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'Half American' explores how Black WWII servicemen were treated better abroad

Historian MATTHEW F. DELMONT is the author of the new book Half-American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad. It's about the African American experience in World War II, the discrimination Black Americans faced in the military and in civilian defense industries.

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Other segments from the episode on November 7, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 7, 2022: Interview with Matthew Delmont; Review of The Fablemans

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. When you see movies about World War II and photos of Allied campaigns against the Axis powers, the American military personnel depicted are almost entirely white. But more than a million Black men and women served in World War II, fighting at Normandy, Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Bulge, and serving in support roles that were critical to the Allies' success. Our guest, historian Matthew F. Delmont, has a new book about the African American experience in World War II. And it isn't limited to their contributions to the war effort. Delmont describes the discrimination Black Americans faced in the military and in civilian defense industries and the brutality many Black servicemen suffered when stationed near white communities that resented their presence.

Delmont writes that African Americans didn't receive many of the benefits Congress bestowed on service members in the GI Bill, but many were energized and enlightened by their experiences in the war and later became active in the civil rights movement. Matthew Delmont is the Sherman Fairchild distinguished professor of history at Dartmouth College. He's the author of four previous books and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic and other publications. His new book is "Half American: The Epic Story Of African-Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad."

Matthew Delmont, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MATTHEW DELMONT: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: So let's talk about the military in 1940 as the United States was about to embark on this war. You know, Black soldiers had served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War I. But you write about a report by the Army War College issued in 1925 called "The Use Of Negro Manpower In War," which drew on that experience, presumably. What did it say?

DELMONT: It said of a series of extraordinarily racist and scientifically wrong things. And so part of understanding this larger history is that Black Americans have served in the military in every conflict that the U.S. has ever been a part of - so going all the way back well before the Civil War. More than 300,000 served in World War I. But between World War I and World War II, the U.S. military does almost everything they can to push Black Americans out of the military. And part of it is that report you just mentioned, this Army War College report from 1925. It goes through and lists a series of claims about Black Americans in terms of their courage, bravery, intelligence or, in the military's case, their belief that Black Americans lack these attributes, that they lack what it takes to be soldiers and that they lack what it takes to be officers. They're drawing on racial pseudoscience of the time. So there's claims that Black Americans have a smaller cranial capacity, that they don't have the same intelligence to be able to serve in the military.

And then it makes claims about the poor performance of Black troops during World War I, that were not true, but once they got written down, these racist beliefs got passed from one generation of white officers to the next generation. And so what was so troubling about reading this report is that this was the official stance of the U.S. military on the worthiness of Black Americans to be able to serve in the military. It wasn't just a handful of isolated, racist individuals. This was the official opinion of the military leaders that was being taught at places like West Point. And so that really influenced the kind of opportunities and treatment that Black Americans had once they entered the military for World War II.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, we wouldn't expect, you know, material from 1925 to be particularly enlightened. But this is pretty wild stuff here. The report reads in part, the Negro is profoundly superstitious. He is, by nature, subservient and naturally believes himself inferior to the white. The Negro is unmoral. He simply does not see that certain things are wrong. Boy, that's pretty poisonous stuff to be spread throughout the command ranks, isn't it?

DELMONT: It was terrible. And it really influenced how the military thought about the capacities of everyday Black Americans once they volunteered or got drafted into service. Because when that report's written, it takes the racist assumptions of a generation of white officers from World War I and then passes it on to that next generation of white officers, almost all of whom serve in World War II. And so it had a really damning impact on Black Americans and their opportunities in the military.

DAVIES: So if we go to 1940, I mean, the United States is not in the war yet, but, you know, France, Germany are engaged in the conflict after the Germans invaded Poland. And Roosevelt really wants to get the United States to support the European Allies here. And the Congress organized the Selective Service System, a draft. And it's interesting that it included anti-discrimination provisions, but they didn't exactly work. I mean, what was the status of Black Americans who wanted to serve in the military in practice? How did it work out?

DELMONT: In practice, the Selective Service draft didn't work to the benefit of Black Americans because the military didn't have enough units in which to place Black draftees or Black volunteers. And so it was important to understand in the lead-up to the U.S. entry in World War II, Black newspaper editors, civil rights activists have to actively fight just to make sure Black Americans have a chance to serve their country. It seems almost crazy to imagine that as America is preparing to join the Allies in fighting this massive global war that Black Americans actually had to push their way into military service. The entire military is segregated at this point. At the start of the war, the Marine Corps doesn't allow any Black Americans to serve, and both the Army and Navy are segregated. And so the first battle that Black Americans have to fight is really just getting their foot in the door to even have a chance to take on meaningful roles in the military. And it's these quotas that the military has that keeps a lot of Black Americans out.

DAVIES: Right. And because draft boards were actually run by local officials, no matter what the national law passed by Congress said, they could make their own decisions about who got to serve and who didn't, right?

DELMONT: Exactly. And what that meant - when you turned things over to the local level, it meant you were relying on the local prejudices that existed in all parts of the country; so not only in the South but in different parts of the Northeast, Midwest and West. When Black volunteers or draftees went into these draft boards, they were often turned away and told that there was no place for them in the military. That was true of both before Pearl Harbor and, even more troublingly, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that there were dozens of stories of Black Americans going to their local recruiting branches and being turned away, that they got in line with hundreds of other Americans because they wanted to join the military to help defend the country now that the United States had officially entered the war. But these Black Americans were turned away because, at the time, the military didn't have enough units to accommodate them. And they were just left dumbstruck because they're asking what's wrong with our service? What's wrong with our our patriotism that we can't defend our country?

DAVIES: And they didn't have enough units to accommodate them because then you had to have an all-Black unit to bring them into because the military was segregated. Did it remain the policy throughout the war that, you know, there were white divisions and Black divisions?

DELMONT: It did. With very, very few exceptions, military segregation was maintained throughout the war. And it wasn't until 1948 when Truman signed an executive order that the military finally takes steps towards desegregation. And the thing that's kind of crazy-making (ph) as a historian to look back at this is that there was no good military reason to have racial segregation. In fact, it was the exact opposite, that it made a huge amount of logistical work for all branches of the military to have to do essentially everything in duplicate. They had to create separate units. They had to do separate barracks, separate eating facilities, separate recreation facilities. And then once they transported troops abroad, they had to make sure that that segregation was maintained. They even segregated blood from blood donors, even though there's no scientific basis to do that. And so the only reason the military maintained this racial segregation during the war was to appease white racial prejudice. There was no strategic or tactical reason to do it.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with historian Matthew Delmont. His new book is "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with historian Matthew Delmont. His new book is about the experience of Black Americans in World War II. It's called "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad."

Well, as more Black soldiers were inducted into the military as the United States got involved in the war and manpower needs were great, many of these African American soldiers were sent for training to camps in the South, where, you know, they might have hoped that showing their patriotism and wearing the uniform of the military would get them some respect or at least tolerance. Not always the case, was it?

DELMONT: No, it wasn't. And reading some of the accounts of these Black troops once they got sent to these Southern bases is harrowing, particularly for those who came from outside the South. So they would tell stories of boarding trains in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. And then, as soon as they got to the demarcation points in the South - Washington, D.C., or other cities - they were forced to move to the segregated train cars because they had to comply with Jim Crow policies. Once they pulled into these Southern towns, they described having to pull down the shades on the train cars so that white townspeople wouldn't throw rocks at the trains because they were so upset at the idea of Black servicemen coming into these communities.

Once they got to the bases, their experience was that they had extraordinary amounts of racism, both on the bases and in the communities that surrounded them. They described being called boy or by their first name by officers rather than by their rank or last name as would be the normal military custom. Racial epithets were part of everyday life. And then, violence and threats of violence was part of their daily life on these bases. When they had a chance to leave the bases and go into the small surrounding towns for recreation, they were cordoned off into one- or two-block areas in the Black sections of town. If they stepped even a foot outside of that, they were threatened or attacked by white police or sheriffs.

Things got so bad that these troops were writing letters to the NAACP and to the Black press, saying, we've got to get out of here. They said that a war is being fought at home before they even have a chance to go abroad. They said that they would be safer, and they looked forward to being deployed to the European theater or the Pacific theater 'cause they thought they'd actually be safer there in war zones than they were in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. And so it's an aspect of the history of World War II that we don't typically talk about. But it was the introduction for hundreds of thousands of Black Americans to what it meant to be in the service of their country.

DAVIES: Yeah, you know, it wasn't one or two places. I mean, this happened in dozens upon dozens and scores of places where Black units were placed in communities that did not welcome them. It might be worth you telling us a little bit about one of these in detail. You write about the 94th Engineer Battalion that was near Gurdon, Ark. Do I have the place right?

DELMONT: That's right, yeah.

DAVIES: Tell us about what they experienced.

DELMONT: Yeah. So in the summer of 1941, this group, the 94th Engineer Battalion, goes from Fort Custer, Mich., where they're based, down to Gurdon, Ark. And it's one of these small Southern towns that becomes a boomtown as the military starts to develop. So it goes from a population of just a couple thousand to having more than 20,000 different military units there. What the engineer battalion is doing is they're part of war games training. So summer of 1941, the U.S. military hasn't officially entered the war yet, but it's clear that the U.S. is going to become part of the war effort. And so these engineers are training - building bridges and roads, doing the kind of work that they would be doing once they deploy for combat.

Their experience, though, in Gurdon was horrific. They set up camp. And as soon as they go into town, this small town of Gurdon, they're harassed by local white townspeople. They're nearly run off the road by drivers in town. And then, they're forced to march back to their base encamped in the woods. That night, after having been pushed out of town, they're worried for their lives because they know that the townspeople are forming up posses to come harass them and try to drive them even further out of Gurdon, push them further into the woods in Arkansas.

They start talking about what they should do. Some of the troops describe previous race riots that had happened in the military and say that they should try to fight back. But they don't even have ammunition, so they couldn't even do that if they wanted to. Other troops describe some of the lynchings that have already occurred of military - Black military men on other army bases. And they're worried that they're going to be attacked while they're in the woods in Arkansas.

So eventually, the majority of this battalion decides that they're going to flee from Arkansas. And so they scatter in a half-dozen different directions. They hop freight trains and just start walking away from Arkansas, trying to get back to Fort Custer, Mich. It takes them nearly two weeks to get back there. And once they get back, they're - then have to face charges of desertion. And so they have to go through a legal proceeding to describe what they experienced in Arkansas and why they were so scared for their lives and what led them to go back to Michigan.

DAVIES: You know, these incidents were really unknown to white Americans, but they were reported widely in Black publications, particularly weekly publications, which were in major cities. And you describe a letter that a man named James Thompson - he was not a military - he wasn't in the military at the time, I think. But he wrote a letter to the Courier, which was a weekly in Pittsburgh, an African American paper. This is what you drew the title of the book from, right? Just tell us a little about what he wrote and how the message resonated.

DELMONT: James Thompson was a 26-year-old from Wichita, Kan., and he writes this letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, which is, at the time, the largest and most influential Black newspaper in the country. He's writing in late December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when he knows that he and other Black Americans are about to be drafted into the military. And Thompson writes, should I sacrifice my life to live half-American? Is the America I know worth defending?

And that phrase, should I sacrifice my life to live half-American, it just really stuck with me. And it's why I chose "Half American" for the title of the book because he was asking a really profound question about what it meant for Black Americans to serve a country that didn't treat them as equal citizens. It's something that not only he, but all Black Americans who were about to be drafted and were drafted were asking themselves. The Pittsburgh Courier uses Thompson's letter to launch the Double Victory campaign, which becomes the rallying cry for Black Americans during the war because they were fighting for both victory over fascism abroad, but also a victory over racism at home.

And so Thompson's letter offers a really important snapshot or point of view that spoke to the larger sort of fact of life for Black Americans during World War II, that they absolutely wanted to secure military victory against Japan and against Germany and the Axis powers, but they also recognized that it didn't do any good to secure military victory if they couldn't come home and actually have freedom and democracy at home as well. And so they were fighting to not be half-American, to not be second-class citizens.

DAVIES: You know, you write that in the Navy, a lot of the Black men who were serving served as messmen - that is to say, they worked in the galley preparing food and serving stuff. They were subservient roles, really. What did you learn about how they were treated?

DELMONT: So among all the branches, the treatment of Black men in the Navy was among the worst, it was described by Black troops and by Black veterans, in large part because that was the role they were assigned to. They were assigned to these roles as mess attendants, where they essentially waited on and served white officers. Within the culture of the Navy, these were seen as extraordinarily subservient roles. And that's how the mess attendants were typically treated aboard ships. But what was interesting to me once I got into the research was that part of the rationale that the Navy had for assigning Black troops these roles was that they thought this was the only way to make sure that the ship's racial politics did not become upset, and that they didn't think these Black men had what it took to be in combat roles on these Navy ships.

But of course, when you're on a ship or a submarine and you're at war, and Japanese or German submarines start firing torpedoes at your ship, you're in combat even if you're a mess attendant. And some of the most inspiring stories that come out of this are that Black men, who were in these mass attendant roles, actually take on really important roles in combat. During the Battle of Pearl Harbor, for example, there's the famous messman, Dorie Miller, Doris Miller, who, even though he has no training on the ship's weapons, goes above board once the attack starts, grabs one of the anti-aircraft guns on his ship, the West Virginia, and starts firing back against these Japanese bombers.

There's similar stories. Another man named Julius Ellsberry, who was the first person from Birmingham, Ala., to get killed in the war, he was at Pearl Harbor. Later in the war, there were other mess attendants who performed bravely in combat situations. And so it's a strange paradox within the Navy, that the Navy insists that Black men don't have the ability to perform in combat. Yet, consistently, there are evidence and records in Black newspapers and elsewhere that describe Black messmen doing exactly that, performing heroically when given the opportunity.

DAVIES: Right. Now, Dorie Miller was ultimately commended for his role there in Pearl Harbor, for picking up that 50-caliber and firing it. And then he got on another ship and didn't make it through the war.

DELMONT: That's right. That's right. Doris Miller becomes an iconic figure for Black Americans, in part because his service and his performance at Pearl Harbor makes it so clear that the military's policy of segregation is wrongheaded - that if Doris Miller can do this as a mess attendant without any real training, if he's willing to risk his life and willing to help save his white shipmates, it just shows that the kind of policies that the Navy has in place, the limited roles they've assigned to Black Americans, are not beneficial. And they're not taking full advantage of the manpower that Black citizens have to offer.

DAVIES: Right. The NAACP and others argued that African Americans were ready for combat roles. What was the response of the military?

DELMONT: The military refuses to put Black Americans in combat roles until very late in the war. So at the start of the war, the Marine Corps doesn't allow any Black Americans to serve at all. It's not until the late 1942, after extensive protest, that they finally establish a training camp at Montford Point in North Carolina for the first cohort of Black Marines to serve. Those Black Marines eventually go on to serve in the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima in 1944. Within the Army, they don't have any Black infantry troops until 1943, 1944. And then, eventually, once they have a need for more infantry troops late in the war, in early 1945, they make a call for volunteers. That's the first time you see larger numbers of Black troops in combat. Part of that is that they consistently don't believe that Black men have the courage or skills to be in combat roles. And so they put the vast majority of the more than 1 million Black Americans to serve in the war in these logistical and supply roles.

DAVIES: At one point, one of the commanders said, look; we're - you know, the system of race relations is pretty fixed. And we are not a sociological laboratory. African Americans kind of thought they were in a laboratory of a different sort, didn't they?

DELMONT: Yeah. That's one of the most frustrating quotes for Black Americans at the time because the Army, the military, it was a sociological laboratory because they were drawing up millions and millions of volunteers and draftees from all across the country and sending them to these training bases to become soldiers. That - if that wasn't a new kind of experiment in what it took to create a massive civilian army, there was no other word for it other than being a laboratory. You're putting people together in close proximity who had never been trained to do this kind of work, who'd never been put together, people from different regions. The one thing they're not willing to do, though, is have racial integration be part of that sociological laboratory. And so it's an aspect of resistance from military leaders that Black activism, Black newspapermen called out at the time.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with historian Matthew Delmont. His new book is "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN'S "AC-DC CURRENT")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with historian Matthew Delmont whose new book is about the experience of African Americans during the Second World War - the more than one million who served in the military, others who worked in the civilian defense industry, and those in the NAACP and other organizations who sought equal treatment for Black Americans. Delmont's book is "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad."

You know, this might be a point to talk about the connection between the sociological changes that came with the war and building up the war effort and the civil rights movement that would come in the years after the war. This experience had an impact, didn't it?

DELMONT: Absolutely. The civil rights movement - the groundwork for it had been laid in the decades before World War II. But World War II was really an accelerant. It forced Black Americans to recognize that the kind of discrimination they encountered was something that they could and should organize to fight against. The infrastructure for that fight was really laid during the war. So the NAACP at the start of the war is a relatively small organization. But by the end of World War II, it has more than 450,000 members and a thousand branches all over the country.

Much of that work is credited to Ella Baker, who's a pioneering grassroots activist. Her methods of organizing later get picked up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, in the 1960s and then even later by Black Lives Matter activists in the past years. But what she does - she tours all across the country talking to local Black communities, talking to everyday people, about the importance of working together and organizing to fight for the issues that matter to them and their communities. And so that's where you see some of the most important initial steps to fight for voting rights and the fight against school segregation, fight against job discrimination.

Speaking even more largely, the kind of things that the war is about - freedom and democracy - helped to fuel demands of Black veterans and citizens after the war. And so that whole generation of Black veterans who fought in the war, they come back and start fighting for civil rights. As one veteran put it, they went from fighting in the European theater of operations to fighting in the Southern theater of operations.

DAVIES: Yeah, and I'm sure they'd had experiences where, you know, if they might have grown up in a rural area of the South where whites were all of one mindset about race relations, they'd had broader experiences that made them realize it doesn't have to be this way.

DELMONT: Exactly. So one of the consistent stories that Black troops describe is when they went to Europe, their treatment and experience talking to white people in Great Britain and France was entirely different than their experience with white Americans in places like Mississippi and Alabama. They felt like they were treated as equals for the first time. So Medgar Evers, the famous civil rights activist, he's only 19 when he ends up in Normandy just days after the D-Day invasion. As his unit is pushing through France, he has a chance to spend some time with a French family. And he says it's the first time he's ever been treated as a full human being by a white person. And it opens his eyes to what's possible. And so when he goes back to Mississippi, he believes that a different kind of world is possible, a different way of interacting across racial lines is possible. And that was true for thousands of Black troops who served in the European theater.

DAVIES: You know, African Americans wanted to get into combat roles much sooner than they were able to. There was tremendous resistance in the military. But hundreds of thousands served in support roles, in engineering units and in support and logistical units. You make the point that this was really critical stuff. Tell us about that.

DELMONT: So I think often when we think about World War II, we think only about the front-line fighting troops. But in reality, that was only about 10% of the entire military. Particularly for Black Americans, the lion's share of their service was in supply and logistical roles. And it actually turns out that's really important to trying to fight and win a global war. And so one of the arguments I tried to make in the book was that World War II wasn't just a battle of strategy and will; it was a battle of supply. And I think the best way to understand that is thinking about something like D-Day. D-Day just stood for day of the invasion. There was D-Day plus one, D-Day plus two. And in the weeks and months after, the Allies had to transport huge numbers of men and huge amounts of material across the channel and then through France to keep up with the armies as they were pushing into Germany.

By and large, it was Black troops that did that work to move those supplies. There were Black port troops across the channel who loaded the ships that moved the goods across the channel and into Normandy and other ports in France. And then, it was Black units, like the one Medgar Evers was in, that unloaded those ships and then loaded them onto trucks. The truck drivers who moved those goods were part of a truck convoy called the Red Ball Express, 75% of whom were Black truck drivers. These truck drivers were absolutely crucial to the war effort because they moved 400,000 tons of ammunition, food and other supplies all across France and the European theater. Without that effort, it would have been impossible for Allied troops to move, shoot or eat.

DAVIES: Let's talk about African American combat units. I mean, probably the most famous is the Tuskegee Airmen. These were people who were trained military pilots. They overcame a lot to get access to the training. And eventually, the 99th Fighter Squadron was trained and ready in 1942, but it took a while for them to get missions. Why?

DELMONT: The Tuskegee Airmen - the experiment of training Black pilots at Tuskegee starts in 1941. The first cohort arrives there, but they have to train for nearly two years before they have a chance to deploy to the Mediterranean in the spring of 1943. So whereas white units, white pilots, are training for six weeks, eight weeks before they deploy, it's nearly two years of consistent training in Alabama before the Tuskegee pilots have the same opportunity.

Part of what takes them so long is, first, they need to build up enough numbers to have a full fighter squadron. But then, they still face resistance from white commanders within the Army Air Corps who are not convinced that Black pilots can do the job. And so they're reluctant to actually deploy this Black unit even though they've been trained and they've had, at that time, more training than most white pilots have. And so the - when you follow the story of the Tuskegee Airmen on a month-by-month basis, it's amazing what they had to overcome just to get the opportunity to serve in combat.

DAVIES: And when they got in the air, how did they do?

DELMONT: They did extremely well. They first had a chance to fight in the Mediterranean in 1943. And even though they perform well, they're initially tasked with accompanying bombers on runs to hit key access targets in the Mediterranean. Even though they perform well on those missions, then they have to deal with their primary white commander, who tries to undercut them in his after-action report. So in his report, he says that they weren't aggressive in combat, that they didn't have what it takes to be fighter pilots. And he tries to get them assigned to shore patrol rather than to combat.

This ends up exploding in the media. Time and Newsweek pick up the story and really reprint the claims of the white commander. And then, the Black press, they come to the defense of the Tuskegee Airmen and say that these pilots have trained, and they need to have an opportunity to continue to prove themselves. There's a series of back-and-forth over the summer of '43. And then, eventually, the Tuskegee Airmen have another opportunity to be in combat later that summer. And they're - after finally having a chance to shoot down Nazi planes, it becomes clear to all members of the Air Corps that the Tuskegee Airmen do have what it takes. And they are able to push open that door to Black service in the Air Corps.

DAVIES: So the claims that they were not up to the task were eventually refuted with experience. Was the impression corrected in media coverage or not?

DELMONT: Eventually, it was. But it took time. And I think one of the most surprising things to look back at this history is how often white media undercut Black troops, particularly these Black units that were in combat - that during the war, you would hardly ever see any newspaper magazine call into question the service or the performance of a white unit.

Even when white units got thrashed in combat, as units sometimes would, they would either write it up to inexperience or praise the pluck and fighting spirit of these white units, even if they weren't successful in combat. When the Tuskegee Airmen or the 92nd Infantry, for example, encountered any setbacks, the media, the white media, was all too ready to criticize them in print in ways that you just didn't see for white servicemen. But eventually, by proving it in performance, Tuskegee Airmen are finally able to swing both the military and the media to their side.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Matthew Delmont. He's a historian. And his new book is "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad." We'll be back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with historian Matthew Delmont. His new book describes the experience of Black Americans in World War II. It's titled "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad."

Well, when the war was over, how were returning Black veterans treated when they came home?

DELMONT: One of the hardest parts about writing this book was reading these accounts of Black veterans and the kind of disrespect they were shown when they returned to the country. They frequently describe getting off ships and being directed - being immediately segregated as soon as they left the ship, that white troops were appointed one way and Negro troops were pointed the other way. And often, they would use racial epithets to point Black troops in that direction. They described having no parades to greet them when they got back and being routed through only the Black section of town, and being almost treated as though they were convicts when they returned to the country.

And then there were numerous examples of violence against Black veterans, that at least a dozen Black veterans were killed or attacked, some while still wearing their military uniforms, in part because the white communities they often returned to were threatened by Black veterans and their service. They recognized that these veterans were going to come back and be leaders in the civil rights movement. In that context, the military uniform and the service of Black veterans was viewed as extremely dangerous. And it led to extremely hostile treatment for a lot of veterans when they returned home.

DAVIES: Yeah. There's one point where you list by name 15 separate cases of Black veterans who were murdered by white men, in many cases police officers. And there were some cases where, I think you said, relatives advised returning Black servicemen, don't wear your uniform. Put on some overalls, right?

DELMONT: The treatment was terrible. And trying to recount those stories is - it's harrowing even today to think about, that these men had fought for their country. They were wearing the uniform of their country. They came home. And in this - what you described, they had to change out of that uniform into work clothes, into overalls, so that white townspeople wouldn't attack them while they're wearing their uniform. It's almost mind-boggling to think about. But that's the threat that a lot of white Americans saw when they looked at a Black veteran in uniform. They saw this as something that was almost like a red flag waved in front of a bull, that was going to engender such feelings of animosity and anger that I think it reveals how deeply divided America was at the end of the war.

DAVIES: Yeah. At one particularly galling moment, you describe this, where they were on a base where German prisoners of war got to eat in the whites-only mess hall with the officers from the white military officers, but the Black soldiers were kept out.

DELMONT: It's one of the most common stories that Black veterans would tell. And it happened at bases all across the country where Nazi POWs were placed is that Black veterans saw their white countrymen treating these Nazi soldiers, who just months earlier had been trying to kill Americans - these white Americans were treating the Germans infinitely better than they ever treated their fellow Black troops.

They were allowing them to eat in the same dining facilities, go to the same movie theaters, sit in the same parts of the train cars. And for Black Americans, it reveals that, in many ways, Nazi racial policies and American racial policies were just two sides of the same coin. And that really leads them to question the sincerity of what their fellow white soldiers had been fighting for - that if they were going to be this chummy and this friendly with actual Nazis, who had been at war with them just months earlier, it really led them to question real commitments to freedom and democracy at home.

DAVIES: Most people can't name many pieces of congressional legislation. But the GI Bill that was enacted by Congress after World War II is widely remembered as an enormously influential act that helped build America's middle class by providing funding for college and vocational training and low-interest home mortgages. The bill prohibited outright discrimination, right? But Black veterans ended up being treated differently.

DELMONT: They did. And if you were to look at the language of the GI Bill, it never explicitly says Black veterans are going to be discriminated against. But everyone at the time understands that when this legislation is crafted, Southern segregationist Democrats have a really key role in determining how it's going to be deployed. And so they make sure that states are control - that states control how these GI Bill benefits are going to be distributed. And it's clear to everyone that that means that discrimination is going to be baked into the GI Bill. And that's what happens in practice. So whereas white veterans are able to use this access to home loans, business loans and college tuition benefits to become part of the middle class and be able to pass on those benefits to their family. By and large, Black veterans are excluded from that.

To cite just a couple of examples from that, in Mississippi, only two of more than 3,200 VA guaranteed home loans issued in 1947 went to Black borrowers. And things weren't much better up north. Of 67,000 mortgages that were insured by the VA in New York and northern New Jersey suburbs in 1947, fewer than 100 went to Black people. Nationally, by 1950, veterans had received nearly 98% of these VA guaranteed loans. And so it had this extraordinarily detrimental impact on the ability of Black veterans to move into the middle class and to accumulate wealth.

DAVIES: You write that civil rights leaders in the NAACP and elsewhere were appalled by this, the inequity of all this, and actually sought to get investigations and recognition by the United Nations. What became of that?

DELMONT: One of the interesting things that happens after the war is that America partners with the other allies to essentially reshape the modern world. They create the United Nations, and they draft documents that really outline who has political power in the years after the war. For Black Americans, Black leaders like W.E.B. Dubois and others, they're extremely worried that Black Americans are left out of those considerations and that other people of color in other countries are left out of the considerations as well.

More broadly, they want to be able to bring the kind of treatment that Black Americans are receiving to this world forum. They want the United Nations to be able to investigate these human rights abuses, the lynchings of Black Americans, in the same way that they would investigate human rights abuses that happened in other countries. Under DuBois' leadership, the NAACP publishes a pamphlet called "An Appeal To The World" that's a 150-page treatise on human rights and describes a number of the abuses that Black Americans, including Black veterans, experienced during the war. It causes a huge controversy, ends up leading to a fracture within the NAACP where DuBois is pushed out and Walter White takes leadership of the organization and leads it in a much more moderate, less radical direction.

DAVIES: You know, you write that the story that you tell in this book matters not just because it's important to set the record straight but because it will help us to understand and navigate the present and future. Explain what you mean.

DELMONT: The thing I tell my students all the time is that the stories we tell about the past matter. And I think if we only tell very simplistic stories about World War II, if we only talk about it as a good war and only talk about this idea that America was unified in some way, that doesn't do justice to the reality of what the country was actually like at the time period. If we can reckon honestly with this history of World War II - the fact that the military was segregated, the fact that Black Americans experienced intense racism both in the military and at home across the country and that they organized the fight for civil rights - I think we have a better position to understand why we're still fighting some of these battles today. Some of these issues regarding voting rights and regarding police brutality - these are things that were front-page issues in the 1940s during the war. And we have to remember that as part of the issue of World War II.

And the other piece that's important is that the experience of Black veterans is - makes clear that patriotism and dissent have always been intertwined. And I think sometimes it's easy today to think about those as being entirely separate beliefs, that either one is patriotic or they're dissenting. That's never been true for a lot of Black Americans, and it certainly wasn't true for Black veterans. Black veterans fought for the country, and many of them identified as being deeply, deeply patriotic. But for them, that meant that you also had to demand that America be a country worth fighting and dying for. And so the sense that patriotism and dissent need to be seen together is a really important one that I don't think comes across clearly enough in our contemporary political discourse.

DAVIES: Well, Matthew Delmont, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DELMONT: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: Historian Matthew Delmont's new book is "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad." Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "The Fabelmans," the new semi-autobiographical film from Steven Spielberg. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON QUARTET'S "KING OF THE ROAD")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In his new family drama "The Fabelmans," Steven Spielberg tells a semi-autobiographical story about how he fell in love with movies when he was young. The film was co-written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner and features Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as characters based on Spielberg's parents. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review of "The Fabelmans," which begins its theatrical run on Friday.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Steven Spielberg has never been shy about weaving elements of his family history into his movies. He's spoken in interviews about how his dad's World War II stories shaped "1941" and "Saving Private Ryan" and how "E.T." and "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" grew out of the pain of his parents' divorce. Now at 75, Spielberg places that divorce front and center in "The Fabelmans" along with many other details from his childhood and teenage years. It's his fourth collaboration with the playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner. And for the first time, the two share a writing credit. The movie is funny, melancholy and altogether marvelous. And if its portrait of a young filmmaking prodigy verges on self-congratulatory, that's easily forgiven considering who that prodigy grew up to be.

In the movie, his name is Sammy Fabelman, and we first meet him as a young kid in 1950s New Jersey. From the moment his parents take him to see Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show On Earth," he's hooked. And he knows he's found his life's calling. Shooting in gorgeously immersive long takes with his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg lovingly recreates his early moviemaking memories. We see Sammy shooting monster movies with his younger sisters, using ketchup as fake blood. Later, as a teenager in the early '60s, Sammy, played by the appealing Gabriel LaBelle, will direct a few terrific short films, including a Western and a war picture.

Moviemaking provides him with some stability amid the upheaval of his family life. His kindhearted father, Burt, played with aching restraint by Paul Dano, is an electrical engineer whose work in the burgeoning computer industry keeps him and the family on the move, relocating over the years from New Jersey to Phoenix, Ariz., to Northern California. All this change takes a heavy toll on Sammy's free-spirited mother, Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams in an emotionally vibrant and ultimately devastating performance. Williams shows us Mitzi's radiance and her restlessness and also her deep regret at having sacrificed a career as a concert pianist in order to raise her family.

Mitzi urges Sammy to follow his filmmaking dreams. A close family friend, Bennie, played by Seth Rogan, proves just as encouraging. But Sammy's father wishes he would do something more practical, like computing or engineering. This tension is brilliantly articulated by Sammy's great-uncle, Boris, who drops by one day for an unexpected visit. Played by a wonderful Judd Hirsch, Boris, a former circus performer and silent film actor, tells Sammy about the cost of pursuing a life in the arts.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

JUDD HIRSCH: (As Uncle Boris) You'll make movies. You'll do your art. But you'll remember how it hurt. Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth. But - but also it will tear your heart out.

CHANG: Sammy loves making movies, in part because it grants him the illusion of control. As he shoots with an eight millimeter camera and cuts scenes together by hand, he discovers that he can bend reality to his will and even work through his fears and insecurities. That feels like a remarkably honest confession coming from Spielberg, who's often been taken to task by critics for being overly manipulative, for indulging in easy sentimentality and avoiding tougher questions.

But what makes "The Fablemans" so affecting is that it knows there's more to movies than make believe. In time, Sammy learns that a camera can see things that the human eye misses, that it can expose painful secrets. One summer, he films a family camping trip, and what happens next has serious repercussions for his parents and siblings. Spielberg unpacks these revelations in a nearly wordless sequence that ranks among the most lyrical filmmaking of his career. It's wrenching to see his young alter ego reckon with the truth of who his parents are, learn to forgive them and embrace the good that they've both instilled in him.

As sad as its portrait of family can be, "The Fablemans" is also Spielberg's funniest movie in some time. It has a winningly rambunctious spirit. Sure, there are some overly broad comic moments at Sammy's high school, where he experiences first love and butts heads with antisemitic jocks. But even these scenes prove irresistible. It's just as satisfying here as it is in other Spielberg movies, like "Duel" and "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," to see bullies get their comeuppance. It's also satisfying to see young Sammy come face to face with one of his personal cinematic heroes in a moment that's simply too good to spoil.

Did it all really happen this way? It's doubtful. Like all great storytellers, Spielberg knows the value of artifice and embellishment. But again and again in "The Fablemans," he uses his dazzling command of the medium to arrive at startling new depths of emotional truth.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed Steven Spielberg's new film, "The Fablemans." On tomorrow's show, we remember Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock 'n' roll great who died last week in Memphis. We'll hear our interviews with his sister, pianist and singer Linda Gail Lewis, and with Myra Lewis Williams, who married Jerry Lee when she was just 13. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY ARMS")

JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) Now, blue ain't the word for the way that I feel, that old storm brewing in this heart of mine. Someday your crazy arms will hold somebody new. But now I'm gettin' lonely all the time. Crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new while my yearnin' heart keeps sayin' you're not mine, not mine, not mine, not mine. My troubled mind knows soon to another you'll be wed. But now I'm gettin' lonely all the time.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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