For generations of African Americans living under segregation and racial terror in the century after emancipation, military service seemed a chance to earn equality. But between the end of Reconstruction and the years following World War II, thousands of Black veterans were accosted, assaulted, attacked, and killed due to their race. For many, merely wearing a uniform created an immediate risk of attack.
On February 12, 1946, Black World War II veteran Isaac Woodard wore his uniform on a Greyhound bus trip from Georgia to North Carolina. When he protested mistreatment by the white bus driver, South Carolina police beat him so severely he was permanently blinded. The NAACP and others decried the attack, but no one was convicted. “Negro veterans that fought in this war . . . don’t realize that the real battle has just begun in America,” Mr. Woodard later said. “They went overseas and did their duty and now they’re home and have to fight another struggle that I think outweighs the war.”
While the nation purported to fight for freedom and democracy abroad, Americans condoned racial terror and Jim Crow segregation that targeted the Black community, including servicemembers. Civil rights activist Hosea Williams, who was captured by the German army during World War II, drew a striking comparison: “I want to tell you the Germans never were as inhumane as the state troopers of Alabama.”