Some historians believe the modern civil rights movement began during World War 2. But the increasing acceptance of African Americans in the 1940's happened not because white society suddenly realized the irony of fighting racism abroad while maintaining racism at home. It happened because, as soldiers and workers, African Americans were needed as never before.
For every Dorie Miller, a ship's cook who won the Navy Cross for his heroism at Pearl Harbor, thousands of black recruits spent the entire war doing drudgework in service and engineer units, sometimes with tragic consequences. An explosion in July of 1944 nearly destroyed California's Port Chicago Naval Base, killing 320 men, 202 of them African American munitions loaders. Black sailors who refused to continue working until safety conditions improved were charged with mutiny. Unlike their white counterparts, African American troops working on the Trans-Alaska Highway were forbidden to go into Canadian towns, because their white commanding officer claimed "…they will mate with the Indian population and form a mongrel race."
As the war continued, more African Americans were allowed to fight. Eventually 5% of all African American troops saw combat. General Patton specifically requested the ferocious 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion. The 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group, mostly graduates of the Tuskegee Institute training program, flew with distinction in North Africa and Europe. 2,500 African American volunteers fought beside whites for the first time in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge, although their involvement was suppressed to avoid jeopardizing Southern political support for a post-war draft.
At home, African Americans were getting the best-paying jobs of their lives. But discrimination in hiring still plagued American industry. The Pittsburgh Courier, the nation's largest black newspaper, initiated the "Double V" campaign: Victory against fascism abroad/Victory against racism at home. By threatening a march on Washington, African American labor leader A. Phillip Randolph forced President Roosevelt to pass Executive Order 8802, prohibiting employers from discrimination based on "race, creed, color or national origin."
African American suffering and hard work, in industry and in the military, had rewards. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services. On paper at least, the United States finally had an integrated military.
An integrated United States would take a lot longer.