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African American veterans and the Civil Rights Movement

Learn about Dorie Miller, Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers and other African American veterans who played a role in the Civil Rights Movement.


  • The experiences of African American soldiers during World War II inspired many of them to agitate for civil rights when they returned to civilian life. Even though black soldiers faced discrimination from within the American military, they had the opportunity to observe societies where Jim Crow racism was not the law of the land.
  • Black soldiers hoped that their military service would serve as a powerful claim to equal citizenship for African Americans. When they came home, however, they encountered fierce resistance from white supremacists determined to reassert the prewar racial order.
  • Many prominent civil rights activists were drawn from the ranks of veterans, including Brown v. Board of Education plaintiff Oliver Brown and NAACP field officers Medgar Evers and Amzie Moore.

African Americans in World War II

More than a million African Americans served in the armed forces of the United States during World War II. As for most American men and women who served, the war was a major turning point in their lives: they traveled across the country and the world, met people from all walks of life, and learned new skills.1
Poster featuring Dorie Miller, who displayed extraordinary heroism at Pearl Harbor. Poster by David Stone Martin, published by the Office of War information. Image courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration.
For African Americans and other minorities, however, the war experience took on the extra dimension of race. Throughout the war, black soldiers often faced as much hostility from their white comrades-in-arms as they did from enemy combatants. At army training camps in the South, African Americans found themselves in segregated units, receiving fewer privileges than prisoners of war. In the field, black soldiers generally were relegated to menial jobs as janitors and cooks.2
One such individual, Dorie Miller, was serving as a Mess Attendant, Third Class on the battleship West Virginia when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Though he had only a cook's training, Miller stepped up to fire an anti-aircraft machine gun during the attack, and went on to save several injured men. But when reports of the day's heroes emerged, the Navy refused to identify Miller as anything more than "an unnamed Negro messman."3 Thanks to the advocacy of the NAACP and the black press, Miller eventually was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sadly, he died in the line of duty before he could receive the award.
Despite these challenges, the war also afforded African American soldiers a look at the world outside of the United States. Many black soldiers came from impoverished rural towns in the South, and the war gave them the opportunity to live in countries where there was no such thing as segregation and meet people who did not treat them as less than human based on the color of their skin.4

Black veterans return home

Black servicemen dedicated themselves to advancing not only the cause of Allied victory in World War II, but also the cause of civil rights at home. This dual enterprise to achieve victory over fascism and victory over racism was deemed the "Double V" campaign by the Pittsburgh Courier, a prominent black newspaper. African Americans, both in and out of uniform, hoped that valorous service to the nation would forge a pathway to equal citizenship.5
Unfortunately, white supremacists had other ideas. Black veterans were cautioned against wearing their uniforms in public, lest they project an unseemly sense of pride and dignity. Mississippian Amzie Moore returned to his hometown to find that white citizens even had organized a 'home guard' to protect white women from black veterans. Several returning black servicemen were murdered, as a warning to others who might try to step out of line.6

Veterans and the Civil Rights Movement

Their experiences on the battlefield, however, had inured many black veterans to the threat of violence. After being immersed in propaganda touting the virtues of American democracy, African American veterans returned home determined to exercise their right to vote. According to Louisianan William Bailey, "After getting out of the service, knowing the price that I had paid and the problems I had faced . . . why shouldn't I exercise the rights and privileges of any citizen? . . . If I could go over there and make a sacrifice with my life I was willing to do it here."7
Medgar Evers, field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, worked on the Emmett Till trial and championed desegregation. Evers was assassinated in 1963 by a white supremacist. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Other veterans were similarly determined to make the freedoms they had fought for abroad a reality at home. Mississippian Medgar Evers, for example, convinced a group of young black veterans to go to the courthouse and try to register to vote in 1946 (they were turned away by an mob of armed white men). Evers also tried to integrate the University of Mississippi law school, which refused to admit him on racial grounds. Instead of pursuing a career as a lawyer, Evers became the NAACP's first field secretary in Mississippi. Along with Amzie Moore, he interviewed witnesses and aided reporters during the Emmett Till trial. One civil rights organizer noted that he specifically recruited veterans for his chapter of the NAACP because they "don't scare easy."8
Black veterans went on to become key players in the Civil Rights Movement, from Till and Moore to Oliver Brown, the chief plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court Case.

What do you think?

Why do you think the Navy initially refused to identify Dorie Miller?
How do you think military service changed the lives of black Americans?
Why do you think white supremacists found black veterans so threatening?

Want to join the conversation?

  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user rick lee
    Where there ever race riots on a military base or a naval ship?
    (20 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
      Yes. After a quick google search, I discovered there was a fairly nasty one called the "Agana Race Riot" that took place during WWII. Here are the facts as stated on wikipedia, :

      "On December 24, a group of nine black Marines from the 25th Depot Company had been given 24-hour holiday passes (for exemplary service) to go into Agana, Guam. While they were in the city, white Marines opened fire on the men when they saw them talking to Asian women. The Marines had to run for their lives; eight returned safely to their depot, but one was missing.

      In response, 40 black enlisted men loaded into two trucks and drove back to Agana to find the missing man. At the same time, an African-American Marine - who remained at the base - called the Military Police in Agana warning them that the Marines were on their way. The MPs proceeded to erect barricades across all the roads leading into Agana.

      When the trucks arrived at a roadblock, a standoff began. Eventually tensions were calmed after a MP officer informed the Marines that the missing man was found safe and returned to the 25th's camp. Satisfied, they turned their trucks around and returned to base.

      But around midnight on Christmas morning, a truck filled with armed white Marines drove into the segregated Black camp. They claimed that one of their marines had been hit with a piece of coral thrown by one of the blacks. The standoff ended after the depot's white commanding officer told the white marines to leave.

      Racial tensions continued on Christmas Day, when an African-American enlisted man walking back to camp from Agana was shot dead by two drunk white marines. Within hours, another black enlisted man was shot and killed by another drunken white enlisted man in Agana.

      Reports of the shootings reached the African-American company. After midnight in the early morning of 26 December, a jeep with white service members opened fire on the African-American depot. Camp guards returned fire, injuring a white MP officer. The whites in the jeep took cover and fled toward Agana, being chased by a group of armed blacks.

      The black marines were stopped by white MPs at a roadblock outside Agana. They were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, rioting, theft of government property, and attempted murder."


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      (42 votes)
  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Adi.price
    Why was it that the world realized that segregation was bad after who knows how long shouldn't people be more wise to the fact?
    (6 votes)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user Aryonna Doyon
    Why were African Americans less willing to accept Jim Crow laws after WWII?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user mooohala
    the article reads.. "Black veterans went on to become key players in the Civil Rights Movement, from Till and Moore to Oliver Brown, the chief plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court Case." did the author mean to say "from Evers.. and Moore... " and not "from Till.. "? emmett till certainly wasn't a veteran.. and he didn't really have anything particularly to do with the civil rights movement. at least not when he was alive.
    (4 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Alexis  Stoicescu
    why did people discriminate against blacks so much? this man, Dorie Miller, risked his life and all the Navy wanted to call him was an "unnamed messman."
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user hernanday oleary
      White privilege (the benefits white Americans enjoyed) was built off blacks being pushed to the bottom. When the people who you are standing on, start moving from underneath you, it means you will have to stand on something else. They didn't want that because most whites who came to the usa, came as people who failed in other nations when they tried to stand on their own. Black rising in their view meant whites failing. Thus to keep what they had, they believed they must do any and everything to keep blacks where they are.
      (2 votes)
  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user maroonfive5
    'Why do you think the Navy initially refused to identify Dorie Miller?'

    Because he was black. And even though he save some -or most,I don't know-they didn't want to give him an award because of his race.
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Mohamed Sow
      Back then, racism was accepted. It did not matter to the white house that navy named him an unnamed messman because he was black, and they did not bother pushing the issue unlike the NAACP had done to get the award that he deserves which shows that Dorie miller would never have been known had it not been for the efforts of the NAACP.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user mdasher2
    what is the NAACP
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user etchison.guillermo
    Why were racial color even care for what did they do
    (3 votes)
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  • hopper happy style avatar for user F-35 JSF
    How many aircraft did Miller actually shoot down
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      His heroism was not in that he shot how many, or even "any" aircraft down. That is not the measure of a heroic man. His heroism is seen in how he stepped up, putting his own life at risk, to protect and save the lives of others. When we make "killing" the measure a hero, we debase heroism. Protecting, saving and serving, at risk of one's own safety and livelihood, are what is heroic.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Juan Romero
    Why do you think the Navy initially refused to identify Dorie Miller?
    because several men were identified for that.
    (2 votes)
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