Mr. Roosevelt and the Navy

Posted on April 15, 2018

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Part of my summer reading a few years ago was a joint biography of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt written by a brilliant historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The book is about the Roosevelts during the World War II (1939-1945) years. It is rich in the details of a peacetime society — ours — preparing for war. In the book, Franklin is the war hawk, and Eleanor the reluctant supporter. She saw the liberal, social agendas of the New Deal enacted during the 1930s being sacrificed to the reorganization of the country for war. But Eleanor was a force to be reckoned with, and as the country went from the Depression into war, she found new challenges, and claimed several racial victories.

Last Sunday’s Tuscaloosa News contained several pieces on blacks in America, and their perceptions of their reality and how little had changed in bias and discrimination over the past century in this country.

Another recent book, The Great Melding: War, the Dixiecrat Rebellion, and the Southern Model for America’s New Conservatism by an historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Glenn Feldman, is an excellent exploration — along with others in a series on the Modern South by the University of Alabama Press edited by Feldman and Kari A. Frederickson (former chair of the Department of History here at UA) — of what constituted Southern life and culture in this epoch. While the South, and much of the rest of the nation, persisted in maintaining the official separation of the races, or segregation, the coming of war had interrupted old patterns of behavior.

Against this backdrop, Eleanor Roosevelt made it her mission to elevate African Americans from their status as second-class citizens in a nation that, at least in theory, celebrated the equality of all people.

Early in 1942, Franklin, pushed along by his more liberal wife, told the Navy — which he truly loved and favored — to start putting blacks into other billets, or jobs, other than mess men, or just working in the kitchens and dining spaces. This request was part of a simmering civil rights campaign moving forward, albeit slowly, across other areas of American life.

For example, a new high-rise apartment complex had been built recently by the government in Detroit to house black families moving into the area, seeking and finding employment in the expanding automobile and related industries.
When whites in Detroit heard of this, they blocked the blacks from moving in, and it took a lot of pushing by the federal government to get past that opposition.

The Navy — when presented by the White House’s suggestion to open new billets to black sailors — said absolutely not, that white sailors would not serve side-by-side with black sailors, that it had never been done and simply wouldn’t work. All the usual racial arguments were made.

Roosevelt got his dander up.

“Send the suggestion back to that Navy Bureau of Personnel,” he wrote the Secretary of Navy, “and ask them to seriously reconsider their decision.” Frank Knox, then-secretary of the Navy, got the message. He was an astute newspaperman and had run as a Republican for vice president in 1936 and could read the tea leaves. Within a few weeks the Navy was assigning blacks to billets other than the kitchen — gunners, machinists mates, boatswains, etc. The door had cracked open a bit.

The Tuskegee airmen also came into being in this period as Roosevelt prepared America for war. A segregated unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first all-black fighter squadron, was created in 1941, buoyed by an airplane ride that First Lady Eleanor took at Tuskegee in March 1941 in a Piper Cub piloted by chief flight instructor, C. Alfred Anderson, who was black.

She declared, after a half hour flight, “Well, you can fly alright!”

Today, we may smirk at such an innocent endorsement by Eleanor Roosevelt. But it resonated through those who were committed to a fair shake for blacks still laboring under Jim Crow laws and segregation.

One never knows where summer reading may take you. In my case, it took me into a part of our past that bubbles up with many instances of prejudice and hope, discrimination and change, old ways and new ways, a work in progress of a nation making its vision of equality and freedom a reality.

That we haven’t reached far enough is obviously true from the testimony in last Sunday’s Tuscaloosa News. That we haven’t come very far is not true.

Published as “More to do on equality, but we’ve progressed” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday,

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Posted in: History, Navy, Politics