For this museum I will be analyzing African American accomplishments and different types of activism from the Reconstruction Era all the way through the first African American woman campaigning for the White House. Through this time period, a number of different African Americans paved the way for the greater good of the race. Despite the intended progress of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th-15th amendments, oppressive systems powered by racist whites continued to suppress black voices and instill ideologies of hatred and exclusion. The idea of a radicalized white nationalism was what they claimed to defend, however such ideologies became further complicated when leagues of African American soldiers proved to be among the most valiant during the Civil War. However, the critical disparity between World War I and World War II was sheer numbers. While records show that approximately only 25,000 African Americans fought in World War 1, World War II records reveal that over 1 Million African Americans served, ranging from menial roles to crucial roles on the front lines of the liberation forces.
With this contextual perspective in mind, I aim to argue that post World War II dialogue served as the stimulus for increased African American activism. Now the question becomes, what is activism? During my digital museum, activism means active change that results in the greater good in a political or social setting. From the late 1800’s through the Harlem Renaissance, African American leader practice activism by creating, educating, entertaining, and leading movements. The dialogue and narrative following World War II could not efface the role that African Americans had played in the efforts no matter what biases someone possessed. The time frame for this particular project is directly correlated with an undeniable movement that spawned from World War II and gained momentum leading into the Vietnam War. Furthermore, there are certainly more materials on this kind of protest activism during the Vietnam War period, mostly in part because this was a more overt form of protest and the recordings of these discussions were far more scrutinized. Another aspect of protest activism, was that these were very much national conversations that stemmed from these few individuals. Therefore, the claims I will make over the course of this project are not founded on some kind of speculative pretense. I don’t intend to imply some kind of linear trajectory of African American activism over the course of a century. The undertaking of the project also comes with a personal cognizance that I cannot realistically cover the entire scope of such contributions. Therefore; more than anything I am using the era as a framework and these three men as a lens or microcosm for what I hope to achieve in my argument.
During World War II, African American men played a major role in taking down the Axis powers and toppling a regime which was founded on racism, persecution and ostracization. However, despite the role that African Americans played, their military companies were still segregated from the white units, and there were still different standards for soldiers depending on race. Upon returning to the United States many of these African American veterans felt compelled to instill change in a country where despite their heroic efforts, they were still bothered. In his book, Long Journey Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, author Michael Gambone describes the active rise of activism amongst soldiers upon returning home from World War II.
“How far did veterans’ activism extend? Was it narrowly defined within the confines of deliberate self-interest? Or, as Whitney M. Young offered, was military service a transformational event that left veterans individually or collectively prepared to challenge the social status quo after returning to civilian life?”. (1)
Here Gambone, explains how Military veterans returned from World War II and immediately made strides as leaders in society as well. The collective momentum brought by their return to the United States spurred a lot of change, which correlated with a general rise in volunteer activism. In Annette McDermott’s article, “Did World War II Launch the Civil Rights Movement?” she quotes renowned history scholar John C. McManus on the circumstances African American men encountered after serving their country dutifully. McManus explains,
“Blacks returned home from the war to a life of bigotry and injustice. Blacks had just helped destroy some of the most homicidal, racist regimes in human history and yet they had served in an armed force that was segregated on the basis of race…They were victimized by the same sort of racist views that had animated America’s enemies. This made zero sense and created a powerful moral imperative for domestic change.” (2)
In this McManus quote he highlights the “moral imperative” and the idea that after fighting to liberate people from a horrifyingly “racist regime” they felt inclined to liberate themselves as well. The Reconstruction era had ushered in a lot of false hope for African Americans that resulted in a static period in which written declarations served as metaphorical means of progress, yet the actions required in order to actually spark revolutionary changes for people of color had yet to be seen. Returning African American soldiers had the backbone and the merit to challenge institutions and hierarchies which had never been challenged in these ways. The transformative actions of black empowerment to a point where individuals such as Ali, King and Thurgood Marshall would one day have the platform to push the ambits even further.
Muhammad Ali, MLK and Marshall all draw relevance in modern discussions for their roles in countering racism and vocally denouncing the oppression of both people of color domestically as well as vulnerable groups across the globe. However, while many of their contributions are often filtered down to their impact on the American Civil Rights Movement and are focused on their domestic achievements, the reality was that they each possessed global perspectives which they would employ to then make claims about the United States. The scale was not binary though; an activist didn’t necessarily have to be a domestic or global activist, as proven by these three. The Vietnam War, drew controversy from many angles, and this trio of activists in particular combatted the inexplicable violence of the War by using the atrocities there and paralleling them with the disproportions and injustices within the United States. With over 500,000 U.S. soldiers in the Asian Pacific and the US dropping more explosives in Vietnam than it had in the course of the entire World War II, there was no denying the United States’ investment in challenging communist doctrine at all costs (3). Many of King’s correspondents prodded him to dodge Vietnam dialogue in order to focus more internally on structural racism within the United States. However, King instead used the war as a pivot to urge discussions of domestic frameworks, with him using Vietnam to illuminate domestic deficiencies within the United States. In Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen’s article in TIME Magazine, he remarks on the ways in which King intertwined elements of foreign and military policy with domestic policy. Nguyen summarizes King’s persistent alignment of Vietnam activity and race rhetoric when he claims,
“But for King, standing against racial and economic inequality also demanded a recognition that those problems were inseparable from the military-industrial complex and capitalism itself. King saw “the war as an enemy of the poor,” as young black men were sent to, “guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia, which they had not found in the southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” (4)
This quote describes the ways in which King was able to manipulate rhetoric from Vietnam and apply it towards discussing racial turmoil within America. The Vietnam War saw African American men fighting for freedoms of strangers while their own had yet to be established in the United States. This example of King leveraging Vietnam to coordinate discourse on race is one of many I will use for my project. Ali and Malcolm X have different approaches and unique platforms, yet all of them along with other examples saw Vietnam, not as an isolated war in the distant Orient, but rather as an appalling reflection of America’s own problems. I am confident that I can argue this, based on the abundant research that has been done on the subject as well as my own passion and background knowledge with some of these themes already. I look forward to compounding some of these ideas as I move forward with the museum.
The quality of life for African Americans have changed drastically from the Reconstruction Era through the Vietnam War. The changes did not happen by mistake, it took great courage and many sacrifices. The law of the land is what Americans must abide by on a daily basis. In order for the laws to be on an equal playing field, African Americans need representation in the federal government. The digital museum will conclude by examining how Shirley Chisholm’s efforts had a lasting impact on the political atmosphere.
(1)Gambone, Michael D. Long Journeys Home : American Veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Williams-Ford Texas A & M University Military History Series. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2017
(2)Mcdermott, Annette. “Did World War II Launch the Civil Rights Movement?” History Channel.
(3)Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “King’s Other Legacy.” TIME Magazine 193, no. 3 (January 28, 2019): 19–21.
(4)Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “King’s Other Legacy.” TIME Magazine 193, no. 3 (January 28, 2019): 19–21.
Whitaker, Matthew C. Peace Be Still. : Modern Black America from World War II to Barack Obama. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2013
Fox, Matthew. “A Turbulent Priest for Peace, Nature and Our Time.” Resurgence & Ecologist, no. 298 (September 2016): 44–45.