Timeline

1940

June 20th, 1940

NAACP Leader Elbert Williams Lynched in Brownsville, Tennessee

In 1940, 75 percent of the 19,000 people living in Brownsville, Tennessee, were African American. African Americans had been prevented from voting in Brownsville since 1884. In May 1940, members of the Brownsville chapter of the NAACP organized a voting rights drive. One month after the drive began, on June 20, 1940, NAACP leader Elbert Williams was abducted from his home in Brownsville by a group of white men headed by the local sheriff and the night marshal. Three days later, Mr. Williams’s lifeless and brutalized body was found in the Hatchie River. He was thirty-one years old.

A few days prior to Mr. Williams’s lynching, fellow NAACP leader Elisha Davis was abducted from his home by the same posse. Mr. Davis survived the encounter but was ordered to leave Brownsville or face death upon return. In the months following Mr. Williams’s lynching, up to forty more families were permanently driven from the community under threats of violence from the white mob. African Americans who remained in Brownsville were prohibited from meeting in groups, even for church services, and two African American men were beaten to death after being arrested by the same night marshal who had helped to abduct Mr. Williams and Mr. Davis.

Despite investigations launched by local authorities, the Department of Justice, and the F.B.I., charges were never lodged against the well-known men responsible. According to one contemporary observer, the perpetrators of the abuses and murders “can be seen in Brownsville each day going about their work as though they had killed only a rabbit.” As a result of the harassment, violence, and murder of its leaders, the Brownsville NAACP dissolved in 1940, and a new chapter was not formed until 1961.

1940

June 21st, 1940

Black Man Lynched in Alabama for Failing to Address White Man as “Mr.”

On June 21, 1940, a twenty-six-year-old black man named Jesse Thornton addressed a passing police officer by his name, Doris Rhodes. When the officer, a white man, overheard Mr. Thornton and ordered him to clarify his statement, he attempted to correct himself by referring to the officer as “Mr. Doris Rhodes.” The officer hurled a racial slur at Mr. Thornton while knocking him to the ground and arresting him. Mr. Rhodes then walked Mr. Thornton into the city jail as a mob of white men formed just outside.

Mr. Thornton tried to escape and managed to flee a short distance while the mob quickly pursued, firing gunshots and throwing bricks, bats, and stones at him. Mr. Thornton was injured by gunfire and eventually collapsed. The mob dumped him into a truck and drove to an isolated street where he was dragged into a nearby swamp and shot again. Mr. Thornton’s decomposing, vulture-ravaged body was found a week later by a local fisherman in the Patsaliga River, near Tuskegee Institute.

Dr. Charles A.J. McPherson, a local leader in the Birmingham branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wrote a detailed report on Mr. Thornton’s lynching. Future United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney with the NAACP, provided the Department of Justice with the report and requested a federal investigation. The Justice Department instructed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine whether law enforcement or other officials were complicit in the lynching but there is no record that anyone was ever prosecuted for Mr. Thornton’s murder.

1942

January 25th, 1942

Cleo Wright Lynched in Sikeston, Missouri

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, many Americans depended upon New Deal programs designed to stimulate the economy and provide for the country’s growing poor following the stock market crash of 1929. When discriminatory local administration of these programs created racial inequality, resulting protests and unrest often increased racial tensions. During this era in Sikeston, Missouri, racial inequality in the implementation of New Deal agricultural programs led to protest and stimulated anti-black sentiment among white residents.

Against this backdrop, in the early hours of Sunday, January 25, 1942, a black man named Cleo Wright was arrested on charges of assaulting a white woman. Wright was shot several times by a city night marshal during his arrest, but the local hospital refused to admit him for treatment due to his race. Police initially brought the ailing Wright to his home to die, but later returned him to the city jail.

By morning, white residents of Sikeston had become aware of the incident, and a mob of 75 whites formed at the jail. City and state police officers attempted to control the situation, but the mob eventually overcame them and abducted the nearly unconscious Wright from his cell. Wright was then dragged through the streets of Sunset Addition, Sikeston’s predominantly black neighborhood, where the mob forced Wright's wife to examine his body. The mob then took Wright to a pair of black churches and burned him within sight of hundreds of churchgoers.

The lynching terrified Sikeston’s black community, and led an estimated one hundred black residents to flee. Condemned by a number of newspapers around the country, the lynching received national attention and led to the first ever Department of Justice investigation of a lynching. Nevertheless, a grand jury refused to indict the perpetrators, and no one was ever convicted.

1942

February 19th, 1942

President Franklin D. Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans

During the early twentieth century, prejudice against Japanese Americans was rampant in the United States. After Japanese military forces bombed American forces at the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii in December 1941, the United States entered World War II. Anti-Japanese bigotry quickly worsened, and many political leaders and media outlets called for the internment of individuals of Japanese descent residing in the western portion of the country. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing military leaders to detain Japanese Americans in camps, en masse, without due process.

Although the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation insisted that people of Japanese descent did not pose a security threat, the internment process began soon after President Roosevelt signed the order. In March 1942, the United States military ordered all individuals of Japanese ancestry residing on the West Coast to report to internment centers within seven days. This applied to over 120,000 people, 70,000 of whom were American citizens. Interned individuals were required to dispose of their possessions, homes, and businesses. Within the internment camps, conditions were prison-like: armed guards and barbed wire surrounded the camps and housing areas were overcrowded and filthy.

Internment was politically favored and faced no serious opposition from elected officials or the courts. In 1944, the Supreme Court decided Korematsu v. United States, upholding the constitutionality of the internment order and authorizing the continued detention of Japanese Americans.

When the internment order was officially rescinded in January 1945, after the end of the war, individuals were released from internment but received no compensation for their lost property and mistreatment. More than four decades later, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an act formally apologizing for internment and authorizing a $20,000 redress payment to each living internment survivor.

1942

February 28th, 1942

White Mobs Riot in Detroit

Before and during World War II, the city of Detroit, Michigan, was a hub for economic activity that attracted a large influx of new residents. Many newcomers were African Americans fleeing racial violence and inequality in the rural South, in a wave known as the Great Migration. Those who resettled in Detroit felt the city offered new opportunities for economic mobility.

Housing scarcity was a major challenge for growing Detroit, as new construction did not keep pace with the increasing population, and residential segregation created dangerous slums. Black families were banned from most public housing, restricted to over-crowded neighborhoods, and often forced to pay higher rents to live in dilapidated homes without indoor plumbing. They also faced hostility from the local Ku Klux Klan, police, and groups of white workers.

In June 1941, Detroit policymakers approved plans to build the Sojourner Truth Homes, a public housing project for African Americans, located in a white neighborhood. Over protest from local whites, construction was completed that year and the city authorized black families to move in starting February 28, 1942.

One day before, growing crowds of local whites marched through the housing project. On move-in day, only a few black families braved the harassment and intimidation. Some were struck with rocks. Police responded by halting the moves and arresting more than 200 blacks and only three whites. The new residents were displaced until April, when six black families moved in under the protection of 2000 city and state officials.

1943

May 30th, 1943

White Sailors and Soldiers Attack Latino Youth in Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots

World War II fueled a population influx into Los Angeles, California, in 1943 that coincided with an increase in petty crime. White residents blamed Latino youth, who often wore distinctive, colorful garments known as “zoot suits.” Many members of the military stationed in Los Angeles were hostile to wearers of zoot suits because wartime rationing rules forbade the production of such clothing. On May 30, 1943, a scuffle between a group of soldiers and a group of zoot suit wearers sparked a series of conflicts that became known as the Zoot Suit Riots.

During the riots, white sailors and soldiers attacked Latino youth wearing zoot suits, beat them with belt buckles and ropes, and stripped them of their clothes. Law enforcement did not intervene in support of the Latino victims and instead charged them with vagrancy. Los Angeles newspapers encouraged the violence and portrayed Latino youth as deserving of brutal treatment. There are no reports that death or serious injury resulted from the violence.

Critical observers rejected the crime-control justifications for the attacks and linked “zoot suit” violence to historical prejudice against people of color in the United States. A July 1943 article in Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), asserted that “Zoot Riots are Race Riots.” Following the Zoot Suit Riots, similar incidents in which white members of the military and white employees of military contractors would target black and Latino youth with violence occurred in cities throughout the United States. By one estimate, 242 instances of racial violence occurred in forty-seven American cities in 1943 alone.

1943

June 3rd, 1943

White Factory Workers in Detroit Strike to Protest Promotion of Black Workers

In the early 1940's, many people migrated to Northern cities from rural areas in the Deep South in search of manufacturing jobs in the growing wartime economy. The four-county area of Detroit, Michigan, received a disproportionally large number of defense contracts to produce goods for the military. Between 1940 and 1943, Detroit's population increased by 200,000-300,000 people, 50,000 of whom were African American, which increased African Americans' share of the city's population to ten percent. Due to pressure from the Fair Employment Practices Commission and a high demand for labor, many factories in Detroit soon began employing African Americans.

During this period, Detroit's Packard Motor Company, which manufactured airplane and marine engines, hired a number of recent migrants, including white Southerners as well as African Americans. There was speculation that members of the Ku Klux Klan held low- and high-level positions in the company. Packard's personnel director openly expressed his own racial prejudice, insisting that white workers should not have to work with blacks. But under pressure from the government, three African American employees were promoted to the aircraft assembly line in June 1943.

On June 3, 1943, almost all of the facility's 25,000 white workers went on strike in protest of the promotions, ceasing production. The company president appealed to the War Labor Board to assist with the strike and a representative from the War Department threatened to fire the striking workers. The strike lasted for three days and led to the suspension of thirty strike organizers before white workers began returning to work.

1943

June 15th, 1943

White Shipyard Workers Riot and Attack Black Community in Beaumont, Texas

On June 15, 1943, a mob of white shipyard workers in Beaumont, Texas, confronted African-American employees after a local white woman claimed that she had been raped by an African-American man. The mob of roughly 3000 men marched on City Hall to capture the man who had been arrested for the crime, then broke into smaller groups and began destroying property in the nearby black neighborhoods and attacking African-American citizens. In total, the mob robbed and burned more than 100 homes.

The Mayor of Beaumont called in the National Guard to dismantle the mob, and the town was placed under martial law for five days. During this time, all roads into the city were blocked, African Americans were not allowed to go to work, and all public gatherings were cancelled. By the end of the riots, 21 people had been killed and more than 200 were arrested. Only 29 of the 200 arrested were charged, and no one was prosecuted for any of the deaths.

Though sparked by the rape accusation, the riots were also thought to be motivated by poor white citizens’ outrage over the elimination of racial wage differentials at the local shipyard. Racial tension had been high in the community as more African-Americans workers were hired for industrial jobs in the shipyard, making them an economic threat in the eyes of local whites. Some sources reported that white citizens had been planning an attack on the African American workers for some time and had originally planned it to coincide with the town’s Juneteenth festivities.

1944

January 2nd, 1944

Florida: 15-Year-Old Boy Lynched for Sending Love Note

On January 2, 1944, 15-year-old Willie James Howard, a black boy, was kidnapped and lynched by three white men in Suwannee County, Florida, after being accused of sending a love note to the daughter of one of the men.

During Christmas 1943, Willie Howard sent cards to all of his co-workers at the Van Priest Dime Store in Live Oak, Florida. Unlike the other cards, Willie’s card to Cynthia Goff, a white store employee, revealed a youthful crush. His greeting expressed hope that white people would someday like black people and concluded: “I love your name. I love your voice. For a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice.”

After reading the card, Cynthia’s father, Phil Goff, brought two friends to the Howard home and demanded to see Willie. Despite his mother’s pleading, the men dragged Willie away, and then kidnapped Willie’s father, James Howard, from work. The men drove the two Howards to the embankment of the Suwanee River, bound Willie’s hands and feet, stood him at the edge of the water, and told him to either jump or be shot. Willie jumped into the cold water below and drowned while his father was forced to watch at gunpoint. Willie’s body was pulled from the river the next day.

Goff and his accomplices admitted to the local sheriff that they took Willie to the river to punish him, but claimed the teen had become hysterical and jumped into the water unprovoked at the thought of being whipped by his father. Fearful for his own life and the other members of his family, James Howard signed a statement supporting Goff’s account. He and his family fled Live Oak three days later.

1944

March 26th, 1944

Mississippi: Six White Men Murder Black Minister, Steal Land

In the 1940s, Reverend Isaac Simmons controlled more than 270 acres of debt-free land in Amite County, Mississippi, that his family had owned since 1887, unusual among black families in the South, where racism and poverty had posed obstacles to economic advancement for generations. A farmer and minister, Reverend Simmons worked the land with his children and grandchildren, producing crops and selling the property’s lumber.

In 1941, a rumor spread that there was oil in southwest Mississippi. A group of six white men decided they wanted the Simmons’s land and warned Reverend Simmons to stop cutting lumber. Reverend Simmons consulted a lawyer to work out the dispute and ensure his children would be the sole heirs to the property.

On Sunday, March 26, 1944, the men arrived at the home of Reverend Simmons’s oldest son, Eldridge. The men told Eldridge to show them where the property line ran and he agreed to do so. While Eldridge and the men were riding out to the property line in one of the men’s cars, the men began to beat Eldridge and shouted that the Simmons family thought they were “smart niggers” for consulting a lawyer. The men dragged Reverend Simmons from his home about a mile away and began beating him, too. They drove both Simmons men further onto the property and ordered Reverend Simmons out of the car. The men shot him three times, cut out his tongue, and told his son he had ten days to abandon the family property.

Three days after the murder, Eldridge and the rest of the Simmons family buried Reverend Simmons and then fled their land. The killers took possession of the land and an all-white jury later acquitted the only one of the six men to face trial for the murder.

1944

June 16th, 1944

Fourteen-Year-Old George Stinney Executed in South Carolina

On June 16, 1944, George Stinney, Jr., a ninety-pound, black, fourteen-year-old boy, was executed in the electric chair in Columbia, South Carolina. Three months earlier, on March 24, George and his sister were playing in their yard when two young white girls briefly approached them and asked where they could find flowers. Hours later, the girls failed to return home and a search party was organized to find them. George Stinney, a member of the search party, casually mentioned to a bystander that he had seen the girls earlier. The following morning, their dead bodies were found in a shallow ditch.

George was immediately arrested for the murders and subjected to hours of interrogation without his parents or an attorney. The sheriff later claimed he confessed to the murders, though no written or signed statement was presented. George's father was fired from his job and his family forced to flee out of fear for their lives. On March 26, a mob attempted to lynch George but he had already been moved to an out-of-town jail.

On April 24, George faced a sham trial virtually alone. No African Americans were allowed inside the courthouse and his court-appointed attorney, a tax lawyer with political aspirations, failed to call a single witness. The prosecution presented the sheriff's testimony regarding George's alleged confession as the only evidence of his guilt. An all-white jury deliberated for ten minutes before convicting George Stinney of rape and murder, and the judge promptly sentenced the fourteen-year-old to death. Despite appeals from black advocacy groups, Governor Olin Johnston refused to intervene. George Stinney remains the youngest person executed in the United States in the twentieth century.

1944

July 16th, 1944

Black Woman Arrested in Virginia for Refusing to Give Up Bus Seat

On July 16, 1944, 27-year-old Irene Morgan was traveling by bus from Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland, when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.

Ms. Morgan, a black woman, purchased a ticket that day in Gloucester, Virginia, and boarded a Greyhound bus, taking a seat in the assigned black section. About thirty minutes after the bus departed, however, Ms. Morgan and the passenger sitting beside her were asked to give up their seats for a white couple who had boarded the bus. When Ms. Morgan refused and advised the passenger beside her to do the same, the bus driver drove to the local jail in Middlesex County, where a deputy sheriff boarded the bus to present Ms. Morgan with a warrant for her arrest.

Under Virginia law at that time, racial segregation was mandatory on state sponsored transportation. However, as Ms. Morgan was traveling on an interstate bus, she was adamant that she not be removed from her seat. Ms. Morgan was physically dragged from the bus, then detained in the Saluda City Jail and convicted of violating the state segregation law.

Ms. Morgan appealed her conviction, and lawyers Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastle argued her case before the United States Supreme Court in March 1946. Less than three months later, in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the Court reversed Ms. Morgan’s conviction and held that state segregation laws were unconstitutional as applied to interstate bus travel.

1944

August 1st, 1944

White Philadelphia Transit Workers Strike to Protest Promotion of Black Employees

As the United States entered World War II, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, quickly became one of America’s largest war production sources. As many as 600,000 workers relied on the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) for transportation to factories and other workplaces.

On August 1, 1944, white PTC employees started a strike to protest the company’s decision to promote eight black workers to the position of trolley driver, a job previously reserved for white men. The men were promoted after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Orders 8802 and 9436, which prohibited companies with government contracts from discrimination based on race or religion and forced companies to include a nondiscrimination clause in their contracts.

White PTC employees James McMenamin, James Dixon, Frank Thompson, and Frank Carney led the strike, which they threatened would continue until the black workers were demoted. The strike grew to include over 6000 workers, crippling war production and impacting the entire city. It prevented nearly two million people from traveling and cost businesses almost $1 million per day.

On August 3, 1944, the third day of the strike, President Roosevelt authorized the War Department to take control of the PTC. Two days later, 5000 United States Army troops moved into Philadelphia to prevent uprisings and protect PTC employees who crossed the picket line. Despite the military presence, the strike sparked thirteen acts of racial violence, including several non-fatal shootings.

After more than a week, the strike ended and PTC employees returned to work after being threatened with termination, loss of draft deferments, and ineligibility for unemployment benefits. By September 1944, the PTC’s first black trolley drivers were on duty.

1944

October 11th, 1944

United States Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Korematsu v. United States

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing military exclusion of any citizens from areas deemed critical to national defense and potentially vulnerable to espionage. Congress made disobeying the military orders a crime and forced more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry to accept internment or face arrest.

In May 1942, Fred Korematsu, a twenty-three-year-old Japanese American born in Oakland, California, was arrested and jailed for refusing to obey the relocation and internment order. After his arrest, Mr. Korematsu was approached by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and agreed to use his case to challenge the internment of Japanese Americans. After he was convicted in the trial court and his conviction affirmed on appeal, Mr. Korematsu and his lawyers appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

On October 11 and 12, 1944, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Korematsu v. United States. Mr. Korematsu challenged Executive Order 9066 as unconstitutional and argued that the enforcement of exclusion and detention orders violated Japanese Americans’ basic constitutional rights.

On December 18, 1944, in a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled in favor of the United States, holding that the need to protect the nation was a greater priority than the individual rights of Japanese Americans. The Court further held that, during times of war, the government is allowed to pass laws that may not be legal in times of peace. The ruling permitted the continued internment of Japanese Americans, including Fred Korematsu, until the end of the war.

In 1983, Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, and its resulting report concluded that the relocation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans had been unjustified. The commission recommended Congress apologize and provide compensation to survivors and their families. In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which formally apologized for the injustices committed against Japanese Americans, provided reparations to survivors, and created a public education fund to encourage remembrance.

1945

February 14th, 1945

Grand Jury in Henry County, Alabama, Refuses to Indict Mrs. Recy Taylor's White Rapists

Around midnight on September 3, 1944, Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black, married mother, was walking with neighbors, headed home from a revival service at Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama. Before she made it home, a gang of white men kidnapped her, drove to a remote area in the woods, and raped her at gun point. After six of the men took turns raping her, they blindfolded her, drove her back to the road, and left her to walk home.

Mrs. Taylor soon contacted the police, and the sheriff identified one of the suspects based on her description of the car. Hugo Wilson, the owner of the car, identified the six men who raped Mrs. Taylor as: Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper, Dillard York, Billy Howerton, and Robert Gamble. Yet none of the men were arrested.

When the NAACP branch office in Montgomery, Alabama, heard of Mrs. Taylor’s rape and local officials’ failure to respond, the chapter president sent NAACP Secretary Rosa Parks to investigate. After gathering details, Mrs. Parks established the Committee for Equal Justice to demand prosecution of Mrs. Taylor’s attackers. Amid the publicity, Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks also launched an investigation.

In the course of the subsequent proceedings, Mrs. Taylor’s character became the main matter of dispute; four of the six accused rapists admitted to having intercourse with her but claimed she was a “prostitute” and “a willing participant.” The Sheriff accused Mrs. Taylor of being “nothing but a whore” and alleged that she had been treated for venereal disease. Meanwhile, other white men in Abbeville described Mrs. Taylor as an “upstanding respectable woman who abided by the town’s racial and sexual mores.” And one of the accused rapists, Joe Culpepper, admitted that Mrs. Taylor had been gang raped at gunpoint and that he and his fellow rapists had been looking for a woman that night.

Despite this information and widespread, national support for Mrs. Taylor’s cause, on February 14, 1945, an all-white, all-male grand jury failed to return an indictment against any of Mrs. Taylor’s rapists. The men were never prosecuted.

In the months after Mrs. Taylor’s attack, she received constant death threats and her home was firebombed by white supremacists. The Recy Taylor case, though rarely cited, is credited as being a catalyst for the modern Civil Rights Movement. In 2011, the Alabama Legislature apologized to Mrs. Taylor for the state’s failure to prosecute her rapists.

1945

April 14th, 1945

White House Correspondents’ Association Denies Black Reporter Access to FDR Funeral

On April 14, 1945, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) tried to exclude Harry McAlpin, the only African American White House correspondent, from observing a funeral service for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. Two of twelve spots held for news and radio reporters had been reserved for African American newspaper representatives, but on the morning of the funeral, the WHCA instead gave those spots to two additional white reporters, asserting that the association did not represent black journalists. Over WHCA’s objection, the White House allowed Mr. McAlpin to cover the funeral service.

Racial discrimination in journalistic access to political events was common during this era. Denied admission into the press briefing room or other locations, African American reporters were forced to rely on second-hand information to report to their readership what was happening in Washington. Ordinarily, a reporter’s application for the credentials necessary to attend White House press conferences required approval by WHCA. The Congressional Standing Committee was responsible for granting reporters access to the House and Senate press galleries. Through the mid-twentieth century, both WHCA and the Congressional Standing Committee refused to grant access to any African American reporters.

To circumvent this discrimination during his administration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered White House press credentials issued to African American reporter Harry McAlpin, and on February 8, 1944, McAlpin became the first African American reporter to attend a press conference in the Oval Office. Notwithstanding this gesture, by the time of President Roosevelt’s funeral, WHCA continued to deny membership to McAlpin and the Congressional Standing Committee still had not granted any African Americans access to the House or Senate press galleries.

1945

December 16th, 1945

Black Family Killed in Southern California House Fire after Refusing to Move from White Neighborhood

On December 16, 1945, the Fontana, California, home of the Short family erupted in flames, killing Helen Short and her two children, Barry, 9, and Carol Ann, 7. O’day H. Short, husband and father of the family, survived the explosion and was kept in critical condition at a nearby hospital. Until their deaths, the Shorts were the first and only black family living in the neighborhood.

Initially organized as a collection of chicken farms and citrus groves in the early twentieth century, by the early 1940s the small San Bernardino County town of Fontana was transformed into an industrial center with the opening of a wartime steel mill. As the community population grew in numbers and diversity, strict segregation lines emerged: black families moving out of the overcrowded Los Angeles area were relegated to living in the rocky plains of “North Fontana,” and working in the dirtiest departments of the mill. Ku Klux Klan activity also surged throughout Southern California during this time period, with white supremacists poised to terrorize black and Chicano veterans of WWII returning with militant ideas of racial equality.

This was reality in fall 1945, when O’day H. Short – a Mississippi native and Los Angeles civil rights activist – purchased a tract of land “in town” with intentions of moving his family to Fontana’s white section. As the Shorts built their modest home and prepared to live in it full time, local forces of all kinds tried to stop them. In early December 1945, “vigilantes” visited Mr. Short and ordered him to move or risk harm to his family; he refused and reported the threats to the FBI and local sheriff. Sheriff’s deputies did not offer protection and instead reiterated the warning that Short should leave before his family was harmed. Shortly after, members of the Fontana Chamber of Commerce visited the home, encouraging Mr. Short to move to the North Fontana area, and offering to buy his home. He refused.

Just days later, an explosion “of unusual intensity” destroyed the home, killing Mr. Short’s wife and children. He survived for two weeks, shielded from the knowledge of the other deaths, but died in January 1946 after the local D.A. bluntly informed him of his family’s fate during an investigative interview.

Local officials initially concluded that the fire was an accident, caused by Mr. Short’s own lighting of an outdoor lamp. After surviving family members, the black press, and the Los Angeles NAACP protested, a formal inquest was held, at which an independent arson investigator obtained by the NAACP testified that the fire had clearly been intentionally set. Despite this testimony, and evidence of the harassment the Short family had endured in the weeks leading to the fire, local officials again concluded it an accident and closed the case. No criminal investigation was ever opened, no arrests or prosecutions were made, and residential segregation persisted in Fontana for over 25 more years.

1946

April 18th, 1946

Davis Knight Marries Junie Lee Spradley in Mississippi

On April 18, 1946, a thirty-two-year-old Navy veteran named Davis Knight married Junie Lee Spradley, a white woman. In June 1948, the state indicted Mr. Knight for violating a law that prohibited “marriage or cohabitation between white persons and those with one-eighth or more Negro or Mongolian blood.” At trial, Mr. Knight insisted that he was white: his wife believed him to be white and his Navy service records listed him as white. The State set out to prove he was black.

The whole case turned on the race of Mr. Knight’s deceased great-grandmother, Rachel; if she was black, Mr. Knight was at least one-eighth black and guilty of the charge. As evidence of Rachel’s race, the State presented several elderly witnesses, including an eighty-nine-year-old white man who testified that Rachel had lived on his father’s plantation and was a “known Negro.” On December 18, 1948, Mr. Knight was convicted of being black and sentenced to five years in prison for marrying outside of his race.

He appealed, and on November 14, 1949, the Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed his conviction. The Court held that, in Mr. Knight’s particular case, the State had failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove that Rachel was fully black, so it had not proved that Mr. Knight was at least one-eighth black.

Though the decision did not strike down the state’s miscegenation law, or prevent future prosecution of Mr. Knight or others, many white Mississippians protested the decision, hanging members of the court in effigy. The state’s ban on interracial marriage would stand for nearly two more decades, until the United States Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia struck down remaining anti-miscegenation laws in Mississippi and seventeen other states.

1946

May 3rd, 1946

Black Teen Survives Louisiana Electric Chair

In 1945, a black sixteen-year-old named Willie Francis was sentenced to death in St. Martinville, Louisiana. Willie was convicted of killing Andrew Thomas, a fifty-three-year-old Cajun pharmacist, and the case revealed many flaws in the state’s justice system: Willie’s jury included no black jurors; his court-appointed attorneys did not present a defense and declined to cross-examine the State's witnesses; and the State’s case relied on a confession Willie made to police with no lawyer present.

Willie’s conviction was upheld, and his execution went forward on May 3, 1946. But when executioners strapped Willie into “Gruesome Gertie,” the electric chair that had been used to execute twenty-three people, he convulsed and screamed, and did not die. When the sheriff ordered the electricity shut off, Willie was taken back to his cell, spared and hopeful. Reflecting on the experience afterward, Willie wrote:

“I didn’t think about my whole life like at the picture show. Just, ‘Willie, you’re going outta this world in this bad chair.’ Sometimes I thought it so loud it hurt my head and when they put the black bag over my head I was all locked up inside the bag with the loud thinking . . . I felt a burning in my head and my left leg and I jumped against the straps. When the straps kept cutting me I hoped I was alive and I asked the electric man to let me breathe. That’s when they took the bag off my head.”

Within an hour of the failed execution, Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis ordered the chair fixed and a second try scheduled for one week later. Betrand DeBlanc, a young Cajun lawyer returning from war, took on the boy’s case and challenged the state’s right to try to kill Willie again. Before the United States Supreme Court, Mr. DeBlanc argued that a second electrocution would violate double jeopardy protections and constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal in Francis v. Resweber in January 1947. On May 9, 1947, at 12:05 p.m., Willie Francis died in Louisiana’s electric chair.

1946

October 22nd, 1946

Despite Confession, Five White Men Freed in Mississippi Lynching

On October 22, 1946, five white men accused in the beating death of Leon McAtee, a black man, were freed by the Holmes County, Mississippi, court. Though one of the five had confessed to his own involvement in the murder and implicated the other four men, none was convicted. Before the trial ended, Judge S.F. Davis acquitted Spencer Ellis and James Roberts, finding the evidence insufficient to prove their guilt. The all-white jury then deliberated for ten minutes before acquitting Jeff Dodd Sr., Jeff Dodd Jr., and Dixie Roberts.

Leon McAtee was a tenant on Jeff Dodd Sr.’s farm who working a small plot of land for very little pay. When Mr. Dodd’s saddle went missing, he suspected Mr. McAtee of stealing it and had the black man arrested. On July 22, 1946, Mr. Dodd withdrew the charges and police released Mr. McAtee into Mr. Dodd’s custody. Mr. Dodd then called Dixie Roberts and together they took Mr. McAtee back to Mr. Dodd’s home, where Jeff Dodd Jr., James Roberts, and Spencer Ellis awaited them.

Inside the home, all five men beat Mr. McAtee and whipped him with a three-quarter-inch rope. The men then drove the badly beaten man to his home and presented him to his wife, who later reported that her husband was dazed and muttering about a saddle. The men then drove away with Mr. McAtee in their truck, and Mrs. McAtee fled with her children. Her husband was found dead in a bayou two days later. Soon after, his two young stepsons confessed to stealing the saddle.

1947

February 17th, 1947

Willie Earle Lynched Near Greenville, South Carolina

On February 17, 1947, Willie Earle, a twenty-four-year-old African American man, was being held in the Pickens County Jail in South Carolina, on charges of stabbing a white taxi cab driver. A mob of white men – mostly taxi cab drivers – seized Mr. Earle from the jail, took him to a deserted country road near Greenville, brutally beat him with guns and knives, and then shot him to death.

When arrested, twenty-six of the twenty–eight defendants gave full statements admitting participation in Mr. Earle’s death. A trial commenced, and at its start, Judge J. Robert Martin warned that he would “not allow racial issues to be injected in this case.” During the ten-day trial, the defendants chewed gum and chuckled each time the victim was mentioned. The defense did not present any witnesses or evidence to rebut the confessions, and instead blamed “northern interference” for bringing the case to trial at all. At one point, the defense attorney likened Mr. Earle to a “mad dog” that deserved killing, and the mostly white spectators laughed in support.

Despite the undisputed confession, the all-white jury acquitted the defendants of all charges on May 21, 1947, and the judge ordered them released. Some Greenville leaders cited the trial as progress in Southern race relations: “This was the first time that South Carolina has brought mass murder charges against alleged lynchers. This jury acquitted them. If there should be another case, perhaps we may get a mistrial with a hung jury. Eventually, the south may return convictions.”

In 1948, when Mr. Earle’s mother attempted to collect under a state law ordering counties to pay two thousand dollars to the family of a lynching victim, her claim was denied on the grounds that, due to the acquittals, there was no proof her son had been lynched. In 2010, an historical marker was erected near the site of Willie Earle’s murder.

1947

April 13th, 1947

Civil Rights Activist Bayard Rustin Arrested in North Carolina

On June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court in Morgan v. Virginia declared unconstitutional state laws that segregated interstate passengers on motor carriers. Shortly thereafter, the decision was interpreted to apply to interstate train and bus travel. The executive committee of the Congress of Racial Equality and the racial-industrial committee of the Fellowship of Reconciliation organized a “Journey of Reconciliation” through the Upper South to determine whether train and bus companies were adhering to the Morgan decision. Over a period of two weeks in April 1947, an interracial group of men traveled to fifteen cities in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky to test whether public transportation vehicles were operating without segregation.

On April 13, 1947, Bayard Rustin, a thirty-five-year-old black civil rights activist, boarded a bus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as part of the “Journey of Reconciliation.” Mr. Rustin sat with a white man at the front of the bus and refused to move to the back when asked by the bus driver to do so. Police officers arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct and refusing to obey the bus driver. Three other activists traveling with Mr. Rustin were also arrested. When the men were released on bond, they were threatened with violence, and fled Chapel Hill after a white activist participating in the “Journey of Reconciliation” was assaulted.

Two years later, on March 21, 1949, Mr. Rustin was sentenced to thirty days imprisonment for sitting next to a white man on a bus, and spent over three weeks working on a prison chain gang that was overseen by armed guards.

1948

July 26th, 1948

President Harry Truman Orders Integration of U.S. Armed Forces

By the end of World War II, black troops had fought in every major United States military campaign since the American Revolution while suffering continuously from racial discrimination within the armed forces, including disparities in training, equipment, and opportunity. Following the Allied victory, black civil rights leaders persistently pressured President Harry S. Truman to alleviate this problem.

A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a leading advocate for black troops seeking equality. Black leaders warned President Truman, a Democrat, that he would lose black voters’ support in the upcoming 1948 election if he ignored racial discrimination. Clark Clifford, the president’s special counsel, echoed the warning in a confidential memo. In February 1948, President Truman asked Congress to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation but legislators failed to act. Black leaders then urged President Truman to enact an executive order. He remained hesitant to act unilaterally to change segregation policies in the military until, in 1948, the Republican party declared its opposition to military segregation.

On July 26, 1948, in Executive Order 9981, President Truman ordered the integration of the United States armed forces. Black voters responded by turning out in droves to re-elect President Truman over Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey, and handed the president key victories in three states with close races: California, Illinois, and Ohio. The last all-black military unit was disbanded in 1954 but the desegregation order marked just the beginning of a campaign for equal rights, opportunities, and promotions for minority troops in the military.