In the lead up to WW2, FDR made the choice to position the US as the leader of the “Free World”.
What does this mean? It was clear there were two paths a government could take, authoritarian or liberal democracy. This difference, authoritarianism that benefits a small number of people, or democracy that benefits a larger portion of the population, was why both World Wars were fought. FDR was determined that people would see the US, and other allies, as a beacon of hope.
The US could not be this symbol of hope while suppressing the rights of so many of our citizens. Five days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on December 12th, 1941, FDR made slavery illegal in the US. Although the Civil War was fought over slavery, and the 13th, 14, and 15 amendments ended slavery, it was still practiced in many forms within the US. Peonage, and other forms of slavery empowered the economy of these Southern States. FDR’s Justice Dept. issued Circular No. 3591 which told prosecutors to start enforcing the laws that were already on the books, so without passing a new law slavery ended.
Ending slavery ensured the US could be the leader FDR hoped for. Now countries could have an ideal to strive for, and have the rule of law to be accountable to. Especially if they wanted to openly participate in our market economy.
How the US was portrayed by our enemies became a new front in the cold war after WW2. We had to protect it to remain the undisputed leader over time. Who understood this more than everyone else in America? The people that did not have full rights as citizens.
In Alabama in 1946, Black women were hunted and raped as sport on Friday and Saturday nights. No one was prosecuted for these crimes against humanity. The NAACP in Chicago sent a young activist to help these women. Despite approaching the problem as a prosecutor, and with the disposition of a pitbull, there was little hope of a conviction or even charges.
So what did this young activist do? She executed the plan of documenting these crimes. Writing about these crimes. And ensuring these crimes appeared on the front pages of all the major newspapers in Europe. And in Russia where the cold war was starting. And Japan where the US was trying to form a new government despite daily acts of violence.
It was very successful. The Attorney General called the Alabama Governor who called the local sheriff with the message: This Stops Now!
Fast forward from 1946 to 1954. By the accident of history this same activist was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white person on a bus. The head of the NAACP said “They arrested themselves the wrong (re: activist)!” By this he meant the usual way these cases were prosecuted would not work. Typically, the state would claim the person arrested had a criminal record, or was a loose woman, and therefore the state had no choice but to prosecute. But not Rosa Parks. She knew the game… and had already beaten it once.
On this day in history the Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses was illegal. Truthfully, the state of Alabama had few choices even before the ruling. The bus boycott was working because the community had stuck together. And they made the mistake of arresting the wrong woman!
I have been telling this story in a similar way since about 2005. I know more details now, but the flow is the same.
I have wanted to show that to understand American history you have to know Black history. And once you understand Black history you will understand there is no Black history… only American history.
Every group has their own story, but we are all interwoven. And this is American Exceptionalism.