Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement

By Kevin M. Kruse; Stephen Tuck | Go to book overview

7
“A War for States’ Rights”
THE WHITE SUPREMACIST VISION
OF DOUBLE VICTORY

Jason Morgan Ward

On October 13, 1942, the United States House of Representatives voted by a three-to-one margin to abolish the poll tax. At the time, eight Southern states still required the measure, one of several disfranchisement tactics aimed at African Americans. Civil rights advocates cheered the bill’s passage, which moved them a step closer to dynamiting a pillar of Jim Crow. Yet as the battle moved to the Senate, leaders of the leftist National Negro Congress (NNC) gloomily predicted a filibuster by “pro-Hitler” Southern Democrats. If the NNC’s politics were radical, its wartime rhetoric was typical. Racism was now enemy ideology, and civil rights advocates of all stripes demanded that the white South choose sides. “Policies of racial discrimination divide us and aid the enemy,” declared the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “The man who discriminates against Negroes is a Fifth Columnist.”1

W. M. Burt saw things differently. The white Mississippian worked at an ordnance plant that produced powder bags for artillery shells. He spent 10 percent of his income on war bonds, and his only child was a bomber pilot. Burt watched with apprehension as civil rights activists and Northern politicians took aim at the underpinnings of segregated society. “I claim in every way to be a 100% American and as patriotic as any man in the United States,” he declared in 1942, “but I want to say that if we win this War against the Germans, Italians, and Japs, and yet have this Poll Tax bill rammed down our throats, we of the South will have won only HALF a victory, and the remaining half will have to be won all over again.”2

The poll tax fight was one of several episodes in which white Southerners reconciled their racial convictions with the struggle against the Axis. Even as civil rights activists mobilized a wartime “Double V” campaign—victory over fascist aggression abroad and racial discrimination back home—Southern conservatives linked their struggle to save Jim Crow with the war effort. Like their

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