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The ‘Illusion’ of Equality for Black Veterans Returning from WWII

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By James Thompson
VP, Content. Contributor, In Military.

After The Greatest Generation’s veterans returned victoriously from World War II, the United States greeted them with open arms, ticker-tape parades, a rejuvenated economy, the newly passed G.I. Bill, and the promise of a bright, post-war future.

For most service members this future played out on beat. Opportunity begat social mobility. Veterans were able to buy houses in the suburbs, go to colleges, and build generational wealth for their families—well-deserved for the sacrifices made. The G.I. Bill was the catalyst.

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That was the promise, but African American veterans experienced a far different reality, especially those returning to the Southern States.

The hard truth is many Black service members—well over 1.2 million enlisted—had to fight for their right to serve in World War II, and for those who survived and returned, many were disenfranchised from their newly established veterans benefits.

With the signing of this bill, a well-rounded program of special veterans’ benefits is nearly completed. It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.

—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Proclamation upon Signing the G.I. Bill (June 22, 1944)

Yet, in reality, veterans were let down. What happened along the way that closed doors for Black veterans while doors opened wide for other veterans?

While the war had raged across the globe—in the Southern United States—resentment toward Black populations still simmered long after the Civil War and Reconstruction, but in the form of Jim Crow laws, segregation and perpetuating racism on many levels.

According to History author Erin Blackmore, fear of Black advancement permeated public sentiment in the South so much that during the drafting of the G.I. Bill, “some Southern democrats feared that returning Black veterans would use public sympathy for veterans to advocate against Jim Crow laws… the G.I. Bill turned out to be an illusion.”

Black veterans had difficulty accessing benefits or were unable to tap into them for college or vocational training because they were often refused access to institutions, which in many cases were segregated. Other tactics like bank red-lining or outright intimidation and violence were experienced by many Black veterans—further separating them from benefits which included low-cost, guaranteed home loans, unemployment insurance, and tuition. Unfortunately, this wasn’t limited to the South.

While the G.I. Bill was ahead of its time, which on paper offered so much promise, much like the preceding New Deal, the policies, politics and sentiments of a pre-Civil Rights America conflated to create barriers that kept many Black veterans from equally utilizing benefits they so richly deserved.

African American veterans experienced a far different reality, especially those returning to the Southern States.

Sadly, many brave veterans were confronted with a new threat at home. In addition to being Black, being a veteran too meant many were being targeted for extreme violence, including murder. One such tragedy unfolded when veteran Isaac Woodard made his way home to his wife after his honorable discharge from the Army. The 26-year-old was heading to Winnsboro, S.C. when after a disagreement with the bus driver, he was ordered off the bus in Batesburg, beaten, jailed, and then beaten more severely to the point of suffering permanent blindness at the hands of local law enforcement. His story drew light to a lesser-known and painful chapter in the history of the mistreatment of veterans.

Fortunately, veterans have been at the forefront of righting the wrongs. Many Black veterans who served in WWII and the Korean War, learned valuable communication and organizational skills during wartime—in addition to creating lifelong bonds with fellow veterans from across the nation. For those who were able to complete their college education using the G.I. Bill—many used their knowledge and skills to create real and sustainable social change for generations to come.

The indomitable spirit of Black veterans served as a powerful voice through leaders like Medgar Evers, Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy and Harry Belafonte, which was essential to ushering in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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