By the end of the summer of 1945, World War II had come to an end. Over the next several months, many of the twelve million veterans returned home; 880,000 of these were black Americans. They had gone overseas to put their lives at risk in the fight for freedom and democracy, and they came home to find these ideals were not meant for them in their own country.
Ironically, the Ku Klux Klan became reenergized by the returning black veterans, who wore their uniforms and seemed to know no fear, and thought they could assert their equality. The response of the KKK was a renewal of violence. Some of the more egregious examples:
Sergeant Isaac Woodward, a twenty-seven-year-old black veteran, upon being honorably discharged from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, was pulled from a public bus (still in his uniform), incarcerated, and during the night, he was beaten so badly that he was blinded in both eyes (one was gouged out).
In Alabama, when a black veteran removed the Jim Crow sign on a trolley, an angry streetcar conductor unloaded his pistol into the ex-Marine. The Chief of Police found him staggering away and administered a single bullet to his head, finishing the job.
In South Carolina, another veteran complaining about Jim Crow transportation had his eyes gouged out with the butt of the sheriff’s billy club.
In Louisiana, a black veteran who defiantly refused to give a white man a war memento was dismembered, castrated, and blow-torched.
In Monroe, Georgia, two black men (one a veteran who did not show proper obeisance and the other accused of flirting with a white woman) and their wives were surrounded by a lynch mob of over thirty who tied the victims to trees and then fired close-range into their faces. One of the men was also castrated. One of the women had her spine severed by force of the sixty bullets that entered her body. The other woman was seven months pregnant. Outrageously, newly released files in 2007 reveal that the FBI investigated suspicions that the three-term governor of Georgia, Eugene Talmadge, sanctioned the murders to sway rural white voters during a tough election campaign. No one was ever arrested.
In all these cases, if there were witnesses they were loathe to testify, but even when there were detailed confessions the all-white juries declined to issue convictions.
As Fred Jerome summarizes, “In the first fifteen months after Hitler’s defeat, a wave of anti-black terror, mostly but not only in the southern states, killed fifty-six African Americans, with returning veterans the most frequent victims.” (Fred Jerome, “Focus: The Elusive Icon: Einstein, Race, and the Myth of the Cultural Icon” in ISIS: A Journal of the History of Science Society, 95:4, 2004, 628-629.)
In February, 1946, an altercation between a black and a white vet in Columbia, Tennessee that turned into a riot ended with the arrest of more than a hundred black men. Two were shot and killed inside the jail. Of the others, twenty-five were indicted for “attempted murder.” A young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall led a team of attorneys to Columbia to represent the prisoners. This was the occasion when Marshall barely escaped getting lynched himself. After arriving in town, he and other NAACP lawyers quickly found their lives were in danger. Racing to escape from an angry white mob, they took off in one direction, and a decoy car was sent on a different route. The mob caught up with the decoy car, and when they found Marshall wasn’t isn’t it, they beat the driver so badly he was in the hospital for a week. But Marshall got away, and went on to become one of the leading black figures of the Twentieth Century.