J.R. Johnson

One-Tenth of the Nation

Problems of Negro Vets

(22 October 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 43, 22 October 1945, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is a problem for labor in the returning veterans – all of them. But there is another problem – a special one – the problem of the returning NEGRO veteran.

Here is the recital of one of them, an individual experience, but so characteristic of their attitude that it acquires a significance far beyond the modest, sober, but determined demeanor of the narrator himself.

He drove a military truck and his company reached England so early in the war that they were lodged in an English camp, had English rations and Englishmen to cook for them.

They noted the peculiar behavior of the Englishmen, the hesitant way in which they spoke to the Negroes, the doubting and incredible manner in which they listened to Negro replies. Finally it came out. The Englishmen had been warned by white American officers that the Negroes were all right if left alone but that they were primitive, savage and dangerous if aroused.

“Black Yanks”

By degrees the Englishmen learned that Negroes were just “black Yanks.” Their response was extraordinarily friendly. Because of this the Negro soldiers were thereafter confined to barracks. Night after night the Englishmen met them by pre-arrangement, took them into neighboring towns, introduced them to wives and families, gave them a good time and then brought them back to the camp in the early morning.

The Negro soldiers finally got permission to go officially into the town. One night they went to a dance at which there were present some white American officers. These American officers had been teaching the English girls to dance American dances. Four American Negroes started to dance, two men together. In two minutes the general dancing had stopped and the whole hall crowded around to watch. When they were finished the Englishwomen made a rush to these wonderful dancers, begging to be taught. This happened more than once and one night an American officer remarked loudly that the place was not big enough to hold him and these N____rs. A fight began. Men were killed, five whites and two Negroes. Some of the Negroes are now serving thirty-five years in prison, some of them twenty years, some five years, etc.

Jim Crow Exported

The veteran noted two regular occurrences. First the English people had generally been told the ugliest tales about Negroes and had believed them. Then when they discovered that these were premeditated lies, they showed a violent revulsion of feeling in favor of the Negroes and against their deceivers.

There were many taverns in England where Negroes were preferred. If it had been possible, there would have been a “Jim Crow” against American whites in a number of taverns. The reason was simple. The Negroes came in, drank, and troubled no one. But the white Southerners were always ready to start a fight with a Negro. Many tavern keepers therefore preferred not to have them. This, for our veteran, was a remarkable and illuminating experience.

The second regular occurrence was the organized “disciplining” of white troops by Negro troops. Everywhere the Negro troops met a body of white troops for the first time they fought them, until the whites learned that the Negroes were going to stand no nonsense. Sometimes men were killed, some went to jail for long terms, others for short. But the Negro troops took it as a matter of course that they had to establish respect for Negroes among all their fellow Americans. Before going abroad, this Negro had lived in Harlem and had not concerned himself over-much about asserting his independence and self-respect. The feeling, however, had returned with him to civilian life. He didn’t know what to do about it. He felt rather lost without his fellow Negroes in his regiment. But he was a different man from the man who had gone abroad and none knew it better than he!

Perhaps his most significant and most bitter reflection was due to his international experiences He repeated over and over again that only the American army was a segregated army. The British army was not segregated. The Canadian army was not. You saw many Negroes in these armies.

And Germany? He laughed sardonically. He reached as far as Munich. He met no prejudice at all. The people seemed rather frightened of all Americans. They seemed to believe that Americans would eat them. When they found that Americans were human and not what Hitlerite propaganda had made them out to be, they welcomed them and made no distinction.

“They” Lie

The veteran’s final conclusion was amazing. “They,” he said, referring to some evil people, his natural enemies, “they tell everybody lies about ‘us.’ They do that to keep control.”

So there he is – a man awakened, trained to fight in the capitalist war and trained by his own efforts to fight dangerous and costly battles for his own dignity. He is ready to struggle. He WILL struggle, in his own way. He has a special problem – but his special problem is only one of the general problems of organized labor If labor gives him a strong but flexible and sympathetic lead, all the passion and resentment stored up in these hundreds of thousands can be made to serve their own emancipation and the emancipation of American society from the grip of capitalism.

Last updated on 29 January 2018