Civil Rights, World War II, and U.S. Public Opinion

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5 Scopus citations


Scholars of American politics often assume World War II liberalized white racial attitudes. This conjecture is generally premised on the existence of an ideological tension between a war against Nazism and the maintenance of white supremacy at home, particularly the Southern system of Jim Crow. A possible relationship between the war and civil rights was also suggested by a range of contemporaneous voices, including academics like Gunnar Myrdal and activists like Walter White and A. Philip Randolph. However, while intuitively plausible, this relationship is generally not well verified empirically. A common flaw is the lack of attention to public opinion polls from the 1940s. Using the best available survey evidence, I argue the war's impact on white racial attitudes is more limited than is often claimed. First, I demonstrate that for whites in the mass public, while there is some evidence of liberalization on issues of racial prejudice, this generally does not extend to policies addressing racial inequities. White opposition to federal anti-lynching legislation actually seems to have increased during the war. Second, there is some evidence of racial moderation among white veterans, relative to their counterparts who did not serve. White veterans were more supportive of anti-lynching legislation in the immediate postwar period, and they offered stronger support for black voting rights in the early 1960s. However, they were not distinguishable on many other issues, including measures of racial prejudice and attitudes toward segregation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)38-61
Number of pages24
JournalStudies in American Political Development
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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