As noted earlier, segregation existed in the United States armed forces. The Army, Navy and other branches of the services separated blacks and whites into distinct units. (See Josh White’s “Defense Factory Blues.”) It was not until after World War II that President Truman issued an executive order ending discrimination in the armed forces. (Hakim, pp. 298-99.) He had to use the executive order because he could not get a law passed in Congress.
The plight of the black veteran returning from WW II is expressed in the following quote: “Throughout the war, we were fighting on two fronts: one was against Hitler in Europe, and one was against racism in the United States, and many of us had the illusions that, as a result of our efforts in the war, the whole system of second-class citizenship and discrimination against blacks would be ended. … [w]hen we came back to the United States, we expected to be treated as if we made a contribution; we didn’t like coming back to the Jim Crow scene…. [I]t was ironic for them to return to a country for which they risked their lives, and had to go to the back of the bus, could not sit downstairs in the movie theatre, and could not leave the plantation except with a pass from the owner.” (Howard “Stretch” Johnson, quoted in The Century, Jennings and Brewster, pp. 286-87.)
Reflecting the lack of respect given to returning black veterans, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard” (1946) about an actual incident where a black WW II veteran was beaten up by South Carolina law officers, resulting in his blindness. It is sung by Raymond Crooke. (https://youtu.be/4A7A5VGjSFk)
My name is Isaac Woodard, my tale I’ll tell you;
I’m sure it’ll sound so terrible you might not think it true;
I joined up with the Army, they sent me overseas;
Through the battles of New Guinea and in the Philippines.
On the 13th day of February 1946
They sent me to Atlanta and I got my discharge pin;
I caught the bus for Winnsboro, going to meet my wife,
Then we were coming to New York City to visit my parents both.
About an hour out of Atlanta, the sun was going down,
We stopped the bus at a drugstore in a little country town;
I walked up to the driver and I looked him in the eye,
“I’d like to go to the washroom, if you think we got time.”
The driver started cursing, and then he hollered, “No!”
So, then I cussed right back at him, and really got him told.
He said, “If you will hurry, I guess I’ll take the time!”
It was in a few short minutes we was rolling down the line.
We rolled for thirty minutes, I watched the shacks and trees,
I thought of my wife in Winnsboro waiting there for me.
In Aiken, South Carolina, the driver he jumped out;
He came back with a policeman to take me off the bus.
“Listen, Mr. Policeman,” I started to explain,
“I did not cause no trouble, and I did not raise no cain.”
He hit me with his billy, he cursed me up and down,
“Shut up, you black bastard”; and he walked me down in town.
As we walked along the sidewalk, my right arm he did twist;
I knew he wanted me to fight back, but I never did resist;
“Have you your Army discharge?” I told him, yes, I had;
He pasted me with his loaded stick down across my head.
I grabbed his stick and we had a little run, and had a little wrastle;
When another cop run up with a gun and jumped into the battle;
“If you don’t drop that sap, black boy, it’s me that’s dropping you.”
So I figured to drop that loaded sap was the best thing I could do.
They beat me about the head and face and left a bloody trail
All down along the sidewalk to the iron door of the jail;
He knocked me down upon the ground and he poked me in the eyes;
When I woke up next morning, I found my eyes were blind.
They drug me to the courtroom, and I could not see the judge;
He fined me fifty dollars for raising all the fuss;
The doctor finally got there but it took him two whole days;
He handed me some drops and salve and told me to treat myself.
It’s now you’ve heard my story, there’s one thing I can’t see,
How you could treat a human like they have treated me;
I thought I fought on the islands to get rid of their kind;
But I can see the fight lots plainer now that I am blind.
Another Woody Guthrie song on a similar topic is “The Killing of The Ferguson Brothers” (1946). In the early hours of February 5, 1946, Officer Joseph Romeika of Freeport, New York, shot and killed two brothers, Charles and Alfonso Ferguson. These two men, with their other brothers, Joseph and Richard, were refused coffee at a bus station’s coffee shop. After an argument between Charles and the coffee shop owner, they waited at the bus station to go home. Romeika, who had been called by the owner, stopped them and lined them up against a wall with their hands up. When Charles, who was actually unarmed, threatened to pull out a pistol and made movements towards his waist, Romeika shot him dead. Alfonso moved towards the officer, who shot him dead too; the bullet also wounded Joseph.
An inquiry by the district attorney of Nassau County before an all-white jury ruled that Romeika had acted justly. A number of groups, including the American Jewish Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union, complained to New York Governor Thomas Dewey and asked him to appoint a special investigator to the case; but, this second inquiry also found no wrongdoing.
A month later Woody Guthrie wrote this twelve-verse song, using the melody of “Streets of Laredo.” He begins by stressing Charles’ military record, and the fact that he has just reenlisted. The song then focuses on the injustice of their treatment by the coffee shop owner, the police and the courts, pointing out that this happened in New York, not in the deep south. The song ends with the effect their death will have on their families. It, too, is sung by Raymond Cooke. (https://youtu.be/nmQ9fkNMS2Q?list=PL17655A5F634428D4) )
Let’s stop here and drink us a hot cup of coffee
That Long Island bus was an awful long ride;
But we’ve got to keep your blood warm, our young brother, Charles,
Because you’ve reenlisted for quite a long time.
You’ve been over the ocean and won your good record
A Private First Class needs hot coffee the same
As Alonzo or Joseph or just plain old Richard
We’ll all drink a hot cup to each brother’s name.
It’s nice of the bus terminal to have a good tea room
Mr. Scholakis is the owner, there’s his card on the wall.
Let’s sit over here and wash down our troubles,
And if you know a tall story, my brother, tell them all.
The waiter shakes his head, wipes his hands on his apron,
He says there’s no coffee in all that big urn;
In that glass gauge there it looks like several inches,
It looks like this tea room’s got coffee to burn.
We made him a speech in a quiet friendly manner
We didn’t want to scare you ladies over there;
He calls for a cop on his phone on the sly,
And the cop come and marched us out in the night’s air.
The cop said that we had insulted the joint man.
He made us line up with our faces to the wall;
We laughed to ourselves as we stood there and listened
To the man of law and order putting in his riot call.
The cop turned around and walked back to young Charlie
Kicked him in the groin and then shot him to the ground;
This same bullet went through the brain of Alonzo
And the next bullet laid my brother Joseph down.
My fourth brother Richard got hauled to the station
Bawled out and lectured by the judge on his bench.
The judge said us Fergusons was looking for trouble;
They lugged Richard off for a hundred day stretch.
This morning two hearses roll out toward the graveyard
One hearse had Alonzo and the other took Charles.
Charles’ wife, Minnie, brings her three boy children
And friends and relatives in some old borrowed cars.
Nobody has told these three little boys yet,
Everybody rides crying and shaking their heads.
Nobody knows quite how to make these three boys know
That Jim Crow killed Alonzo, that Charles too is dead.
The town that we ride through is not Rankin, Mississippi,
Nor Bilbo’s Jim Crow town of Washington, D. C.
But it’s greater New York, our most fair-minded city
In all this big land here and streets of the brave.
Who’ll tell these three boys that their daddy is gone?
(He helped whip the Fascists and Nazis to death)
Who’ll tell these three sons that Jim Crow coffee
Has killed several thousand the same as their dad?
Major League baseball was segregated until the 1947 season when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson faced hateful reactions from all corners, fans and players. Base runners tried to spike him, and pitchers tried to hit him in the head. Fans hurled profane comments from the stands; and, he was accosted in the streets. But, Robinson persevered and overcame the prejudice. By doing so, he opened the door for other blacks to follow his path in professional baseball and other professional sports. Ellis Paul wrote and sung “The Hero in You” about Jackie Robinson. (2012) (http://youtu.be/cCJVWdnIi5c)
Jackie Robinson was a man who swung a bat
And because he was so good at it
He became much more than that
He was the first man of color in the game
He rose from the Negro leagues into fame
Into a world that was begging for change
In the dugout, they have him a shout out
They’re calling his name
You changed the way we play the game
Baseball, football, basketball,
Long jump and track
He was a world class athlete
No game was gonna hold him back
Oh, he was called up
To rise above all the shame
The slurs and the threats that he overcame
His courage belongs in the hall of fame
In the dug out
They have hymn a shout out
They’re calling his name
Singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky looks at the race question in baseball from a unique perspective in “The Ballad of Eddie Klepp” (a true story). (1996) (http://youtu.be/EBei1xaao-M)
The war had finally ended and America had changed
It had beaten back the Nazis but the Jim Crow laws remained
There was talk of staging marches and talk of civil rights
There was talk about a Negro playing baseball with the Whites
He walked into the clubhouse and the card players quit playing
Everybody stopped in the middle of whatever they were saying
It was just like when the sheriff walks into the saloon
He said, “My name is Eddie,” as he looked around the room
“This man’s here to play baseball,” the manager said to the team
“We’re all gonna have to live with this…aw, that’s not what I mean…
You know what I mean” – and they all did…it went without saying
The card players looked at their hands and they went on with their playing
They ran him off the field before a game in Birmingham one night
Made him sit up in the grandstand in the section marked “For Whites”
In his Cleveland Buckeyes uniform, it was a new twist on the law
The marshalls kept their eyes on him and the hecklers ate him raw
Eddie Klepp, he should’ve run the bases in reverse
A White man in the Negro Leagues, that had to be a first
He could not ride the same busses, or stay in the same motels
He could not eat in the same restaurants, you couldn’t have mixed clientele
So while Jackie played for Brooklyn and wore the Dodger Blue
Eddie crossed the color line, the one without a queue
A White man in the Negro Leagues, might as well have been a Jew
Now you mention the name of Eddie Klepp and most everyone says, “Who?”
Things did not change much in the 30 years after the Tulsa race riots. There was a dramatic race riot in Cicero, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, in 1951. After World War II, blacks who returned from the war, and other blacks who had come north to work in the war industries, sought to move out of the cities and obtain improved housing in the suburbs. This led generally to white protest and specifically culminated in the Cicero riots, July 10-12, 1951. The precipitating event for the Cicero riots occurred when a white landlord rented an apartment in a previously all white building to a black World War II veteran. The Cicero police, using force and threats, tried to stop the veteran from moving into the apartment. The NAACP intervened and obtained a court order permitting the occupancy. (Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.) As a result, a mob of several thousand whites attacked the apartment building with rocks and fire bombs. The riot lasted several days and nights, and only ended when the National Guard was called out. The riots caused tens of thousands of dollars damage to the apartment building. Federal civil rights charges were brought against several Cicero police, and they received fines for violating the veteran’s housing rights. (Id.; Encyclopedia of Chicago, Steven Essig.)
“Down South,” Memphis Slim (Peter Chatman) (1991) plays a mean honky tonk piano while he illustrates what it was like in the south, particularly the different behavior expected of a black in the south from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Down south, my native
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bragging
But I’m very glad, I’m very happy
Because being born in the south you get so much experience
If you make it away from the south
you got it made.
Mr. Bilbo [Governor of Mississippi] and Mr. Crump [former Mayor of Memphis] and all those guys that are out to get you
But, I had a brother, I’m 6 foot 4 you know, my brother called me shorty
My brother was born above the Mason and Dixon line
in Newark, New Jersey
My brother came down to visit me, you know
Being a good sport, I had to carry him around to the back door,
This is where the southern cross the dog, Morehead;
I know all you boys are familiar with this one.
While in the pool room, shooting a little pool
My brother, he always had a mind of his own
He gets hungry, you know, he steps next door to the bus station
Not noticing the sign that says “colored only”
He goes in the wrong side, so they say
But my brother, he’s not used to that stuff you know,
So the guy says, “What can I do for you boy?”
Said: “I’d like a hamburger.”
So the guy, he knew my brother did not know what he was doing. He said, “We don’t serve negroes.”
My brother said, “Wonderful I don’t eat them either. Give me a hamburger.”
So he got the hamburger. So I say that to get to this: it takes nerve.
Another kid went down south with me, visiting my old home town.
So we goes to the commissary.
Arbee Stidham. He never been south before,
So the guy, I know how to act, the guy says, “Oh Peter, how you feeling?”
“Oh fine, Mister Ed.”
“What can I do for ya?”
I said, “Give me a pound of that cheese, if you please.”
He said, “Wondeful, Peter, wonderful I see you have not forgotten your learnin’. What else can I do for you?”
I said, “Give me a box of crackers, if you please.”
“Good old Peter, good old Peter.”
So Arbee wanted some Camel cigarettes.
So he said, “What can I do for you fellow?”
Arbee said, “Give me a pack of Camel cigarettes.”
So Mr. Edward, so Mr. Edward tried to help Arbee.
He said, “If you, if you, you know he’s telling Arbee to say, if you…”
He said, “What you mean?”
“Give me a pack of Camel cigarettes.”
He said, “I know, but if you, if you…”
He said, “Yeah if you got em; if you don’t, I’ll go next door.
Boy, this guy’s scaring me to death.”
But you know the funny thing, about down south, all kidding aside? It’s so silly, my mother, your mother, they feed the guys down there you know.
Put diapers on them, raise them, and then they don’t want to eat with you.
They raise em and when they become 17 years old
they want you to say Mister and Mrs.
Some people call it prejudice, I just call it plain ignorance.
Yea, down south…
Only one solution to it though. That’s youth.
The young people see it different.
Like a guy told me, he says, “You know rock and roll has got to go.”
He’s about 54 years old, I say, “I bet you’ll go before rock and roll because the young people brought rock and roll in
and they’re going to last much longer than you.”
They’re 17, 18, 19 and this guy’s 54, said, “I’ll see rock and roll go.”
The moral of the story is, if you can’t beat them, join ‘em.
That goes for down south.
In August 1955, Emmett Louis Till, an African-American teenager who lived in Chicago and was visiting cousins in Mississippi during summer vacation, was murdered at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white cashier at a grocery store, where he was buying chewing gum.
Four days after the grocery store incident, two white men, the husband of the grocery store cashier and his half-brother, kidnapped Till, beat him unmercifully and shot him in the head. Till’s face was mutilated beyond recognition. The only way to positively identify him was by the ring on his finger, engraved with his father’s initials: “L.T.” Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral in order for the world to see how badly her son was beaten. The public was shocked by what they saw. The two men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted the killers, deliberating for about an hour. Later, the murderers admitted the crime and sold their story to Life magazine for $4,000. Emmett Till became a martyr in the black community. Many songs have been written about this terrible event. (http://www.biography.com/people/emmett-till-507515)
“My Name is Emmett Till,” written and sung by Emmylou Harris (2011) (http://youtu.be/qlHAr5IZhp8)
I was born a black boy
My name is Emmett Till
Walked this earth for 14 years
One night I was killed
For speaking to a woman
Whose skin was white as dough
That’s a sin in Mississippi
But how was I to know?
I come down from Chicago
To visit with my kin
There I was a cheeky kid
I guess I always been
But the harm they put upon me
Was too hard for what I done
For I was just a black boy
I never hurt no one
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
They took me from my uncle’s house
Mose Wright was his name
He’d be later standing without hesitation
Point the blame
At the ones who beat and cut me
And shot me with the gun
And threw me in the river
Like I was trash when they were done
I was sent back to my mother
At least what was left of me
She kept my casket open
For the whole wide world to see
The awful desecration
And the evidence of hate
You could not recognize me
The mutilation was so great
Became a cry for justice then
To be finally fulfilled
All because of me, a black boy
My name was Emmett Till
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh, I had rather lived
Till I was too old to die young
Not even a soul I left behind
All that might have come
Summer clouds above my head
The grass beneath my feet
The warmth of a good woman
Her kisses soft and sweet
Perhaps to be a father
Of a black boy of my own
Watch him grow into a kinder world
Than I had known
Where no child would be murdered
For the color of his skin
And love would be the only thing
Inside the hearts of men
They say the horror of that night
Is haunting heaven still
Where I am one more black boy
My name is Emmett Till
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
“The Death of Emmett Till,” written and sung by Bob Dylan (1963). (http://youtu.be/RVKTx9YlKls)
’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what
They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat
There were screaming sounds inside the barn,
there was laughing soundsout on the street
Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie
Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die
And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind
I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood, it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.