Ninety years ago, in the cauldron of a great depression, a generation yet-to-be-named was forming. Within a decade, its members would be called to serve in the most catastrophic war the planet had ever seen. Following that conflict, the generation that history has called the Greatest Generation helped lead the country and globe through some of the greatest transformations we have ever seen. Global peace agreements, the Civil Rights movement, women’s liberation, the GI Bill, the growth of labor unions, massive participation in education and the workforce, a narrowing income gap, and the creation of a vibrant middle class are all hallmarks of the decades following World War II. To this day, members of the Greatest Generation participate in our democratic institutions at higher rates than any other generation.
The generation now in school, from the littlest tots just learning to read to those who should have donned caps and gowns this spring, has the potential to become the next “Greatest Generation.” They are the first generation since World War II to be part of a massively shared, global experience of hardship. The danger of Covid-19 is not sequestered to any one country or language. Its effects have been shouldered disproportionately by Black, brown, and lower-income communities, but wealth and fame cloister no one from its reach. Nearly every school child in the United States in the spring of 2020 will share an experience of schools suddenly closed, of sheltering in place, of remote learning, of distancing from friends and family.
The Greatest Generation, a shining light in so many ways, had a fatal flaw. Though about one million Black soldiers served among the 16 million U.S. soldiers who fought in World War II, the Armed Forces remained segregated and relegated Black soldiers to separate and unequal duties. “[Ninety] percent of black troops were forced to serve in labor and supply units, rather than the more prestigious combat units. Except for a few short weeks during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 when commanders were desperate for manpower, all U.S. soldiers served in strictly segregated units. Even the blood banks were segregated,” writes historian Maria Höhn. Langston Hughes set the record straight in his poem Beaumont to Detroit: 1943: “How long I got to fight BOTH HITLER –AND JIM CROW?”
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