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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: August 2015

Introduction: Margin and Mainstream in the American Radical Experience


“Please be informed that I am ready to serve in any unit of the armed forces of my country which is not segregated by race,” wrote Winfred Lynn to his local draft board in 1942 after learning of his conscription into the United States Army. The 36-year-old landscape gardener from Jamaica, Queens, New York City, loathed Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan but vowed to go “to prison or to die, if necessary, rather than submit to the mockery of fighting for democracy in a Jim Crow army.” Only when his lawyers concluded that his case against the Selective Service would be stronger were he in uniform did Lynn submit to conscription. He saw duty in the Pacific, made the rank of corporal, and watched his case reach the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it on January 2, 1945, dashing what one black newspaper, proclaiming Lynn “Hero of World War II,” termed “the most important legal battle to challenge segregation in the armed forces.” Only the Second World War's end in 1945 brought him an honorable discharge and the outcome he had sought for three long years: freedom.

Worrying that Lynn's stance was too radical, even unpatriotic, the Nation's leading civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had declined to support his case. His first attorney was his younger brother, Conrad Lynn, who had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1937 for supporting Trinidadian workers' strikes, contrary to the Party's conciliatory Popular Front line. Next to join the defense was another radical, Arthur Garfield Hays, a civil libertarian who had represented anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, evolutionist John T. Scopes, and the Scottsboro Boys. The chief supporter of Lynn outside the courtroom was a militant trade union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, comprised mostly of black train workers inclined to fight for race equality as well as economic gain.

Winfred Lynn's disregard of wartime pressures out of insistence upon equality bore the militancy of the Brotherhood, whose leader A. Philip Randolph was graced with imperturbability, a courteous bearing, and a mellifluous voice. Randolph visited the White House repeatedly as chief race spokesman of the 1940s, striving to prevent a resurgence of the European colonialism and lynching that followed the First World War.

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