November 11, 2004

Litwack Speaks On Black History During WWII

Print More

Leon Litwack, the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of American History at the University of California-Berkeley, delivered his second Carl Becker lecture yesterday afternoon in 165 McGraw. The series, “Stormy Monday: Black Southerners in the Twentieth Century,” will conclude this afternoon.

Yesterday’s talk, “Pearl Harbor Blues: World War II and the Black South,” addressed African Americans’ involvement in World War II, their attitudes toward the war and their treatment both at home and overseas.

Litwack referred to a wide range of source materials during his lecture — period song lyrics, journal entries, government records and Richard Wright’s Native Son.

According to Litwack, as the United States headed to war, blacks — especially in the South — faced continued oppression.

“Jim Crow was alive and well,” Litwack said. “The narrow boundaries, limited options, the need to curb ambitions, to contain feelings, to weigh carefully every word, gesture and movement in the presence of whites, still helped to shape black lives.”

As American soldiers fought fascism and racism abroad, the United States continued to ignore racial inequality domestically, Litwack said. Blacks were immediately skeptical of America’s involvement in World War II.

“[Black America’s] cynicism was rooted in the conviction that this was a white man’s war, involving colonial nations such as France and Great Britain, with a sordid record of racist repression and exploitation in their respective empires,” Litwack said.

When blacks were finally allowed to join the armed forces, segregation continued on the battlefields. Sleeping quarters, United Service Organization shows and the Red Cross’ blood supply were subject to racial separation.

American blacks, including Dizzy Gillespie and Malcolm X, were unwilling to ignore their own social subjugation and rally behind World War II. Some blacks could not help but see Japanese victories in a partially positive light — they could potentially undermine whites’ belief in their own primacy.

“If nothing else, Japanese successes in the early months of the war deflated notions of white supremacy,” Litwack said.

When the United States ended the war with its nuclear bombardment of Japan, blacks came to realize that their situation at home hardly had improved.

“The war, it seemed, had changed nothing,” Litwack said. “Whether in dominant racial attitudes of white Americans, or in the racial policies of the Southern states and the federal government.”

In postwar America, blacks began to reevaluate the American social hierarchy under which they had been subjugated.

“World War II altered the relationship of African Americans to American society,” Litwack said. In his introductory remarks, Prof. Nick Salvatore, the Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and American Studies, fondly remembered studying under Litwack’s tutelage in the late 1960s.

Salvatore recalled Litwack’s eagerness to mentor his students and his emphasis on the importance of primary-source research.

“He demanded that the evidence inform the analysis, and not the reverse,” Salvatore said. “He had the capacity to urge you to go beyond the intellectual point where, at the time, you thought you could go.”

Litwack’s survey courses regularly attracted more than 700 undergraduate students. He taught in a Berkeley lecture hall that, according to Salvatore, “looked like a pillbox hat inspired by a bad dream of a Dylan song.” In his lectures, students listened to recordings of Delta blues musician Robert Johnson, viewed video footage of civil rights protests and watched Litwack make use of the classroom’s rotating stage; he actively immersed his students in primary sources.

“The lectures were stunning,” Salvatore said. “They were delivered with intellectual power and with a deep commitment to the material he was talking about.”

Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Litwack’s influential book about race relations in the South after emancipation, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of American Historians and the American Antiquarian Society. He is a member of the American Historical Association, and is currently a candidate for the organization’s presidency.

Each year, Cornell’s history faculty invites an influential historian to deliver a series of lectures in honor of Becker, a cultural and intellectual historian who taught at Cornell for nearly 25 years and served as the University’s historian from 1941 until his death in 1945. The series has hosted many highly regarded scholars. In recent years, David J. Weber, the Robert and Nancy Dedman Professor of History and the director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University; Prof. Edward L. Ayers, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University, have all delivered the annual lectures.

Archived article by David Gura
Sun Staff Writer