TREASON?

"We were at war, and in war you don't have friendly relationships, you're out to kill each other. That's how it was at the Courier. We were trying to kill Jim Crow, and racism . They didn't seem to understand that we had every right to fight for full citizenship at home if we were expected to give our lives overseas."

Edna Chappell McKenzie, journalist/historian

During World War II, African Americans faced a new dilemma. Thousands of black soldiers served willingly in the armed forces. At the same time, many African Americans wondered how they could support the war effort and even give their lives if called upon to fight, while Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation remained in place. Some black newspapers reflected these concerns, and openly criticized the segregation of the military and other policies. As a result, the black press faced harassment by government agencies. Still, its readership continued to soar, and as the war ended, black troops returned, more dedicated than ever to fighting injustice at home.

In 1941, the United States entered World War II. Most mainstream papers lauded the war effort. Patriotism among black publishers and journalists, however, was tempered by the pressing reality of segregation. While thousands of African Americans served willingly in the armed forces, many others felt that they could not support the war wholeheartedly.

Among the latter was a cafeteria worker named James Thompson. This young man wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, troubled by the fact that he might be called upon to defend a nation in which he was treated like a second-class citizen. He suggested that African Americans espouse a 'double V' campaign. The symbol stood for victory at war over enemies 'from without,' and victory at home against the enemy of prejudice 'from within.' When other readers wrote to congratulate Thompson on his idea, the Courier launched a huge publicity campaign, complete with lapel pins and stickers, 'double V' hair styles and songs.

The campaign kept awareness of the injustices of segregation alive during the war. It also brought attention to Jim Crow-style segregation in the armed forces. The troops themselves were segregated, but black outfits were assigned white commanding officers. Even the military's blood supply for the wounded was segregated by race. White soldiers brutalized black soldiers, and race riots took place in camps where troops of both races resided. The military tried to suppress word of these events, with partial success; only the black press reported discrimination and discord within the troops.

Such controversial reporting, coupled with the double V campaign and the new international mobility and visibility of the few black war correspondents, made those in various branches of the government nervous. The power of the black press to influence public opinion and excite its readers never seemed more threatening. Concerned that the black press would actually discourage its readers from supporting the war (it didn't), the military banned black newspapers from its libraries. It confiscated black papers from newsboys, and burned the papers to keep them out of the hands of black soldiers.

J. Edgar Hoover saw the double V campaign as an act of sedition. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt's approval, he sought to indict black publishers for treason. Hearing of Hoover's intentions, John Sengstacke, who had replaced Robert S. Abbott as publisher of the Chicago Defender, insisted on meeting with Attorney General Francis Biddle. Sengstacke convinced Biddle that it was the black press's duty to print the truth, and that African Americans only sought their due rights and privileges as citizens. Biddle agreed to block the indictments so long as the black press did not escalate its criticism of the war. Without the cooperation of the Attorney General's office, Hoover's plan was foiled.

Attempts, such as Hoover's, to destroy the black press failed. In fact, the papers' combined circulation reached a record high of two million readers each week by the end of the war in 1945. For soldiers stationed overseas, the Allied victory, and news from home instilling hope for the future, bolstered their spirits. African American soldiers returned from the war with redoubled commitment to fight for equality and dignity on American soil.

Witnesses

George Barbour, journalist

Timuel Black, historian

Frank Bolden, journalist

Vernon Jarrett, journalist

Robert R. Lavelle, Pittsburgh Courier staff

Edna Chappell McKenzie, journalist/historian

Christopher Reed, historian

John Sengstacke, publisher

Patrick Washington, historian

Discussion Questions

What was the role of the black press in influencing black public opinion about foreign policy?

Why were some black newspapers seen as a threat to the war effort?

How did the war contribute to the increasing visibility of the black press?