We like to remember the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, as one of the most popular, successful and nonpartisan programs ever instituted by the federal government, and it has indeed become a staple of politicians’ stump speeches. President Obama as a candidate trumpeted the United States of America as a “grateful nation“ that “gave my grandfather a chance to go to college on the GI Bill when he came home from World War II.” Often forgotten, however, is the fierce opposition the bill faced from Southern congressmen like John E. Rankin, a segregationist Democrat of Mississippi, who, according to an article in the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, “worried that African-American veterans would use the benefits to avoid work and live off the government.” Were politicians like President Obama to discuss such complexities of history rather than merely attribute the GI Bill to a “grateful nation”—thus reifying the idea of a gloriously unified and nonpartisan past—it might serve to steel us for the battles that need fighting today.
Observing the congressional battle over the GI Bill, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed 71 years ago today, The Nation wrote in a May 6, 1944, editorial:
On the floor of the Senate last week Bennett Champ Clark, Democrat, of Missouri, attacked [Rep. John Rankin] for blocking aid to veterans on racial grounds. Clark said that Rankin and his supporters “are so unwilling to let the Negro troops have the unemployment insurance to which they are entitled that they would be willing to withhold deserved benefits from all our troops.” But the results of Rankin’s policy would be even more vicious and complex than Senator Clark implies. For his animosity toward the Negro is calculated to deprive all soldiers of unemployment protection and thus ensure a large supply of labor at distress wages in the event of a post-war depression. White soldier as well as black, like white worker and black, have a common interest in fighting this rancorous expression of all that is most vicious in our national life.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.