Excerpted From: Ainslee Johnson-Brown, Half American, Half Amazing: A Review of Half American by Matthew F. Delmont and an Exploration of Executive Action During World War II and its Impact on Black Soldiers ( Book Review), 14 ConLawNOW 25 (2023) (81 Footnotes) (Full Document)


AinsleeJohnsonBrownMatthew F. Delmont's new book, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad (2022), enriches the ongoing scholarship related to critical race theory and the effects of executive action on the lived experience of Black Americans. Delmont presents a well-woven narrative of the experience of Black Arican soldiers during World War II. Pieced together from letters, court documents, and articles published during the war, this book sheds light on accounts previously buried beneath a shield of trauma, frustration, and disbelief. Half American joins the limited collection of publications that explore the impact of presidential action on Black soldiers during World War II.

The book lifts its title from a letter written to the editor of The Pittsburgh Courier posing the questions,

Should I sacrifice my life to live half American? Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow? Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life? Is the kind of America I know worth defending? (p. xi)

The letter, written by James G. Thompson, expressed the sentiments of many Black Americans of the time--without civil rights, American citizenship is incomplete. However, more than two million Black Americans saw World War II as an opportunity to escape second-class status. Delmont highlights the wartime efforts of familiar heroes like Medgar Evers. Before making history as a leader in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Evers looked to the U.S. military as a way to escape the overt racism he experienced daily. At the age of twelve, a friend of the Evers family was lynched, and the man's bloody clothing hung on a fence for more than a year as a sign of intimidation. These regular acts of violence drove Medgar to drop out of high school and follow his brother into the Army during WWII.

Evers found solace and a sense of humanity while serving in the European theater. Although Evers was assigned to a segregated field battalion, his interactions while stationed in France were “the first time in his life that white people had treated him like a full human being, and he questioned if he could ever return to Mississippi.” (p. 225) But for many Black WWII soldiers, the policies of Jim Crow cast a familiar shadow over their military experience. The United States took the position its military should embrace Jim Crow segregation and turn a blind eye to racist attacks against Black soldiers to appease local residents where soldiers were stationed in preparation for combat overseas. (pp. 161-166) Delmont provides previously untold accounts of the violent discord between Black and white soldiers during the war. (pp. 160-176)

Enter Thurgood Marshall and Dovey J. Roundtree. While Marshall did not serve as a member of the U.S. armed forces, as the head lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he traveled back and forth across the country litigating on behalf of Black troops on military bases. (p. xix) Answering direct and indirect calls for help from Black military men, Marshall represented soldiers charged with mutiny for protesting the treatment they received during their service. Roundtree not only served as a WWII officer, she jeopardized her own military status to successfully block plans to segregate units that had not yet been separated. When she was not fighting against segregation in the military, Roundtree traveled through the South encouraging Black women to join both the war and desegregation efforts, laying the foundation for an interracial military six years before President Harry Truman mandated an end to segregation in the U.S. military with Executive Order 9981.

[. . .]

Examining history highlights the resilience of racism and the ongoing need for advocacy. Matthew Delmont considers the original GI Bill to be one of the best pieces of policy that the United States ever created. The uneven distribution of benefits for WWII veterans planted a seed for longstanding economic inequality that persists today. Adjusted for today's dollars, white veterans received $180,000 in benefits from the GI Bill more than their Black counterparts. Half American delves in the micro-experiences of Black American servicepeople during World War II and formulates an important knowledge base which supports remedial efforts to right wrongs from the era. One such effort is the GI Bill Restoration Act, a Congressional bill that would extend housing and education assistance programs administered by the Veteran Affairs administration to surviving spouses and direct descendants of Black World War II veterans. (p. 306) The bill was introduced in the House on November 5, 2021, and in the Senate 10 days later. Both bodies referred the bill to their respective Veterans' Affairs committees in the months before the end of the current session.

The University of Akron School of Law, J.D., exp. 2023; Fellow, The Center for Constitutional Law.