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Turning Point

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The experiences of African Americans in Bloomington-Normal have been influenced by many forces and events. Most particularly, the social and economic status of blacks has been affected by two major interrelated historical events. These events are conceptualized in this narrative as World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.

Since the beginning of the republic, people of African descent have served their country in wars. In some of the wars, blacks were promised various benefits for their services, however, most served because they perceived it to be their duty, and some did so believing their status would be improved. Robert Merton's theory of intended and unintended consequences helps to explain the improved status of blacks as a result of their services in the country's wars. However, it will be shown that these changes did not occur without pressure on many fronts. Andrew Jackson lauded black soldiers for their services in the Revolutionary War, yet when he became president, he took action to exclude blacks from the armed services. Eleanor Roosevelt observed that it was unconscionable to expect blacks to serve their country in war when they were denied their basic rights as citizens.

The Civil Rights Movement, World War II, and African Americans

Blacks' struggle for civil rights began with the slave trade of Africans to the American shores, and is amply documented in the history of the slave system. The history is replete with examples of Africans' efforts to free themselves. However, it was not until World War II and the civil rights movement that significant legislative and executive actions were taken that led to major changes. The contemporary civil rights movement began with World War II and intensified with the lynching of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat in the "white" section of the bus for the "black" section, and Martin Luther King's nonviolent movement for change. While World War II was not fought to improve the status of African Americans, one of the unintended consequences was the mounting of a series of federal laws and executive actions to guarantee equal rights for blacks in the military services, as well as war industries. Dr. John Hope Franklin recognized that the post-war years were the most aggressive and active on behalf of the civil rights of African Americans.

It is important to recognize that the changes in blacks' status in the military occurred primarily because of pressure from A. Philip Randolph, who was unrelenting in his efforts to demand equality of treatment of blacks in the armed forces as well as in the war industries. In 1941, Randolph threatened to march on Washington in a protest of discrimination in war industries. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which provided for fair employment practices in the defense industries. In 1940, the Selective Service Act was passed and designed to eliminate discrimination in drafting and training from military institutions. In 1948, President Truman signed an act to desegregate the armed forces, but that did not end discrimination in the military. However, because of subsequent incremental congressional and presidential actions, some say there is now less discrimination in the military than in the civilian sector.

Perhaps the concept "relative deprivation" best describes how blacks felt about their status in civilian life after having served their country in the military and in the war industries. They had experienced something



of what it meant to have laws protecting them from discrimination, and then as civilians, they experienced deprivation relative to their military experience. At war's end a variety of forces converged to effect change on the domestic front regarding the status of blacks. On the national level, private agencies, labor unions, religious organizations, and a variety of civil rights groups engaged in civil rights activities. Many whites who had served with blacks in the military expressed their anger that these same blacks were now denied the same rights that whites had. By the 1960s, there was a groundswell of activity throughout the nation by blacks and whites who used a variety of methods to eliminate discrimination and racism in all of its forms.

The Experience of African Americans in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois

Illinois, while not a "slave state," has a history of slavery, and defacto and dejure discrimination against blacks in almost every aspect of life. This discrimination prevailed essentially until the early 1960s when the "winds of change" blew into the area as it did all over the country. In Bloomington and Normal it expressed itself in a variety of shapes and forms. The following are just some examples of the face of racism and discrimination and how blacks sought to cope through the years.

Oscar Waddell served his country in the armed forces during World War II and recounted his experiences at a public park in Bloomington where blacks were forced to swim in a dirty swimming hole separated from white children. His elder friend Willie Stearles said to him, "Go along with it and one of these days it will be all right." When Oscar was preparing to leave to serve his country in World War II, he was looking for a place for his wife to live. When he found a place, he was initially refused by the white owner. Oscar said he was going to fight for his country and should be able to rent the house. Eventually, the owner relented.

Like most black males in Bloomington and Normal who held low level jobs even if they worked in factories, Oscar found himself employed as a janitor. It was only when the manager threatened to close the factory down one evening because a critical machinist became ill that the manager, with "tongue in cheek," asked Oscar if he could operate the machine. Oscar said he could, and he operated the machine superbly because he had observed the operation of the machine as he mopped.

Oscar's wife was denied a job in a factory even though she had scored very high on the test. She was hired only after several refusals, when she threatened a "one woman sit in." Lucinda Brent Posey remembered

Mary Hosea (third from left), Bloomington High School Cheerleader, 1951




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