In the summer of 1946, Martin Luther King Jr. was outraged. Over the course of a week, King—then a 17-year-old student at Morehouse College, in Atlanta—had received news of multiple lynchings in Georgia.
George Dorsey, a Black World War II veteran, had been home for less than a year when he, his wife, Mae Murray, and their friends Dorothy and Roger Malcolm were shot 60 times at close range by a white mob in Walton County. Dorothy was seven months pregnant at the time. These killings came just days after Maceo Snipes, an army veteran, was fatally shot on the steps of his farmhouse.
In response, King wrote a letter to the editor of The Atlanta Constitution to express the anger he and other Black Americans felt. “We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens,” he wrote. “Equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.” While World War II had ended, battles against racial violence continued on the home front.
My new book, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, shows both how Black Americans proudly served in the military and how Black veterans returned to a country that too often disrespected their service and was openly hostile to them and their communities.
Snipes, for example, served honorably in the Pacific theater and returned to Georgia to revive his dead father’s farm. Like many Black veterans, he believed that, since he’d fought for his country, he should have the right to vote. On July 17, 1946, he was the first and only Black person in Taylor County to vote in the Democratic primary.
Like many Black veterans, Maceo Snipes believed that, since he’d fought for his country, he should have the right to vote.
A couple of days later, as he and his mother were sitting down to dinner, four white men arrived at his farmhouse and demanded that he come outside. When Snipes reached the porch, Edward Williamson, a white veteran who’d served Stateside, shot him in the abdomen. His mother and a family friend helped Snipes get to the county hospital, where doctors were able to remove the bullets but refused to give him the blood transfusion his wounds required. The hospital was out of “Black blood,” they said. Snipes died two days later.
The message of the murder was clear: Black people exercising their right to vote in the Jim Crow South would be met with violence. For Snipes’s family, the threat of violence continued after the lynching. When they attempted to bury Snipes in the local cemetery, several white men shot at them. They ended up burying the veteran in an unmarked grave, under the cover of darkness. Within days, the family had fled Georgia and moved to Ohio.
“Our family actually owned about 202 acres at the time and they had to rush off of the land because of the threats,” recalled Raynita Snipes Johnson, a great-grandniece of Snipes. “They took everything away from my family.”
Just days after the murder, the New York Amsterdam News, a leading Black newspaper, called Snipes “a new martyr in the cause of Democracy and freedom in America.” Maceo Snipes and hundreds of thousands of other Black veterans returned from the war eager to fight for freedom at home. Veterans such as Hosea Williams, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Amzie Moore, and Medgar Evers fueled the civil-rights movement and fought for the principles of democracy in America. The courage, sacrifice, and patriotism of Black World War II veterans offer important lessons today, when both voting rights and the teaching of our nation’s history are under attack.
Matthew F. Delmont is the Sherman Fairchild distinguished professor of history at Dartmouth College. His new book, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, is out now from Viking