Teaching & Learning

Lessons in Civil Rights During WWII

An electronic field trip brings vivid local stories to life

As a young African American woman living in Oakland during World War II, Betty Soskin learned firsthand about the racial discrimination black Americans faced then. Now, at age 96, serving as a docent and park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Soskin has the insight and wisdom to put it into perspective.

She does just that in Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in WWII, an “electronic field trip” sponsored by the National WWII Museum. The 50-minute program, which will be live-streamed Feb. 22, is designed to bring out important issues from the war years to students in their classrooms — warts and all. For African Americans, the war was another turning point in civil rights history.

“The state of the union was very different than it is now,” says Soskin, who worked as a clerk in the segregated boilermakers union during the war era. “Looking back, I’ve become aware that some change is immediate, some takes decades, some is generational. I’ve lived long enough to learn that change comes in cycles.”

The WWII Museum’s presentation begins with a recorded interview of Soskin by Maceo Carney, a freshman student at Jefferson High School in Daly City. Later, in another recorded segment, Carney explores the Port Chicago Naval Magazine on Suisun Bay, where the worst home front disaster of the war took place.

A learning experience

Interviewing Soskin about conditions during the war and learning about the incident a Port Chicago made an impression on Carney. He says the experience made him realize  few things about being a young African American male in America today.

“I learned that I come from a strong heritage, and that despite segregation and discrimination, still we rise,” he says. “The way African Americans were treated in the military then was inhumane and unjust. It showed the ugly side of the military. But the fact that it is being talked about now shows we can learn from those mistakes.”

Despite the positive takeaways, learning about Port Chicago was sobering. It remains sobering for Soskin as well.

“Some change is immediate, some takes decades, some is generational. I’ve lived long enough to learn that change comes in cycles.” – BETTY SOSKIN, U.S. PARK RANGER AND UNION VETERAN

She remembers well the day of July 17, 1944. Since there were no recreational options for African Americans in the segregated military, she and her then-husband, Mel Reid, had opened their apartment in Berkeley that Saturday to entertain “colored” servicemen on their weekend leave. That evening, after a number of the young men bid their goodbyes and returned to Port Chicago, two ships loaded with munitions for the Pacific theater blew up, killing 320 military and civilians. Of those, 200 were African American servicemen, including the young men who had been at Soskin’s apartment earlier that day.

Protest and a fight for exoneration

A month later, 50 men — called the “Port Chicago 50” — led a protest over unsafe conditions and lack of on-the-job training for their mission. For their action, they were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years in prison and hard labor, as well as a dishonorable discharge. Forty-seven of the 50 were released in January 1946; the remaining three served additional months in prison. In 1999, one of the men accepted a pardon from President Bill Clinton; the others refused, insisting on full exoneration. Today, families and descendants are still fighting for posthumous exoneration for the Port Chicago 50.

Though Soskin has been a lifelong witness to racial discrimination, she recognizes that these periods usher in rapid change as well. The tragic incident at Port Chicago, for example, may have hastened the executive order by President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1948, to fully integrate what had been a segregated military.

An African American Women’s Army Corps unit during World War II. Photo courtesy National Archives.

The arrival of Soskin’s family in Oakland predates the great migration of African Americans who came to the West Coast during the war for jobs in the military and naval shipyards. She observed that the dramatic increase of the black population during that time meant that racial segregation arrived here as well.

“But it was also a period when we fought back, just as we have resisted discrimination ever since slavery,” Soskin says. “These periods of chaos became opportunities to redefine our democracy.”

Sign Up for the Field Trip

Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in WWII is a 50-minute program produced by the National WWII Museum that will be live-streamed Feb. 22, 2018. It explores how African Americans pursued a double victory during the war, one over the enemy abroad and the other over discrimination at home.

Stories of struggle, setbacks, triumphs and heroism of brave individuals who changed history come to light as student reporters examine artifacts from the museum and travel to California to learn about the injustices in a segregated military at the site of the deadliest munitions disaster during the war. The “electronic field trip” — which can be streamed directly into your classroom — includes both live and recorded segments.

Your students will come away with a new understanding of how the pursuit for both victory and equality shaped the story of World War II and transformed the United States for decades to come.

There are two showings on Thursday, Feb. 22: at 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Pacific Time. The New Orleans-based National WWII Museum previously hosted two other electronic field trips, one about Pearl Harbor and one about how students helped win the war. Both are on the museum’s website.

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