NEW ORLEANS (June 8, 2015) — On July 4, 2015, The National WWII Museum will open a new special exhibit called Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II. With generous funding from The Coca-Cola Foundation, the exhibition will feature artifacts, photographs, oral histories and associated educational programming to highlight some of the extraordinary achievements and challenges of African Americans during World War II, both overseas and on the Home Front.
In the years before World War II, African Americans in many parts of the country, especially the South, were treated as second-class citizens. Discriminatory practices were condoned by the government, and African Americans were systematically denied many rights and liberties by laws that kept them in positions of inferiority. Due to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896, the United States was a nation where “separate but equal” was law in many states. In addition, many military leaders declared African Americans unfit to serve in combat. However, once the war began, thousands rushed to enlist, determined to fight for freedom, while still being denied equality at home.
On display through May 30, 2016, Fighting for the Right to Fight will explore how World War II became a major catalyst in the twentieth century for African Americans seeking comprehensive social change. The special exhibit will illustrate how hopes for securing equality inspired many to enlist, the discouraging reality of the segregated non-combat roles given to black recruits, and the continuing fight for “Double Victory” that laid the groundwork for the modern Civil Rights Movement.
“Fighting for the Right to Fight will begin with an overview of America in the 1920s, when African Americans were generally facing economic circumstances much worse than other Americans,” said the exhibit’s curator, Eric Rivet. “These men and women wanted to do anything they could to serve their country, but they were also driven by the perceived opportunity to improve their social standing through contributing to the war effort.”
A national advisory committee, including the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price of Rutgers University, was commissioned to help frame the exhibition. The committee, led by co-chairs Dr. John Morrow of the University of Georgia and Claudine Brown of the Smithsonian Institution, helped advise on the exhibition’s narrative arc and content. Through a myriad of interactive experiences, visitors will discover the wartime stories of individual servicemembers who took part in this journey of extraordinary challenge, from unheralded heroes to famous names, including Alex Haley (US Coast Guard); Sammy Davis Jr. (US Army); Benjamin Davis, Jr. (US Army Air Forces); Medgar Evers (US Army) and more.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is an original eight-minute video about the famed 332nd Fighter Group (better known as the Tuskegee Airmen), who in many ways became the public focus of African American participation during the war. The piece is narrated by television personality Robin Roberts, whose own father flew with the Tuskegee Airmen during the war.
Including personal accounts from members of the 332nd Fighter Group, the video provides an overview of how their success in battle became a great symbol of bravery, helping refute notions that African Americans were inferior performers in the military, especially in roles requiring advanced training. Lieutenant Colonel William Holloman III recalls his leader Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.’s encouragement: “He said, ‘America’s watching you.’ He instilled in us a pride that I don’t think was there before we went in the service.”
Additionally, Fighting for the Right to Fight will feature a collection of medals representing the seven African Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997, the bittersweet result of a long investigation by the US military on discriminatory policies in the awarding of combat medals. The exhibit will also provide in-depth coverage of lesser-known events and service, such as that of the USS Mason, the first American ship to have a predominately African American crew.
Fighting for the Right to Fight will conclude with an examination of the results and social changes brought about by the events of World War II. The forward momentum and ambitions for change that the war stimulated among African Americans was undeniable, and would transcend the end of the war. Following Memorial Day 2016, the exhibit will go on a two-year national tour, expanding access and educational opportunities across the country as part of a robust exhibit touring program sponsored by the New Orleans-based Museum and its partners.
Media partners for Fighting for the Right to Fight include iHeart Media and The New Orleans Advocate.
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world—why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today. Dedicated in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum and now designated by Congress as America's National WWII Museum, it celebrates the American Spirit, teamwork, optimism, courage, and sacrifice of the men and women who served on the battlefront and the Home Front. For more information, call 877-813-3329 or 504-528-1944 or visit nationalww2museum.org. Follow us on Twitter at WWIImuseum or on Facebook.
Advisory Committee for Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II:
Co-chair Dr. John Morrow
History Department Chair, University of Georgia
Co-chair Claudine Brown
Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, Smithsonian Institution
Dr. Dan Haulman
Chief, Organizational History Division, Air Force Historical Research Agency
Dr. Clement Alexander Price (deceased)
Former Director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, Rutgers University
Dr. Raphael Cassimere
Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of New Orleans
Dr. Charles Teamer
Director Emeritus, The Amistad Research Center, Tulane University