We Love Honor More than We Fear Death Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Delivered one year after the United States declared war on Japan and entered World War II, professor Nick Aaron Ford's speech served as a ringing answer to a question he posed, “What are Negroes fighting for?” Ford acknowledged the racial discrimination inherent in US politics and society, but argued that the patriotism of African Americans was so great that they were willing to fight to the death to protect the democratic freedoms and ideals that their nation asserted as its purpose. The United States, Ford contended, was flawed but its laws sought equality, while its German and Japanese enemies stood against the personal liberties in which African Americans deeply believed. According to Ford's arguments, African Americans were willing to fight against racism because it was wrong, even if the nation they were fighting on behalf of was itself struggling to find its way toward ending racism within its own borders.

Summary Overview

Delivered one year after the United States declared war on Japan and entered World War II, professor Nick Aaron Ford's speech served as a ringing answer to a question he posed, “What are Negroes fighting for?” Ford acknowledged the racial discrimination inherent in US politics and society, but argued that the patriotism of African Americans was so great that they were willing to fight to the death to protect the democratic freedoms and ideals that their nation asserted as its purpose. The United States, Ford contended, was flawed but its laws sought equality, while its German and Japanese enemies stood against the personal liberties in which African Americans deeply believed. According to Ford's arguments, African Americans were willing to fight against racism because it was wrong, even if the nation they were fighting on behalf of was itself struggling to find its way toward ending racism within its own borders.

Defining Moment

By the early 1940s, the African American experience in the United States had been a long and complex one that had known much struggle but few victories. The end of the Civil War in 1865 had paved the way for a series of constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, extended full citizenship rights to members of all races, and affirmed that US law must be applied fairly without regard to race or ethnicity. In practice, however, those rights had often gone unrecognized. The rise of Democratic state governments in former slave states ended direct African American representation in government and allowed for the passage of discriminatory Jim Crow laws that enacted widespread racial segregation. Racist organizations and lynch mobs murdered African Americans without repercussion. Informal segregation and racial discrimination existed nationwide, worsening as African American populations outside the rural south increased during and after World War I. Although historians generally consider the late nineteenth century to be the nadir of race relations in the United States, the period directly preceding the civil rights movement was certainly one of ongoing challenges.

Among these challenges was the reluctance of the federal government to intervene and enact new civil rights policies, or to enforce those that already existed. During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition relied in part on the support of Southern Democrats who fervently supported racial segregation and discriminatory policies. In order to retain this support, the Roosevelt administration did little to push civil rights. Many New Deal programs failed to address the needs of African Americans or even authorize segregated systems or lower pay scales based on race.

As the nation began to ramp up wartime industrial production in the early 1940s, the federal government declined to intervene in defense industry policies that rejected African American employees or otherwise discriminated against them. Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph successfully challenged this stance by warning Roosevelt that he would lead a march of thousands of African American protesters on Washington, DC, over the issue if Roosevelt failed to act. Knowing that such a public display would fuel negative propaganda over the apparent US hypocrisy in claiming to support democracy around the world while declining to share the fruits of democracy with some of its own citizens, Roosevelt issued an executive order integrating defense industries and establishing a commission to enforce fair employment practices for federal contractors in 1941.

The military continued to use segregated units, however, and draft boards were widely known to reject African American recruits even after the nation entered the war later that year. US opponents used the nation's racial woes in propaganda, and domestic voices questioned the nation's ideals. Many African Americans, however, sought to fight in the military or otherwise work to support their homeland.

Author Biography

As a professor, a literary critic, and an author, Nick Aaron Ford was a leading African American intellectual of the mid-twentieth century. Born in South Carolina in 1904, he studied at that state's Benedict College before pursuing graduate work at the University of Iowa. Much of Ford's career was dedicated to the study and analysis of contemporary works by African American authors and to educating students as the head of the English department at the historically black Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland. From the time of his first graduate research in the 1930s, Ford hoped that drawing academic attention to the racial issues and stereotypes raised in works by black authors could inform a better national understanding of racial tensions, and his work in African American literary criticism had little precedent. Ford was also a respected writing educator and administrator. By the 1970s, he had become interested in the development of what were then new university-level black studies programs.

Historical Document

THE bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor in the early hours of December 7, 1941, did more than kill three thousand Americans and demolish American property in that region. They shattered the very foundations of the world as we had known it—the world that had been in the making since the birth of Christ. And as that world lay teetering in the balance, ready to burst into a thousand pieces, three-fourths of the peoples of the earth joined hands with Uncle Sam to catch the broken pieces of that dying order in the hope of re-constructing them into a finer and nobler world of the future.

Since that memorable date twelve months ago, many revolutionizing events have occurred. A little colored nation, that Americans had always regarded as insignificant, inefficient, and incapable of engineering a successful war against a powerful white nation, astounded the world by winning every encounter with American forces for eight long months. Thus, for the first time in its history, the great American nation was faced with the folly of the white man's philosophy of racial superiority. Only through a tragic sacrifice of some of the best blood of its citizens did the nation finally learn that the color of a man's skin and the shape of his nose do not determine his capacity either for treachery, or courage, or calculating efficiency.

Since that memorable date American Negro troops for the first time have landed in the little Negro republic of Liberia, Africa, founded by American freedmen nearly a century and a quarter ago. When Private Napoleon Taylor led his black comrades down the gangplank of the great American transport that had brought them safely across 6,000 miles of submarine-infested waters, he greeted the Liberian officials in words similar to these:

We have come to join hands with you in the fight to keep your freedom and to win additional freedom for yourselves and for all oppressed peoples of the world.

These are only two of the revolutionary events that have thrust themselves upon a bleeding world since last December 7. But in the midst of these recollections, there comes a challenging question that is hurled at us from a hundred different quarters: What are Negroes fighting for? It is a question we cannot ignore, for it has been sarcastically asked by Hitler himself.

One can well visualize Mr. Hitler resting his satanic carcass upon a pile of his vile and slimy publication, Mein Kampf, which contains the statement by the Fuehrer himself that no person of African descent can ever become a citizen of Germany because he is too inferior to claim a heritage with a superior race. Yes, we can visualize this crafty hypocrite issuing orders from one corner of his mouth for the subjugation or total destruction of all non-Nordic races, and from the other corner asking, “What are you Negroes fighting for?”

“Aren't you segregated and discriminated against in America? Aren't you denied the right to work in defense industries and the right to fight on equal terms with your white countrymen? Aren't you insulted, and cheated, and oppressed by the very country for whom you are fighting? Aren't you lynched and burned at the stake and your bleeding or charred bodies left swinging in the breeze, as your tormentors march away singing, “My country ‘tis of Thee? “What are you Negroes fighting for?” Yes, Mr. Hitler, we admit the question is a challenging one. But before we answer, let us assure you that you are not the first in world history to ask us that question. The British Redcoats asked it in 1775, when Crispus Attucks lay dying on State Street, Boston, killed by bullets from the guns of those who sought to destroy freedom. “What are you dying for, Black Man?” they asked. “Don't you know that 95 per cent of your black fellowmen are slaves? What do you have to fight for?”

It Attucks could have stopped the march of death long enough to reply, I imagine he would have said in bitter scorn, “I'm fighting for freedom. I'm fighting for a principle which those who have tasted the shame of slavery know the real value of. Although my fellowmen are slaves, I'm fighting that the world may know slavery cannot destroy courage nor the love for freedom.”

Yes, Mr. Hitler, others have asked us that same question before. The Southern slaveholders asked it in 1861, when thousands of slaves were deserting the plantations to join the Union army, even though Lincoln had not yet announced the Emancipation Proclamation. “What are you slaves fighting for?” they asked. “This is not a war to set you free. This is a war for economic domination. The Northern army will only make you worse slaves than you are now.”

But those slaves did not stop to answer. They went on fighting with the Union and dying on such historic battlefields as Vicksburg, and Bull Run, and Gettysburg. And from the blood of those erstwhile slaves came freedom for their children and their children's children.

Again, in 1918, the German Kaiser asked, “What are you Negroes fighting for?” We answered, “For democracy!” And with that cry upon our lips 200,000 of us helped to turn the tide of battle that drove the Kaiser from his throne.

But Hitler laughs and scornfully tells us we did not get the democracy we fought for in 1918. We answer with voices hard as steel, “Yes, we know it.” But we challenge him or any man to prove that we did not get more democracy than we had ever possessed before we shed our blood on Flanders field. We challenge him to point to any time in all history when the German masses, or the Italians, or the Japanese have had more democracy than the American Negro now enjoys. I say this, not to uphold the injustices and discriminations that are still practiced against Negroes in America, for I condemn such proscription with all the strength and power of my being, but I do want to emphasize how empty and meaningless such considerations are when they fall from the lips of fascist sympathizers.

We are the first to admit that conditions are not ideal for Negroes in this country, not even during this all-out effort for national defense, but we cannot deny that powerful voices high in governmental circles are being raised in every section of the nation in behalf of equality and a full degree of democracy for our people. Where can you find in any Axis country a single voice of protest raised by a governmental official in behalf of maltreated minorities?

America is the only country in the world whose written Constitution guarantees equal freedom and equal opportunity for all races, creeds, and religions. Certainly, there are injustices, but our government is committed to equal justice for all. Certainly, there are inequalities here, but our government is committed to the recognition of the essential equality of all men. As long as the ideal is before us, we can always have reason to hope that each new day will bring us nearer to that ideal. But if, like the Axis countries, the government acknowledges no responsibility for equality or justice, there can be no hope that they may ever be achieved.

Yes, Negroes are lynched in America, but never yet in the whole history of these shameful and barbarous episodes has any official of our national government publicly condoned such a crime. Every such incident has been vigorously condemned by our national government, by newspaper editorials, by state governors, and by many prominent white citizens in the very communities where the lynchers live. But what German, or Italian, or Japanese newspaper has dared to print a single line in condemnation of the brutal slaughter of thousands of innocent Jews on the streets of every German city? What Fascist governmental official has ever parted his lips in defense of scores of innocent hostages of minority groups that die before Fascist firing squads every day in every conquered nation of Europe?

It is true that injustices and mistreatment at home can never be excused by pointing to larger and graver injustices abroad. But the odious comparison can serve notice upon us that the Negro's only hope lies in victory for the United Nations and the complete destruction of totalitarian ideals.

Yes, Mr. Hitler, that same question has been asked us before. Your dear friend, Mr. Tojo, premier of Japan, asked us after Pearl Harbor, “What are you Negroes fighting for?”

“Don't you know,” he confided, “I'm colored just as you are? Why, you ought to be glad to see me whip your white countrymen and put them in the same category they have kept you in all these years. Then you and I would be the best of friends, and I would make you free indeed.”

“We know you are colored, Mr. Tojo,” we answered, “but so are the Chinese. If you are truly interested in the advancement of the colored peoples, why didn't you start your program of uplift with your next-door neighbors, the Chinese, who are really more your color than we are. But instead of seeking the advancement of the Chinese people, what did you do, Mr. Tojo?”

“I'll tell you. Five years ago you attacked those unarmed, peaceful people with all the deadly military might at your disposal. You have killed five millions of them. You have bombed their fragile cities off the map. You have raped their wives, daughters, and mothers and left them to die from exposure. You have slaughtered in cold blood their old men and their children. And yet you say you are the friend of the American Negro. If that is the reward of your diabolical friendship, we do not want it. We prefer to see you and all your treacherous, barbarous brood consigned to the ‘tongueless silence of the dreamless dust.’ “

Now, Mr. Hitler and Mr. Tojo, with this background of undeniable facts before us, we proceed to answer your question: What are Negroes fighting for?

We are fighting for the four freedoms that President Roosevelt has announced. Yes, we are fighting for the freedom of speech. And we can truthfully say that there is no other country in the world, with the possible exception of England, where the members of a minority race can speak out so boldly and candidly in condemnation of the conduct of the majority race toward them. There is no other country in the world, with the possible exception of England, where Negro newspapers could print such damaging diatribes against inequalities and discrimination practiced by the majority race without having their presses confiscated and their editors thrown into prison.

We are fighting for the freedom of religion—the freedom to worship God as we please, or not to worship him if we do not wish to—the freedom to join Father Divine's angels, or the Washfoot Baptists, or the Holly Rollers.

We are fighting for freedom from want—for freedom from the curse of tenant farming and from the poverty and disease of city slums—for freedom from malnutrition and economic servitude—for freedom from premature death.

We are fighting for freedom from fear—for freedom from the fear of bombs that fall in the nighttime upon the sleeping beads of women and children—for freedom from the fear of armies marching through our cities with plunder, rape, and murder in their wake—for freedom from the fear of dictators' threats and tyrants' power.

We are fighting to destroy the false concept, both at home and abroad, that the color of a man's skin or the shape of his nose can determine his capacity for civilization and achievement. We are fighting for the privilege of earning a place at the peace table when this war is over, so we can add our voices to those who will create the charter of a new world.

We are fighting to let the world know we love liberty and that we are willing to pay the price for it, even though that price may be our life's blood.

We are fighting because everything decent we have been taught to respect, honor, and love has been challenged and marked for destruction by the enemy. We are fighting because we love honor more than we fear death.

Yes, Mr. Hitler and Mr. Tojo, we are fighting for that democratic freedom which you scorn. And we shall fight for it on every battlefield of the world where men are willing to welcome our aid in the spirit of brotherhood. We shall fight for it in the muddy bottoms of Guadalcanal. We shall fight for it in the rice swamps of China. We shall fight for it on the burning sands of Africa. We shall fight for it in the black jungles of India. We shall fight for it on land, in the air, and on the sea.

But as we fight for this freedom abroad, we shall not forget to fight harder for it at home. We shall fight for it from the lecture platform, from the pulpit, from the newspaper office, from the factory, from the schoolroom; from buses, trains, and street cars. We shall fight for it everywhere. And we shall not cease fighting for it until complete victory is won.

Document Analysis

In his speech, Ford speaks both to his immediate audience and to all those who question African Americans' dedication to support US democratic ideals when they are themselves often denied the fruits of those tenets. He repeatedly asserts that the African American cause is inextricably linked with the overall American cause of protecting democracy; Ford also emphasizes African Americans' special interest in opposing the openly racist policies of German dictator Adolf Hitler, a clear enemy of the kind of equality that black Americans long for, and he rejects the notion that African Americans might join with another “colored” race, the Japanese, who themselves sought to oppress others.

Ford opens by emphasizing the dangers of white Americans' dismissal of the abilities of other races by pointing to the consistent military prowess of the Japanese, the residents of “a little colored nation, that Americans had always regarded as… incapable of engineering a successful war against a powerful white nation.” He cites the unity of American troops with Liberian troops in asserting that people of varying races can find common cause in “fighting for freedom.”

Much of the speech is dedicated to rejecting common objections to engaging African American support for the war. Ford makes rhetorical use of Hitler and Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo to pose and answer the simple question, “What are Negroes fighting for?” He is not shy to admit to the discrimination African Americans have endured in the United States from the era of slavery through segregation and lynching. Yet, he argues, these actions have never been condoned by the national government in the same way that the Nazis have made it German policy to discriminate. He reminds the audience that African Americans have long wrestled with the question of whether to support their nation and have always resoundingly answered yes. Ultimately, Ford contends that African Americans seek to support the four freedoms previously stated by Roosevelt as core to democracy—and “to destroy the false concept, both at home and abroad, that the color of a man's skin or the shape of his nose can determine his capacity for civilization and achievement.”

Ford ends with a ringing call to action that African Americans “shall not forget to fight harder for [freedom] at home… until complete victory is won.” In this, he presages the civil rights movement that emerged during the 1950s to resist racist policies in place around the United States. By linking the struggle against racism abroad with that domestically, Ford's ideas suggest that a victory over Germany would prove that equality in the United States must be attainable.

Essential Themes

Ford's speech echoed the ideals linking democracy and racial equality that informed contemporary African American discussion of the black role in the war effort. Beginning in early 1942, for example, the Pittsburgh Courier—one of the nation's top African American newspapers—inaugurated the “Double V” campaign that called on African Americans to fight for a “double victory”: for democracy to triumph over both racial discrimination at home and racism abroad (as exemplified through Hitler's persecution of European Jews and other groups). Campaigns of this nature encouraged African American support for the war through military service and through personal sacrifice because of wartime rationing and restrictions. At the same time, such efforts drew attention to the patriotism that African Americans displayed for their home country while emphasizing their desire for the full civil rights that their contributions warranted.

This link, too, is an enduring one in US history. Despite restrictions on their service, African Americans had volunteered to serve in the armed forces since the time of the American Revolution, often in the hopes of proving their dedication to the nation and its political leaders and generating high-level support for increased citizenship rights. During the Civil War, noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass had urged African Americans to volunteer for the Union Army to win a victory for black civil rights. African American troops had again served bravely during the World War I.

African American soldiers became some of the most revered of World War II. The Tuskegee air division flew some fifteen thousand missions. African American servicemen were present at the D-Day invasion and helped retake France from the Nazi over the following months. The irony of overcoming the avowedly racist Nazi regime with a segregated army was not lost on civil rights leaders. After the war's conclusion, A. Philip Randolph lobbied the Harry S. Truman administration to desegregate the armed forces. In 1947, Truman issued an executive order barring racial discrimination in the military and effectively integrated the Army at last.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “African Americans in World War II.” National World World II Museum. Natl. World War II Museum, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
  • Sutherland, Jonathan. African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Print.
  • Wynn, Neil A. African American Experience during World War II. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010. Print.
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