The war’s aftermath and impact on the Civil Rights Movement

Although the war came to a close in Europe with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, African Americans questioned whether or not the aims of the global struggle for democracy and freedom would promote full citizenship for blacks in America. In The Crisis, regarding the role of the returning African American soldiers, Dubois argued succinctly that “by God in heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.”[1] Southern whites had a clear answer to the question of Negro suffrage. In The Southern Workman, Joshua Blanton relays a New Orleans white man’s public response to the enthusiasm African Americans had after raising money for the war effort through the purchase of bonds and stamps: “You niggers are wondering how you are going to be treated after the war. Well, I'll tell you, you are going to be treated exactly like you were before the war, this is a white man's country and we expect to rule it.”[2] When the troops returned home from France, the hostilities shown to a great majority of them by numerous whites in the South and in the North affirmed the resistance to the changed views that African American soldiers had. By the summer of 1919, the violence being unleashed against recently discharged soldiers still in uniform was a clear indicator of the question of full-citizenship rights and privileges for blacks; a resounding no was echoed throughout the country.

In cities like Washington, D.C., Omaha, Nebraska and Chicago, Illinois, riots broke out when African Americans challenged their previous status as holdovers from slavery. [3] In Georgia, the local response by whites to returning African American soldiers was predictable.[4] A number of black veterans paid the ultimate price for wearing their uniforms, which made them the targets of white rage who read their pride of service as a sign of social defiance. To be sure, these men were also unwilling to back down from threats of violence. Trained to fight and defend themselves on the battlefield, African American men fought back against attempts to return them to their previous condition as defenseless human chattel. These same men, along with African American women, would become active participants in the liberation process, helping to transform their traditionally marginalized community into an organized and militarized movement for social, economic and political freedom and equality. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) actively recruited former soldiers into their ranks, many of whom became prominent leaders.[5]

Ultimately, World War I would be a catalyst in the development of a radically progressive black consciousness, one that would ultimately lead to the mid-century civil rights and black power movements.

Pellom McDaniels III, Ph.D.

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[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Editorial,” The Crisis, 18, 1 (May 1919): 13-14.

[2] Joshua Blanton, “Men in the Making” The Southern Workman, XLVIII (January 1919): 20.

[3] For more info on the violent responses to African American veterans returning from WWI that occurred throughout the United States to, see: Chad Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era, (Chapel Hill 2010): 223-260.

[4] For more info on the responses to returning African American veterans specifically in Georgia, see: John Dittmer Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977): 203-211. 

[5] For more info on the role of African American veterans of WWI in the emerging civil rights movement, see Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: 261-298.

Text adapted from:

McDaniels III, Pellom: African American Soldiers (USA) , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08. DOI10.15463/ie1418.10175.

The war’s aftermath and impact on the Civil Rights Movement

Historical Contexts