Civil Rights and America's Role in World War II

Jan 13, 2009

Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Harvard Sitkoff (University of New Hampshire)

In cooperation with Vassar College and the Humanities Council of Washington, DC

Professor Sitkoff will discuss how civil rights for African Americans were advanced by the U.S. role in WWII, specifically by the ideological nature of the conflict, by the patriotism of African Americans, by reaction to the Holocaust, and by the need to bolster the US's standing among other nations of the world.

Harvard Sitkoff, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, received his Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop (2008), The Struggle for Black Equality (25th Anniversary Edition, 2008), A New Deal for Blacks (30th Anniversary Edition, 2009), The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People (6th edition, 2008), Postwar America: A Student Companion (2000), Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States (2000), The World War II Homefront (2003), and A History of Our Time (7th edition, 2008).

His articles have appeared in the American Quarterly, Journal of American History, and Journal of Southern History, among others. He has taught at Queens College, Washington University, and San Diego State University, lectured at nearly a hundred universities abroad, and has been awarded the Fulbright Commission's John Adams Professorship of American Civilization in the Netherlands and the Mary Ball Washington Professorship of American History in Ireland.

Reception begins at 6:00 pm and the lecture will begin at 6:30 pm.

Lecture will be held at the German Historical Institute (directions)
1607 New Hampshire Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20009

Event Report

As part of its series of events on "African Americans and Germany" and the ongoing exhibition on "African American Civil Rights and Germany," the GHI was pleased to welcome Professor Harvard Sitkoff from  the University of New Hampshire, a distinguished expert of U.S. history and the African American civil rights movement, to a lecture on "The Civil Rights Struggle and the Second World War" on January 13, 2009. The event was hosted in cooperation with Vassar College and the Humanities Council of Washington DC.

Hartmut Berghoff, the director of the German Historical Institute, opened the event and greeted the more than 150 guests by emphasizing the timeliness of this historical topic given the recent election of Barack Obama as President of the U.S., which has renewed public and academic interest in the history of the African American Civil Rights Movement worldwide. Martin Klimke, Visiting Fellow for North American History at the GHI, introduced Professor Sitkoff, who then discussed how civil rights for African Americans were advanced by America’s involvement in World War II, in particular by the ideological nature of the conflict, the patriotism of African Americans, reaction to the Holocaust, and the need to bolster America’s standing among other nations of the world in the war’s aftermath.

As Professor Sitkoff elaborated, it was America’s war against fascism and Nazi racism and the participation of African Americans in World War II that invigorated the African American Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, World War II and the struggle to free Europe from Nazi racism shaped the ways in which white liberal America started to talk about race, or what Gunnar Myrdal in 1943 called "The American Dilemma." Underlining, among other things, the socio-economic changes in the African American community during the Second World War, Sitkoff placed particular emphasis on the references in the black press that compared Nazi racism and Jim Crow in the U.S., and to the experience of African American GIs returning from the frontlines to a country that remained not only segregated but experienced a rash of violent attacks on returning veterans. He described the alliance that was forged between Jewish and African American organizations as a result of this wartime experience and also traced its dissolution during the 1960/70s.

Professor Sitkoff’s lecture was followed by a spirited discussion with the audience, of whom many offered further examples of the close relationship between World War II and a strengthened, often local, civil rights activism in their own families.

Martin Klimke