Steve Haycox: Rockwell's America was an exclusive club

Black History Month -- February -- usually directs our attention to the 1960s civil rights movement, to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. With reflection, we may also consider the relationship between civil rights and human rights, and remember the struggle for equality by not only African-Americans but all classes of people who experienced discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual preference or age. The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision is the usual point of departure for historical reconstruction of the movement.

It's instructive, though, to look at the milieu from which Brown developed, to consider the world confronted by persecuted minorities in America in the 1940s. Norman Rockwell, bobby socks and the jitterbug aside, America was an unattractive experience for millions in the 1940s. Segregation was not just a Southern phenomenon. African-Americans were discriminated against at every turn. Many New Deal programs, whose regulations prohibited it, nonetheless either barred blacks entirely or relegated them to substandard, lower-paying jobs and poor housing. Most unions either barred blacks or severely limited their numbers. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, organized by A. Philip Randolph in 1925, was one of the very few black unions; it was denounced as a communist front.

Perhaps most offensive, the U.S. armed forces were segregated and the number of blacks permitted to enlist was very small. During 1940 and 1941, as the U.S. mobilized and the number under arms increased from 175,000 to 1.4 million, blacks were systematically rejected, only a few allowed in. Companies with billions in defense contracts refused to hire blacks until Randolph threatened FDR with a 100,000-man march on Washington, forcing the president to issue an executive order mandating nondiscriminatory hiring. Doris Kearns Goodwin in "No Ordinary Time" quotes Secretary of War Henry Stimson as endorsing the Army's official position that "the American negro has not progressed as far as other sub species of the human family ... In physical courage he falls well back of whites."

Anti-Semitism was rife in the America of the 1940s, as Neil Simon's plays "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound" make abundantly clear. Kearns quotes Breckinridge Long, the U.S. assistant secretary of state in charge of immigration, telling his department to do everything possible to obstruct and impede reception into the country of refugees fleeing Hitler's killing machine. Long was convinced, he told reporters, that all such groups had been thoroughly infiltrated by German spies and agents.

So, too, were Asians, Hispanics and American Indians objects of discrimination and persecution. The internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast is but one egregious example. In Los Angeles, Mexican workers were redlined by real estate companies and the city government into barrios in East L.A. Early relocation programs concentrated many Indians in urban ghettos. Both the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers began working on plans that would lead to construction of massive dams on the Columbia and Missouri Rivers that would flood Indian lands and villages.

In Alaska, both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and various missionary groups pursued a policy of aggressive acculturation. Most bureaucrats denigrated Native culture and everything related to it. A federal dietitian named Mary Easton who worked in the territory from 1948 to 1950 has produced a manuscript summarizing her attempts to persuade bureaucrats of the legitimacy and usefulness of Native foods. She worked out of Juneau but traveled extensively, spending some time in Anchorage but getting out to facilities across Kodiak, the Southwest, Fairbanks, Interior villages and Barrow.

She found that many Natives hid their local foods from her because they were being taught these were unhealthy.

To the contrary, Easton tried to convince resident nurses, cooks and teachers, most contained the proteins and vitamins everyone needed, especially the children. At the same time, the introduction of candy bars and sugar-laden soda already had already produced childhood obesity and damaged teeth.

Martin Luther King wrote from the Birmingham jail that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. The civil rights movement took direct aim at the injustice of discrimination, which was manifest everywhere in America. The debt we owe movement workers who combated discrimination is immense.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.