World War II as a Watershed in Race relations

Lesson Author
Required Time Frame
1 45-minute class period (For advanced students) or 2 45-minute class periods for standard-level courses
Grade Level(s)
Lesson Abstract
This lesson asks students to consider the war years as equally important in pushing for racial equality.

This lesson focuses on small-group document analysis to evaluate the impact of World War II on civil rights.

Lesson Objectives - the student will
  • Explain how the double-V campaign shaped civil rights efforts and Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces
  • Analyze primary sources to form an argument
District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met
  • Missouri Social Studies Learning Standards (9-12) 3a.I -- Analyze the evolution of American democracy, its ideas, institutions and political processes from Reconstruction to the present, including: struggle for civil rights
  • College Board AP US History outline:  WOR-4 Explain how the U.S. involvement in global conflicts in the 20th century set the stage for domestic social changes.
Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed
Primary sources needed (document, photograph, artifact, diary or letter, audio or visual recording, etc.) needed
  • Photograph:  World War II soldiers with captured Nazi flag.  United States Army.
                Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Accession Number: 72-3951


  • Letter:  James G. Thompson, to the African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, January 1942. 


  • To Secure These Rights: Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, October 29, 1947
  • Letter:  James G. Thompson, to the African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, January 1942.   



Being an American of dark complexion and some 26 years, these questions flash through my mind: Should I sacrifice my life to live half American? Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow? Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life? Is the kind of America I know worth defending? Will America be a true and pure democracy after the war? Will Colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been heaped upon them in the past? These and other questions need answering; I want to know, and I believe every colored American, who is thinking, wants to know...


The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in all so–called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery, and tyranny. If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict, then let we colored Americans adopt the double V V for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.




  • Truman’s Address in San Francisco at the Closing Session of the United Nations
    Conference, June 26, 1945.  


Address in San Francisco at the Closing Session of the United Nations


June 26, 1945 

Mr. Chairman and Delegates to the United Nations Conference on International Organization:

I deeply regret that the press of circumstances when this Conference opened made it
impossible for me to be here to greet you in person. I have asked for the privilege of coming today,
to express on behalf of the people of the United States our thanks for what you have done here,
and to wish you Godspeed on your journeys home.

Somewhere in this broad country, every one of you can find some of our citizens who are sons and
daughters, or descendants in some degree, of your own native land. All our people are glad and
proud that this historic meeting and its accomplishments have taken place in our country. And that
includes the millions of loyal and patriotic Americans who stem from the countries not represented
at this Conference.

We are grateful to you for coming. We hope you have enjoyed your stay, and that you will come

You assembled in San Francisco nine weeks ago with the high hope and confidence of
peace-loving people the world over.

Their confidence in you has been justified.

Their hope for your success has been fulfilled.

The Charter of the United Nations which you have just signed is a solid structure upon which we
can build a better world. History will honor you for it. Between the victory in Europe and the final
victory in Japan, in this most destructive of all wars, you have won a victory against war itself.

It was the hope of such a Charter that helped sustain the courage of stricken peoples through the
darkest days of the war. For it is a declaration of great faith by the nations of the earth--faith that
war is not inevitable, faith that peace can be maintained.

If we had had this Charter a few years ago-and above all, the will to use it--millions now dead
would be alive. If we should falter in the future in our will to use it, millions now living will surely

It has already been said by many that this is only a first step to a lasting peace. That is true. The
important thing is that all our thinking and all our actions be based on the realization that it is in fact
only a first step. Let us all have it firmly in mind that we start today from a good beginning and,
with our eye always on the final objective, let us march forward.

The Constitution of my own country came from a Convention which--like this one--was made up
of delegates with many different views. Like this Charter, our Constitution came from a free and
sometimes bitter exchange of conflicting opinions. When it was adopted, no one regarded it as a
perfect document. But it grew and developed and expanded. And upon it there was built a bigger,
a better, a more perfect union.

This Charter, like our own Constitution, will be expanded and improved as time goes on. No one
claims that it is now a final or a perfect instrument. It has not been poured into any fixed mold.
Changing world conditions will require readjustments--but they will be the readjustments of peace
and not of war.

That we now have this Charter at all is a great wonder. It is also a cause for profound
thanksgiving to Almighty God, who has brought us so far in our search for peace through world

There were many who doubted that agreement could ever be reached by these fifty countries
differing so much in race and religion, in language and culture. But these differences were all
forgotten in one unshakable unity of determination--to find a way to end wars.

Out of all the arguments and disputes, and different points of view, a way was found to agree.
Here is the spotlight of full publicity, in the tradition of liberty-loving people, opinions were
expressed openly and freely. The faith and the hope of fifty peaceful nations were laid before this
world forum. Differences were overcome. This Charter was not the work of any single nation or
group of nations, large or small. It was the result of a spirit of give-and-take, of tolerance for the
views and interests of others.

It was proof that nations, like men, can state their differences, can face them, and then can find
common ground on which to stand. That is the essence of democracy; that is the essence of
keeping the peace in the future. By your agreement, the way was shown toward future agreement
in the years to come.

This Conference owes its success largely to the fact that you have kept your minds firmly on the
main objective. You-had the single job of writing a constitution--a charter for peace. And you
stayed on that job.

In spite of the many distractions which came to you in the form of daily problems and disputes
about such matters as new boundaries, control of Germany, peace settlements, reparations, war
criminals, the form of government of some of the European countries--in spite of all these, you
continued in the task of framing this document.

Those problems and scores of others, which will arise, are all difficult. They are
complicated. They are controversial and dangerous.

But with united spirit we met and solved even more difficult problems during the war. And with the
same spirit, if we keep to our principles and never forsake our objectives, the problems we now
face and those to come will also be solved.

We have tested the principle of cooperation in this war and have found that it works. Through the
pooling of resources, through joint and combined military command, through constant staff
meetings, we have shown what united strength can do in war. That united strength forced
Germany to surrender. United strength will force Japan to surrender.

The United Nations have also had experience, even while the fighting was still going on, in
reaching economic agreements for times of peace. What was done on the subject of relief at
Atlantic City, food at Hot Springs, finance at Bretton Woods, aviation at Chicago, was a fair test of
what can be done by nations determined to live cooperatively in a world where they cannot live
peacefully any other way.

What you have accomplished in San Francisco shows how well these lessons of military and
economic cooperation have been learned. You have created a great instrument for peace and
security and human progress in the world.

The world must now use it!

If we fail to use it, we shall betray all those who have died in order that we might meet here in
freedom and safety to create it.

If we seek to use it selfishly--for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of
nations--we shall be equally guilty of that betrayal.

The successful use of this instrument will require the united will and firm determination of the free
peoples who have created it. The job will tax the moral strength and fibre of us all.

We all have to recognize-no matter how great our strength--that we must deny ourselves the
license to do always as we please. No one nation, no regional group, can or should expect, any
special privilege which harms any other nation. If any nation would keep security for itself, it must
be ready and willing to share security with all. That is the price which each nation will have to pay
for world peace. Unless we are all willing to pay that price, no organization for world peace can
accomplish its purpose.

And what a reasonable price that is!

Out of this conflict have come powerful military nations, now fully trained and equipped for war.
But they have no right to dominate the world. It is rather the duty of these powerful nations to
assume the responsibility for leadership toward a world of peace. That is why we have here
resolved that power and strength shall be used not to wage war, but to keep the world at peace,
and free from the fear of war.

By their own example the strong nations of the world should lead the way to international justice.
That principle of justice is the foundation stone of this Charter. That principle is the guiding spirit by
which it must be carried out--not by words alone but by continued concrete acts of good will.

There is a time for making plans--and there is a time for action. The time for action is now! Let us,
therefore, each in his own nation and according to its own way, seek immediate approval of this
Charter-and make it a living thing.

I shall send this Charter to the United States Senate at once. I am sure that the overwhelming
sentiment of the people of my country and of their representatives in the Senate is in favor of
immediate ratification.

A just and lasting peace cannot be attained by diplomatic agreement alone, or by military
cooperation alone. Experience has shown how deeply the seeds of war are planted by economic
rivalry and by social injustice. The Charter recognizes this fact for it has provided for economic
and social cooperation as well. It has provided for this cooperation as part of the very heart of the
entire compact.

It has set up machinery of international cooperation which men and nations of good will can use to
help correct economic and social causes for conflict.

Artificial and uneconomic trade barriers should be removed--to the end that the standard of living
of as many people as possible throughout the world may be raised. For Freedom from Want is one
of the basic Four Freedoms toward which we all strive. The large and powerful nations of the
world must assume leadership in this economic field as in all others.

Under this document we have good reason to expect the framing of an international bill of rights,
acceptable to all the nations involved. That bill of rights will be as much a part of international life
as our own Bill of Rights is a part of our Constitution. The Charter is dedicated to the achievement
and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Unless we can attain those objectives
for all men and women everywhere--without regard to race, language or religion-we cannot have
permanent peace and security.

With this Charter the world can begin to look forward to the time when all worthy human beings
may be permitted to live decently as free people.

The world has learned again that nations, like individuals, must know the truth if they would be
free--must read and hear the truth, learn and teach the truth.

We must set up an effective agency for constant and thorough interchange of thought and ideas.
For there lies the road to a better and more tolerant understanding among nations and among

All Fascism did not die with Mussolini. Hitler is finished--but the seeds spread by his disordered
mind have firm root in too many fanatical brains. It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy
concentration camps than it is to kill the ideas which gave them birth and strength. Victory on the
battlefield was essential, but it was not enough. For a good peace, a lasting peace, the decent
peoples of the earth must remain determined to strike down the evil spirit which has hung over the
world for the last decade.

The forces of reaction and tyranny all over the world will try to keep the United Nations from
remaining united. Even while the military machine of the Axis was being destroyed in Europe-even
down to its very end--they still tried to divide us.

They failed. But they will try again.

They are trying even now. To divide and conquer was--and still is--their plan. They still try to
make one Ally suspect the other, hate the other, desert the other.

But I know I speak for every one of you when I say that the United Nations will remain united.
They will not be divided by propaganda either before the Japanese surrender--or after.
This occasion shows again the continuity of history.

By this Charter, you have given reality to the ideal of that great statesman of a generation
ago--Woodrow Wilson.

By this Charter, you have moved toward the goal for which that gallant leader in this second world
struggle worked and fought and gave his life--Franklin D. Roosevelt.

By this Charter, you have realized the objectives of many men of vision in your own countries who
have devoted their lives to the cause of world organization for peace.

Upon all of us, in all our countries, is now laid the duty of transforming into action these words
which you have written. Upon our decisive action rests the hope of those who have fallen, those
now living, those yet unborn--the hope for a world of free countries--with decent standards of
living--which will work and cooperate in a friendly civilized community of nations.

This new structure of peace is rising upon strong foundations.

Let us not fail to grasp this supreme chance to establish a world-wide rule of reason--to create an
enduring peace under the guidance of God.

NOTE: The President spoke at the Opera House in San Francisco. His opening words "Mr.
Chairman" referred to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, who served as president of the
Conference and as chairman of the U.S. delegation.

  • Executive Order 9808 –establishment of President’s Committee on Civil Rights

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WHEREAS the preservation of civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution is essential to domestic tranquility, national security, the general welfare, and the continued existence of our free institutions; and

WHEREAS the action of individuals who take the law into their own hands and inflict summary punishment and wreak personal vengeance is subversive of our democratic system of law enforcement and public criminal justice, and gravely threatens our form of government; and

WHEREAS it is essential that all possible steps be taken to safeguard our civil rights;

NOW, THREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. There is hereby created a committee to be known as the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which shall be composed of the following-named members, who shall serve without compensation:

Mr. Charles E. Wilson, Chairman; Mrs. Sadie T. Alexander; Mr. James B. Carey; Mr. John S. Dickey; Mr. Morris L. Ernst; Rabbi Roland G. Gittelsohn; Dr. Frank P. Graham; the Most Reverend Francis J. Haas; Mr. Charles Luckman; Mr. Francis P. Matthews; Mr. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.; The Right Reverend Henry Knox Sherrill; Mr. Boris Shishkin; Mrs. M. E. Tilley; Mr. Channing H. Tobias.

2. The Committee is authorized on behalf of the President to inquire into and to determine whether and in what respect current law-enforcement measures and the authority and means possessed by Federal, State, and local governments may be strengthened and improved to safeguard the civil rights of the people.

3. All executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government are authorized and directed to cooperate with the Committee in its work, and to furnish the Committee such information or services of such persons as the Committee may require in the performance of its duties.

4. When requested by the Committee to do so, persons employed in any of the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall testify before the Committee and shall make available for the use of the Committee such documents and other information as the Committee may require.

5. The Committee shall make a report of its studies to the President in writing, and shall in particular make recommendations with respect to the adoption or establishment, by legislation or otherwise, of more adequate and effective means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States.

6. Upon rendition of its report to the President, the Committee shall cease to exist, unless otherwise determined by further Executive order.

December 5, 1946.



Four Essential Rights, image from To Secure These Rights, Oct. 1947

 To Secure These Rights: Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, October 29, 1947



 Some Selections from Chapter 2:  Short of the Goal


1. The Right to Safety and Security of the Person

Vital to the integrity of the individual and to the stability of a democratic society is the right of each individual to physical freedom, to security against illegal violence, and to fair, orderly legal process. Most Americans enjoy this right, but it is not yet secure for all. Too many of our people still live under the harrowing fear of violence or death at the hands of a mob or of brutal treatment by police officers. Many fear entanglement with the law because of the knowledge that the justice rendered in some courts is not equal for all persons. In a few areas the freedom to move about and choose one’s job is endangered by attempts to hold workers in peonage or other forms of involuntary servitude.


In 1946 at least six persons in the United States were lynched by mobs. Three of them had not been charged, either by the police or anyone else, with an offense. Of the three that had been charged, one had been accused of stealing a saddle. (The real thieves were discovered after the lynching.) Another was said to have broken into a house. A third was charged with stabbing a man. All were Negroes. During the same year, mobs were prevented from lynching 22 persons, of whom 21 were Negroes, 1 white.

On July 20, 1946, a white farmer, Loy Harrison, posted bond for the release of Roger Malcolm from the jail at Monroe, Georgia. Malcolm, a young Negro, had been involved in a fight with his white employer during the course of which the latter had been stabbed. It is reported that there was talk of lynching Malcolm at the time of the incident and while he was in jail. Upon Malcolm’s release, Harrison started to drive Malcolm, Malcolm’s wife, and a Negro overseas veteran, George Dorsey, and his wife, out of Monroe. At a bridge along the way a large group of unmasked white men, armed with. pistols and shotguns, was waiting. They stopped Harrison’s car and removed Malcolm and Dorsey. As they were leading the two men away, Harrison later stated, one of the women called out the name of a member of the mob. Thereupon the lynchers returned and removed the two women from the car. Three volleys of shots were fired as if by a squad of professional executioners. The coroner’s report said that at least 66 bullets were found in the scarcely recognizable bodies. Harrison consistently denied that he could identify any of the unmasked murderers. State and federal grand juries reviewed the evidence in the case, but no person has yet been indicted for the crime.

Later that summer, in Minden, Louisiana, a young Negro named John Jones was arrested on suspicion of housebreaking. Another Negro youth, Albert Harris, was arrested at about the same time, and beaten in an effort to implicate Jones. He was then released, only to be rearrested after a few days. On August 6th, early in the evening, and before there had been any trial of the charges against them, Jones and Harris were released by a deputy sheriff. Waiting in the jail yard was a group of white men. There was evidence that, with the aid of the deputy sheriff, the young men were put into a car. They were then driven into the country. Jones was beaten to death. Harris, left for dead, revived and escaped. Five persons, including two deputy sheriffs, were indicted and brought to trial in a federal court for this crime. All were acquitted.

These are two of the less brutal lynchings of the past years. The victims in these cases were not mutilated or burned.


The record for 1947 is incomplete. There has been one lynching, one case in which the victim escaped, and other instances where mobs have been unable to accomplish their purpose. On February 17, I947, a Negro youth named Willie Earle, accused of fatally stabbing a taxi driver in the small city of Greenville, South Carolina, was removed from jail by a mob, viciously beaten and finally shot to death. In an unusual and impressive instance of state prosecution, 31 men were tried for this crime. All were acquitted on the evening of May 21,1947. Early the next morning, in Jackson, North Carolina, another Negro youth, Godwin Bush, arrested on a charge of approaching a white woman, was removed from a local jail by a mob, after having been exhibited through the town by the sheriff. Bush succeeded in escaping from his abductors, and, after hiding for two days in nearby woods, was able to surrender himself safely into the custody of FBI agents and officers of the state. The Committee finds it encouraging to note that the Governor of North Carolina has made vigorous efforts to bring to justice those responsible for this attempted lynching.

While available statistics show that, decade by decade, lynchings have decreased, this Committee has found that in the year 1947 lynching remains one of the most serious threats to the civil rights of Americans. It is still possible for a mob to abduct and murder a person in some sections of the country with almost certain assurance of escaping punishment for the crime. The decade from 1936 through 1946 saw at least 43 lynchings. No person received the death penalty, and the majority of the guilty persons were not even prosecuted.


The right of all qualified citizens to vote is today considered axiomatic by most Americans. To achieve universal adult suffrage we have carried on vigorous political crusades since the earliest days of the Republic. In theory the aim has been achieved, but in fact there are many backwaters in our political life where the right to vote is not assured to every qualified citizen. The franchise is barred to some citizens because of race; to others by institutions or procedures which impede free access to the polls. Still other Americans are in substance disfranchised whenever electoral irregularities or corrupt practices dissipate their votes or distort their intended purpose. Some citizens -- permanent residents of the District of Columbia -- are excluded from political representation and the right to vote as a result of outmoded national traditions. As a result of such restrictions, all of these citizens are limited, in varying degrees, in their opportunities to seek office and to influence the conduct of government on an equal plane with other American citizens.

The denial of the suffrage on account of race is the most serious present interference with the right to vote. Until very recently, American Negro citizens in most southern states found it difficult to vote. Some Negroes have voted in parts of the upper South for the last twenty years. In recent years the situation in the deep South has changed to the point where it can be said that Negroes are beginning to exercise the political rights of free Americans. In the light of history, this represents progress, limited and precarious, but nevertheless progress.

This report cannot adequately describe the history of Negro disfranchisement. At different times, different methods have been employed. As legal devices for disfranchising the Negro have been held unconstitutional.


Technology Required


Fully describe the activity or assignment in detail. What will both the teacher and the students do?
  • Bellwork: Project the image, “World War II Soldiers with Captured Nazi Flag.”  Students should complete the photograph analysis worksheet individually.  After students complete the analysis, discuss their observations as a class.  (If projecting image on a SMART Board, students may annotate it for class discussion.)
  • Briefly lecture on Double-V campaign and examine letter from James G. Thompson to the Pittsburgh Courier in January 1942.  Students should look for ways to compare this letter with their observations in the image.  (Good opportunity also to review A. Philip Randolph’s work during World War II, as well as FDR’s Executive Order 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practices Committee, prohibiting discrimination in wartime industry.)
  • Distribute the speech, “Truman’s Address in San Francisco at the Closing Session of the United Nations Conference, June 26, 1945.”  If necessary to condense for time, teacher may edit the document, focusing on Truman’s invocation of the Four Freedoms and the necessity of the organization to secure human rights.  (If teacher has not previously taught Four Freedoms, it might be a good idea to go over FDR’s Four Freedoms speech and perhaps show the Norman Rockwell depiction of them.) 
  • Brief discussion of documents and that the creation of the UN drew attention to Jim Crow laws in the United States.  Again come back to the Double V campaign and the political implications for creating an international organization that focused on human rights while denying rights to a large segment of the United States population.  This certainly gained the attention of black leadership as well. National Negro Congress petitions UN in 1946 and Truman shortly thereafter issued Executive Order 9808, which established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.  The Committee issued its report, To Secure These Rights in 1947.
  • Project the image, “Four Essential Rights” from To Secure These Rights. Students should complete a comparison chart of this image with key details in Truman’s Address at the Closing Session of the UN conference.  Discuss the Four Freedoms again and how this also relates to the Double-V campaign.
  • Jigsaw excerpts from To Secure These Rights.   Chapter 2, “The Record:  Short of the Goal” provides a good overview of some of the problems African Americans faced in 1947 and relates directly to Four Freedoms and some of the arguments of the Double-V campaign.  Each group should take a selection from chapter 2, read closely and discuss in small groups as follows:
  • What did the committee find regarding African American challenges in 1947?
  • How do the committee’s findings relate to the Double-V campaign?
  • How do you see seeds of the Civil Rights Movement in the committee’s report?
  • Each group should select a reporter to share some of the key points of their discussion with the class.
  • Preview some of the major civil rights achievements of the 1950s and 60s:  Brown v. Board of Education, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In what ways does To Secure These Rights show these acts to be necessary?  Do you believe the report may have paved the way for future achievements?  Why or why not?
  • Briefly discuss Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces via executive order in 1948 as an outgrowth of this report.  If time, have students examine the chronology of this order as compiled by the Truman Library. 
  • Tying it all together – Discuss the extent to which a compilation of wartime actions – Double V campaign, the Four Freedoms, the creation of the UN contributed to Truman’s actions with civil rights after the war.  How significant were Truman’s actions in the scope of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole?


Assessment: fully explain the assessment method in detail or create and attach a scoring guide

Short Writing:  Students should respond to each of the following components of the question below using specific details from images and written documents examined in this lesson in each response.  Each response should be about 50 words.  For an AP Course, this would be graded in the same manner as the short answer section of the AP Exam, according to the following scoring guide used with the 2015 exam:

This short writing could be done immediately following this lesson, or as an assessment at the conclusion of examination of the Civil Rights movement. Completing the assignment later would allow the teacher to determine if the student can discuss the civil rights achievements of the 1940s in context of the Movement as a whole, but completing the assessment immediately following the lesson will give immediate feedback as to whether students individually understood the documents and the class discussion. 


Short writing: 


a. While we tend to associate the gains of the Civil Rights Movement with the 1950s and 1960s, World War II and the years immediately following are equally important to the Movement.  Defend or refute the statement with specific details from this lesson.


b. To what extent might World War II be considered a turning point in civil rights?  What historical evidence validates your claim?


c. Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated the Four Freedoms in January 1941, and both Truman and the President’s Committee on Civil Rights referenced them at the end of the War and during the post-war years.  To what extent did these ideals provide a framework for the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement?