ralph J. Bunche Award, American Political Science Association

"[T]his is a beautifully crafted piece of scholarship. . . . The analysis is lucid, speaks to multiple theoretical domains, and smartly combines textured qualitative research with rigorous quantitative data. . . . [T]he principal findings of the research are well substantiated and provocative. Fighting for Democracy deserves to be avidly read by all those interested in the nexus of military socialization, political participation, and the struggle for racial equality."—Joseph E. Luders, Perspectives on Politics

"Parker convincingly demonstrates that veterans played an essential role in the civil rights movement, challenging a narrative that has focused primarily on the agency of the black church, university students, and traditional civil rights organizations. . . . [H]is conclusions offer powerful insights that historians of the civil rights movement need seriously to consider."—Jennifer D. Keene, Journal of American History

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Christopher S. Parker is assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, Seattle. He served in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve for ten years.

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Read an Excerpt

Fighting for Democracy

By Christopher S. Parker


Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14004-9

Chapter One

War, Military Service, and the Prospect for Change

A Glance at History

The Crisis says, first your country, then your rights! ... Certain honest thinkers among us hesitate at that last sentence. They say it is all well to be idealistic, but is it not true that while we have fought our country's battles for one hundred fifty years, we have not gained our rights? No, we have gained them rapidly and effectively by our loyalty in time of trial. -W.E.B. DuBois, "The Reward"

Shall we be citizens in war, and aliens in peace? Would that be just? -Frederick Douglass, "What the Black Man Wants"

From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell, African Americans have always answered the call to the colors and have fashioned a long, exceptional history of military service. Examples of African American wartime heroes are legion and include the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment during the Civil War; the Buffalo Soldiers during the Spanish-American War, who saved the hides of Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders; the Tuskegee Airmen, who never lost a bomber over Italy during the Second World War; and the 761st Tank Battalion under General George Patton. Given the historic oppression of African Americans, why have they always answered the call?

One standard explanation for why citizens serve in the military rests upon the rights-obligations trade-off that is part of the American conception of citizenship (Janowitz 1980; Kerber 1997). According to this model, citizens who enjoy the benefits of democracy during peacetime are obligated to defend it during times of national crisis. Another explanation, offered by Margaret Levi (1997), suggests that if the state has demonstrated that citizens' contribution will not be wasted and if current policy and its implementation are deemed fair, individual citizens will be likely to answer the call as long as other citizens are doing so. Both theories are helpful in understanding why white males serve. For blacks, however, we need an alternative explanation.

We cannot explain black Americans' willingness to serve in terms of their desire to fulfill an obligation of citizenship for periods in which black Americans did not have the rights of citizens. In the absence of equal citizenship-first at the federal level, and more recently at the state level-black Southerners remained excluded from the highest rank of membership in the political community (Karst 1989; Shklar 1991; Smith 1997). With this in mind, until relatively recently, blacks had no real moral obligation to serve in the military. Political alienation is sufficient reason to relieve individuals of the obligation of military service to a nation in which they are not part of the decision to make war (Walzer 1970, chap. 3). In Levi's view, compliance with conscription is based at least in part upon the perceived fairness of the government, including its past practices. History, however, taught African Americans to trust the federal government only as a last resort, and thus they had little reason to serve on the basis of trust.

Why, then, did blacks desire to fight for a country in which they remained second-class citizens? The principal explanation lies in the perceived benefits of military service, many of which lay squarely within the republican tradition. As this chapter's epigraphs suggest, black leaders from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois were aware of the relationship between citizenship and military service. They subscribed to the belief that blacks' willingness to share the burdens of war would be rewarded in postwar America. In some cases, as DuBois indicates, the strategy worked. As we shall see, changes in the legal status of blacks following the War of Independence and the Civil War were tied directly to African American participation in these conflicts. By this, I mean that social change was guided by the federal government (Marwick 1974), which rewarded African Americans for their service. In other cases, however, the strategy failed. After the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, the social position of blacks deteriorated (Klinkner and Smith 1999, chap. 1).

In this chapter I will trace the relationships among race, military service, and citizenship. My purpose is not so much to lay out a theory of these relationships; there is sufficient scholarship that does this well (Klinkner and Smith 1999; Nalty 1986; Wynn 1993). More to the point, existing work establishes a pattern by which military service, among other factors, often contributes to racial progress (Klinkner and Smith 1999). Rather, my purpose here is to examine whether or not the observed resistance of black veterans in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s was particular to their service during the Second World War and the Korean War. After all, the Second World War is often cited as the point at which the freedom struggle took a militant turn (Dalfiume 1969; Klinkner and Smith 1999; Sitkoff 1971a; Wynn 1993). Moreover, it remains possible that black servicemen's willingness to challenge Jim Crow treatment during the Second World War was driven by the general mood of the black public (Thomas 1993). An alternative explanation holds that resistance on the part of black servicemen and veterans was part of a more general pattern, one that predated the Second World War and the rise of black militancy. In short, black veterans' militancy had less to do with when they served and more to do with the fact that they had served at all. As it turns out, black servicemen and veterans began to resist white supremacy long before the mid-twentieth century and the rise of mass African American militancy.

The Promise of Military Service in the Early American Republic

From 1619 through 1789, the political and legal status of African Americans remained fluid. Even prior to the institutionalization of slavery beginning around 1705 with Virginia's slave codes, Virginia law recognized differences between whites and Africans, with tangible consequences. A 1669 statute, for instance, allowed slave masters to kill unrepentant slaves because the latter were considered the property of the former (Higginbotham 1996). Since slaves were considered property, "common sense," according to Virginia code, suggested that one would not purposely destroy part of one's estate. Therefore, the death of a slave was treated as an accident with no legal consequences. Despite this bleak official picture, however, scores of African Americans managed to transform their legal status prior to the Revolutionary War by winning manumission through service in colonial militias, aiding whites in their frequent skirmishes with Native Americans. Slaves were first called for service in the militia of South Carolina, for example, in 1703. By 1715, they were awarded with freedom upon presenting proof of having killed Native Americans. Slaves continued to serve in the South Carolina militia until 1750, when concerns about arming enslaved blacks began to outweigh fear of Native Americans (Berry 1977, chap. 2).

A few decades later, the Revolutionary War presented an opportunity for the advancement of African American interests. Beyond the limited number of African Americans who were already serving in 1776 as members of militias, however, their efforts to enlist were not welcomed. American "patriots," it seems, did not wish to fight alongside "undesirables"-African Americans among them-whom they believed did not have a stake in the outcome of the war (Berry 1977, chap. 2). Out of fear and a perception of superiority, whites refused to even consider the prospect of arming slaves (Quarles 1961). Following the Lexington and Concord campaigns of 1775, during which they performed well, blacks were excluded from serving in the Continental Army.

The British decided to tap into this pool of manpower that the Continental Army seemed intent on wasting. In response to Lord Dunmore's promise to free any slaves willing to fight on the Crown's behalf, approximately 100,000 blacks aligned themselves with the loyalist cause. The soldiers of the Ethiopian Regiment, as they had come to be known, wore a sash on their British uniforms on which "Liberty for Slaves" was written. In response to the pressure Dunmore's offer created, General George Washington eased restrictions on African American enlistments in 1775, and by 1777 blacks-both slaves and freedmen-were permitted to serve on the side of the colonies without restriction, and often without the impediment of segregation (Berry 1977; Quarles 1961).

In what would become a pattern, the wartime service of these African Americans resulted in postwar progress. By the end of the war, over five thousand African Americans had served in the Continental Army and Navy, earning their freedom in the process. In some quarters, slave masters attempted to return these veterans to servitude. In the eyes of many white elites, however-including the governor of Virginia-the military service and sacrifice of the men in question overrode the self-interest of white Southerners, revealing that republicanism transcended a form of government. Republicanism also represented a suite of values, Sara Purcell (2002) argues, on which American national identity would come to rest: self-sacrifice, military heroism, love of liberty, and benevolence. Perhaps this is what drove Virginia's chief executive to honor the service of Virginia's slaves. Governor Benjamin Harrison promised to "'[l]ay the matter before the [state] assembly, not doubting that they [would] pass an act giving to those unhappy creatures that liberty which they [had] been in some measure instrumental in securing to us'" (quoted in Quarles 1961, 183). The Virginia state legislature promptly passed a measure emancipating all slaves who had served.

Aided at least in part by the performance of blacks in the Continental Army and Navy, the spirit of the Revolution (liberty for all) caused many-though certainly not all-whites to interrogate the institution of slavery in the North (Quarles 1961, 183-200), stimulating the emergence of several abolitionist societies. By 1804, every state north of the Potomac River had abolished slavery. Between 1776 and 1790, moreover, several Northern states also changed their laws to allow free blacks to vote. Revolutionary ideology failed to penetrate south of the Mason-Dixon Line, however, where the North had to capitulate to Southern demands and allow slavery to remain intact if the new law of the land was to take root. In this regard, progress wasn't universal; it was limited in the main to blacks residing outside of the South, a minority of the black population in America.

War and the Declining Status of African Americans in the Antebellum Period

Between 1790 and 1860, the limited gains achieved by African Americans in the aftermath of the American Revolution started to erode, and the civic and legal status of blacks began a steady regression to the status of nonpersonhood. The process began with the ratification of the Militia Act in 1792. It called for the participation of all white males of ages eighteen to forty-five in the state militias. Blacks were excluded from service in the state militias by this act, for at least three reasons. First, the militia served as the first line of defense for the nation, and blacks were deemed unfit to serve in this capacity. Second, state militias were to be employed as the principal safeguard against slave insurrection. Indeed, with the Haitian Revolution underway, it's quite possible that arming slaves was something planters wished to avoid (Foner 1974, chap. 2). Finally, according to the republican ideology under which the new nation operated (Bailyn 1967; Wood 1969), service in the state militia was reserved for those who were part of the political community, a status not enjoyed by the vast majority of blacks.

If there was any doubt at this point about whether blacks were to be understood as members of this community, it was removed the following year. The legal sanction of slavery embedded in the Fugitive Slave Act (1793), which bolstered the three-fifths clause already written into the nation's Constitution, indicated that blacks were not to be considered part of the political community. To be sure, African Americans were allowed to serve in the ranks of the regular armed forces; but such service earned little respect, as the regular army was perceived to be a place for undesirables (Berry 1977, chap. 3). Free blacks, many of whom had been freed during the Revolution, suffered additional setbacks in the years that followed the war. Beginning in 1802, for instance, the state legislatures of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio rescinded African Americans' voting rights.

The War of 1812 initially promised to at least forestall the racial retrenchment taking place in postrevolutionary America. By serving in the military, blacks hoped to regain the ground they had recently lost. But the government insisted upon enforcing the Militia Act, barring blacks from participating as part of the first line of defense. Only Louisiana was exempt from complying with this legislation: the Treaty of Purchase for the Louisiana Territory (1803) allowed Louisiana to continue its tradition of arming small numbers of free blacks. Thus, in 1814, when General Andrew Jackson, commander of the U.S. Forces for the Gulf Coast region, faced a shortage of manpower, he enlisted the assistance of 350 free black men in the Battle of New Orleans. After the battle, the future president praised the service of these men: "'The two corps of colored volunteers,'" he said, "'have not disappointed the hopes that were formed of the courage and perseverance of their duty'" (quoted in Nalty 1986, 25). Ultimately, however, the black soldiers failed to receive the federal pensions and land that white veterans of the war received. They were also barred from marching in parades commemorating the Battle of New Orleans after they refused to perform what they perceived a demeaning chore: building levees, not a month after helping Jackson to secure victory.

Shortly after the war ended, African Americans suffered two further setbacks from which they would not recover until the Civil War. First, a War Department memorandum declared blacks unfit to serve with the "American soldier," officially segregating the U.S. military. And in 1820, secretary of war and white supremacist John Calhoun of South Carolina excluded African Americans from the regular army. African Americans were now barred from military service altogether: they were not allowed to serve in the militia, the U.S. Volunteers, or the regular army. Subsequently, they lost the right to vote in five additional states between 1821 and 1838. And as the middle of the nineteenth century approached, black Americans were branded persona non grata in the Midwest. In Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas, fully 80 percent of white residents voted for laws excluding blacks from entering their states (Klinkner and Smith 1999, chap. 1).

The political tensions of the 1850s produced a rash of additional restrictions on African American citizenship that it would take a civil war to remove. First, Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 that allowed slaveowners to enlist the services of the U.S. Marshals in pursuing runaways-free of charge. The act also removed the statute of limitations on the pursuit of runaway slaves: as long as slavery received legal sanction, runaways could lose their liberty even decades after they had escaped the South.

But it was the Dred Scott v. Sandford case that dealt the most serious blow to African American citizenship. The Dred Scott decision (1857) institutionalized the exclusion of African Americans-both freedmen and slaves-from the national community. In stinging prose, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney argued in the Supreme Court's majority opinion that blacks, free or otherwise, could never be citizens because they were "[an] inferior and subordinate class of beings" with "no rights that whites are bound to respect" (Scott v. Sandford, 407). This claim was partially tied to military service: Scott's petition for citizenship was denied in part because he had never performed even a day of military service. Speaking for the Court, Taney referred to the Naturalization Act (1790) and the Militia Act (1792) as proof of black Americans' lack of fitness for citizenship. Worth quoting at length is his interpretation of the Militia Act, which reads, "The language of this [law] is ... plain and significant.... It directs that every 'free able-bodied white male citizen' shall be enrolled in the militia. The word 'white' is evidently used to exclude the African race, and the word 'citizen' to exclude unnaturalized foreigners; the latter forming no part of the sovereignty, owing it no allegiance, and therefore no obligation to defend it. The African race, however, born in the country, did owe allegiance to the Government, whether they were slave or free; but it [the African race] is repudiated, and rejected from the duties and obligations of citizenship in marked language." (Scott v. Sandford, 421) The Militia Act was indicative of the United States' move to a more bounded citizenry as the republic entered the nineteenth century. As part of a broader pattern, blacks were excluded from participation in one of the foundational obligations of American citizenship-service in the militia. And since blacks were excluded from the state militias, they were also fair game to be excluded from the wider political community.


Excerpted from Fighting for Democracy by Christopher S. Parker Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Preface and Ac knowledgments xi

Military Ser vice and Insurgency 5
Recasting Military Service and Resistance 9
Theory and Method 12
Broader Contributions 13
Plan of the Book 15

CHAPTER 1. War, Military Ser vice, and the Prospect for Change: A Glance at History 18
The Promise of Military Service in the Early American Republic 20
Diminishing Returns and Increasing Militancy, 1876- 1918 29
Fighting on Two Fronts Twice: World War II and the Korean War 40

CHAPTER 2: Military Service and Resistance: Toward a Theory of Black Republicanism 60
The Citizen- Soldier Ideal 62
The Symbolism of Military Ser vice 67
Military Ser vice as a Symbolic Experience 69
Sketching a Belief System for Black Veterans 73
Black Republicanism Defined 79

CHAPTER 3: Taking the Crooked with the Straight: The Pros and Cons of African American Military Experience during the 1940s and'50s 88
A Description of the Data 90
The Crooked: Negative Aspects of Black Veterans’ Military Experiences 92
The Straight: Positive Aspects of Black Veterans’ Military Experiences 99
Donning the Uniform 107

CHAPTER 4: When Jim Crow Meets Uncle Sam: The Veteran Returns to Dixie 112
White Domination in the 1950s 114
Framing the Meaning of Military Ser vice and Black Republicanism 116
Black Republicanism and National Identification 118
Black Republicanism and Citizenship 122
Expectations of Racial Progress: Service and Sacrifice 127
A Source of Republican Criticism: Military Ser vice and Entitlement 132
From Criticism to Activism 137

CHAPTER 5: Exploring the Attitudinal Consequences of African American Military Experience 145
Black Veterans’ Attitudes toward Southern Traditionalism: Resisting the Status Quo 148
Black Veterans and the Role of the State 157
A Hard Case: Black Veterans’ Attitudes toward Segregation 162

CHAPTER 6: Dying to Participate: Political Participation as a Form of Protest 174
Impediments to Black Political Participation in the South 177
Explaining Black Political Participation in the South 179
Political Participation and Risk: Voting versus
Political Activism 181
Modeling Voting and Nonvoting Activism 187
Conclusion: Taps for Jim Crow in the Postwar South 196
Principal Findings 198
The Implications of Fighting for Democracy 203
Future Directions 209

APPENDIX A: Study Description, Coding, Question Wording, and Other Estimates from Chapters 5 and 6 210
Appendix B: Content Analysis of the Chicago Defender 217
Appendix C: Interview Methodology and Material 226
Appendix D: Profi les of Selected Black Veteran Activists 231
References 235
Index 255

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