Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

The Chicago Defender: Filling in the Gaps for the Office of Civilian Defense, 1941-1945

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

The Chicago Defender: Filling in the Gaps for the Office of Civilian Defense, 1941-1945

Article excerpt

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, African-American leaders and Black newspaper publishers openly supported the government's war agenda and the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). Leaders from the National Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women pledged their organization's support of the government's war agenda ("Leaders," 1941). NAACP executive secretary Walter White declared, "Though 13 million American Negroes have more often than not been denied democracy, they are American citizens and will as in every war give unqualified support to the protection of their country" ("Leaders," 1941).

In Illinois, during World War II, the Chicago Defender supported the nation's civilian defense effort and encouraged its readers to comply with the Social Contract, making personal sacrifices during a national crisis in order to sustain a democratic society (Steinberg, 1978; Von Leyden, 1982; Ashcraft, 1986). On December 13, 1941, the newspaper reminded its readers of the perils of enemy attack. The Defender explained that, as African-Americans, it was their sovereign duty to be prepared to defend their country and community:

In these days of feverish preparation for war, Negroes must not lose sight of the need for learning how to protect their homes from incendiary bombs ... We shall do well to prepare ourselves against all possible sudden emergencies ... We repeat the warning given by the Washington Committee for United Action, that `in blitz attacks there are only two kinds of people: the quick and the dead' ("Air Raid Precaution," 1941).

An editorial, 27 December 1941, motivated Black Chicagoans to prepare to defend the city from enemy attack by reminding them that, "Chicago is one of the key points in this country that may be raided by enemy bombers" ("Air-raids," 1941). The warning was clear: be prepared for an enemy attack or die.

The Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), a federal agency created by President Roosevelt in 1941 to organize the defense of the home front, wanted to make sure the nation's African-American community participated in civilian defense activities (Press release from the National Negro Congress News, 1941). The agency created the Race Relations Division (RRD) in October 1941 to specifically address ways to integrate Blacks into local civilian defense councils, to increase Whites' understanding of the nation's Black population, and nurture national unity (Speech by RRD member Crystal Bird Faucett, January 29, 1942).

To accomplish its goals, the agency looked for ways to diffuse important home front information to African-Americans. OCD staffers read and answered letters from Blacks interested in participating in civilian defense activities (Wilma Phipps, personal communication, October 30, 1941; Mae C. Hawes, personal communication, October 22, 1941), and relied on government-sponsored surveys to gauge the prevailing public opinion of the nation's Black community (Office of Government Reports [OGR], 1942). However, despite its declared commitment, the OCD was slow to generate press releases specifically for Black publications, producing only four press releases for the Black press in the agency's four year history (Press releases: October 21, 1941; September 15, 1942; April 5, 1943; April 16, 1943).

During World War II, civilian defense was an important educational issue: the Black community needed to be prepared for a possible enemy attack. Yet, in many cities, segregationist social policies prevented many Blacks from volunteering and holding meaningful positions within local civilian defense councils (Miller, 1990). Moreover, the OCD's failure to explain its goals left Black newspapers without vital information needed by one of the agency's important publics. How, then, did the Black press, as a key socializing agent in the Black community, explain civilian defense responsibilities to African-Americans? Was the Black press reactive, waiting for official information from the OCD, or were Black newspapers proactive, bypassing the OCD, and assuming their traditional leadership and educational roles? …

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