In 1941, the overwhelming majority of the nation's African American population--10 of 13 million--still lived in the South, primarily in rural areas.
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During the war, more than one million blacks migrated to the North--twice the number during World War I--and more than two million found work in defense industries.
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Black leaders fought discrimination vigorously. In the spring of 1941 (months before America entered the war), the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, with strong backing from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), called for 150,000 blacks to march on Washington to protest discrimination in defense industries. Embarrassed and concerned, Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination in defense industries and creating the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).
During the war, the Marines excluded blacks, the Navy used them as servants, and the Army created separate black regiments commanded mostly by white officers. The Red Cross even segregated blood plasma.
As urban areas swelled with defense workers, housing and transportation shortages exacerbated racial tensions. In 1943, a riot broke out in Detroit in a federally-sponsored housing project when whites wanted blacks barred from the new apartments named, ironically, in honor of Sojourner Truth. White soldiers from a nearby base joined the fighting, and other federal troops had to be brought in to disperse the mobs. The violence left 35 blacks and 9 whites dead.
Similar conflicts erupted across the nation exposing, in each instance, the same jarring contradiction: White Americans espoused equality abroad but practiced discrimination at home. One black soldier told Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal, "Just carve on my tombstone, here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of a white man." A 1942 survey showed that many black Americans sympathized with the Japanese struggle to expel white colonialists from the Far East. Significantly, the same survey revealed a majority of white industrialists in the South preferred a German victory to racial equality for blacks.
During World War II, the NAACP intensified its legal campaign against discrimination, and its membership grew from 50,000 to 500,000. Some African Americans, however, considered the NAACP too slow and too conciliatory. Rejecting legal action, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, organized a series of "sit-ins." Civil disobedience produced a few victories in the North, but the South's response was brutal. In Tennessee, for example, angry whites savagely beat the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin for refusing to move to the back of the bus.