Despite a desire to serve their country in any capacity they could, at the start of the Second World War the military was reluctant to allow blacks to enlist. If they did enlist local draft boards often passed blacks over in favor of white recruits, resulting in fewer than 4,000 black troops and a mere dozen black officers in the ranks in late 1941. Eventually, under pressure from both whites and blacks, the Roosevelt administration and the military set a goal of parity with the numbers of blacks in the general population. By the war’s end 1.2 million black men and women served in uniform, whether stateside or abroad.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only twelve when the United States entered the Second World War, but as the National Museum of World War II notes, he “became an integral part of the post-war African-American struggle for equality” and served as a bridge between opposing camps. Often, he would look to WWII veterans to support his cause with many veterans serving as “a force for peace and security at Civil Rights rallies, aiming to prevent violence.”
Two of the veterans profiled in The Other Veterans of World War II talk of the obstacles they faced after returning from the War and their connections with Dr. King: Howard O. King, a messman in the US Navy, and William A. Scott III, a reconnaissance sergeant and photographer for the US Army.
Howard who hurried home just in time to welcome his first child into the world would soon discover the limited opportunities open to him. Despite the odds, he persevered. Howard went to college and eventually helped other disadvantaged individuals through his career, including a period as the deputy director of the Department of Transportation for the FAA’s Office of Civil Rights. He also served in a leadership position at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Fittingly, In Spite of the Odds is the title of his memoir.
William (“Bill”) was asked as he sailed home from Europe what rights he might have when he reached home. Bill’s WWII experience as a photographer sent to assist with the liberation of Buchenwald and to document what he saw—the inhumanity between men and cultures—was fresh on his mind. He hadn’t thought or expected the discrimination he faced at home, and vowed to be a force for good and join the fight for civil rights. His efforts were recognized later in life, serving on the boards and commissions for numerous civil rights organizations including the NAACP and on the Committee to Celebrate the First Official National Holiday Commemorating the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Read more about Howard O. King and William A. Scott III in The Other Veterans of World War II. (Kent State University Press, 2020). Available through ronasimmons.com, kentstateuniversitypress.com or wherever books are sold.
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Quotations by the National Museum of World War II: http://www.nww2m.com/2012/01/dr-kings-dedication-to-black-wwii-veterans/
Research sources include the National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/military/blacks-in-military.html