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“Your pictures and articles on […] 'GIs in Germany' were great, because […] they gave undeniable proof that the Negro is a human being, a creature who loves and is loved. […] If a Negro boy and a white girl find things in common and desire to associate with each other, we as believers in democratic freedom should support their democratic right to do so.“

Letter to the editor, Ebony (March 1947)



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Civil Rights and America's Role in World War II

Tuesday, January 13, 6 - 8 pm                                              

Listen to the lecture (1:07:53 min):


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.

Martin Klimke (GHI/Heidelberg), Hartmut  Berghoff (GHI), Harvard  Sitkoff (U New Hampshire),
Maria Höhn (Vassar College), Anke Ortlepp und Philipp Gassert (both GHI)

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

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