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BATTLE LINES ON WWII HOME FRONT

The old, faded document was classified Top Secret. It painted a picture of a bleak and troubled time on the home front.

"Racial disorder in Tampa between whites and blacks and the attendant riot and blood shed has progressed beyond the control of civil authorities. The Governor of Florida has requested the help of the president to quell the riots and to restore order and establish martial law."

This was a U.S. Army press release dated Aug. 6, 1944. For some reason, it was never issued. But in researching what it was like in Florida during World War II, University of South Florida St. Petersburg history professor Gary Mormino unearthed the document in the State Archives of Florida.

The war years included blatant contradiction. Even as America espoused freedom from oppression overseas, many of its black citizens were forced to endure the daily indignities of racial segregation at home.

Hundreds of black soldiers were stationed in Tampa, and racial tensions often ran high.

When white military policemen broke up fights involving black soldiers, violence often escalated.

Authorities called the fights race riots, but these were melees compared to the full-blown race riots that rocked Tampa and other U.S. cities in the summer of 1967, Mormino said.

Wartime events profoundly changed this country. Just how much it changed Florida will be the focus of Mormino's upcoming lecture: "Jim Crow Meets G.I. Joe: World War II and Race Relations," a look at how the events in Florida during the Second World War helped set the stage for the modern civil rights movement.

The civil rights struggle in World War II Florida was fought on three broad fronts, Mormino said: Secure equal pay for black teachers, end the all-white Democratic primaries, and expose the contradiction of a Jim Crow army and democracy fighting fascism and totalitarianism abroad.

"The war allowed a national and regional dialogue about race," said Mormino, who is working on a book and scheduled to speak at Pasco-Hernando Community College's Dade City campus on Thursday for Black History Month.

"If you are African-American and willing to die for your country, you should be able to buy a beer at any restaurant and go to any movie theater."

It may sound strange now, but prior to World War II (1939 to 1945), Florida was a solidly racially segregated state. But back then, the state's sizable black population wasn't agitating for racial integration but equal treatment, equal pay for black teachers.

Educator and civil rights leader Harry T. Moore invited young NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to Florida to help lead the struggle.

Moore was a visionary.

He saw World War II as a great turning point in the black struggle. Moore understood that talented black officers would return from Europe and the Pacific and step into leadership roles that would change the course of American history.

Unfortunately, Moore didn't live to see the changes. He and his wife were murdered in 1951.

The racists who firebombed their home in Mims unwittingly created the first of the civil rights movement martyrs.

They killed Moore, but they couldn't extinguish his dream.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at askerritt@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.

IF YOU GO

To learn more

Professor Gary Mormino lectures at 7 p.m. Thursday in the PST Auditorium (Room E-130) at the Dade City campus of PHCC on Blanton Road.

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