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During the WWII war campaign in Lancashire Britain, white American soldiers thought segregation was the law in Britain. Upon finding out Jim Crow was exclusive to America the white Army soldiers started a gun battle in which the Black soldiers repelled them into retreat.
The whole incident is typical of the clashes on and around bases in Britain between black and white American troops – 44 between November 1943 and February 1944 alone – where the intrinsic racism in a segregated army led to confrontations. This was especially the case in a foreign setting where the black soldiers saw around them a very different reality from that they faced at home – a non-segregated society where they were welcomed as fellow fighters against fascism, rather than tolerated hod-carriers for the war effort as they were generally treated by the US Army.
That evening in 1943, black troops and white locals were stretching out “drinking-up time” in a pub at the end of the evening. Words were exchanged, and military police arrived and tried to arrest Private Eugene Nunn for not wearing the proper uniform. But they faced new solidarities: a white British soldier challenged the military police: “Why do you want to arrest them? They’re not doing anything or bothering anybody.”
The incident escalated into a fist fight and the military police were beaten back. When they returned with reinforcements to meet the group, now returning to camp, a battle developed in the street. Shots were fired, and Crossland died with a bullet in his back.
When rumours spread at the camp that black GIs had been shot, scores of men formed a crowd, some carrying rifles. The arrival at around midnight of more military police with a machine gun-equipped vehicle convinced many of the black soldiers that the police intended to kill them – and they drew rifles from the stores. Some barricaded themselves into the base, others tore off back into town, leading to running shooting battles in the streets.
Black Soldiers Welcome Abroad,
Not at Home
Many of the black American troop standing up to the military police that febrile night were no doubt influenced by news filtering through of race riots in Detroit on June 20, where defenseless black men were attacked by racist police, responsible for the deaths of 17 of the 25 African-Americans killed.
Race Relations at Home and Abroad
In his essays George Orwell alluded to the oft-quoted assertion that American GIs were “oversexed, overpaid and over here”. But he qualified this with the observation that: “the general consensus of opinion is that the only American soldiers with decent manners are Negroes.”
The black American servicemen were welcomed into the leisure time of their British hosts in ways that spread solidarity. A former black GI, Cleother Hathcock, remembers:
At that time the Jitterbug was in and the blacks would get a buggin’ and the English just loved that. We would go into a dance hall and just take over the place because everybody wanted to learn how to do that American dance, the Jitterbug. They went wild over that.The Conversation
This sort of attitude exemplifies the particular resentment over the way black troops openly fraternized with white British women – and many of the confrontations during this period were sparked by the ease of interracial relationships in a British rather than American context.
This historical moment re-enforces the white American prerogative alluding to a desire to reign over or impose a false narrative of superiority over Black people. In this particular war theater white soldiers could not constrain their racial animus against Black soldiers serving in the same armed forces, fighting the same enemy.
America’s grievous past of white supremacy continues today with its contempt for justice, parity, and repair. The vector of justice has started swirling with an expansive vacuum revealing centrifuged revelations. Decades and centuries old mammoth size injustices are being unearthed to the consternation of generational benefactors. Hold on and be strong as we get closer to a time of reckoning.
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