This Friday morning, thirty-four Brownsville Middle School students came to the Wolfsonian with their social studies teacher for tours of our galleries and a library presentation. As the students were studying civil rights, we had laid out a wide variety of materials of the subject in advance of their arrival. When queried about what they knew about the civil rights movement in this country, most of the students quite naturally talked about the struggle in the 1960s and mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King. My own presentation and display of materials was intended to introduce them to the earlier struggles and much longer history of civil rights agitation in America set against the background of the First and Second World Wars.

Although we might have begun earlier, our own discussions of civil rights began with the First World War and the campaign to recruit African Americans as soldiers. Woodrow Wilson’s administration produced propaganda that promised that once Black men proved their patriotism and utility in the crucible of the war to safeguard democracy, a grateful nation would recognize their human rights.

As African-Americans debated whether or not to enlist in the war overseas, N.A.A.C.P. official and editor of the organization’s journal The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois framed the debate by arguing “first your Country, then your Rights!” Author Kelly Miller also framed the war against the Kaiser and German autocracy as a war for human rights and assumed that victory abroad would help promote civil rights at home.

Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans did sign up and serve in the country’s two segregated infantry divisions, the 371st and the 93rd Infantry earning high praise for their combat fighting in tandem with France’s 4th Army.

Ironically, returning African-American veterans more often encountered fear and loathing than respect, and the war abroad was followed by a “savage peace” at home punctuated by a rash of ugly racial incidents and violence. After the war, Du Bois prodded African-Americans to demand their rights, arguing that “By the God of 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.” Serious racial strife and rioting occurred in the summer of 1919, and a report made to a U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary noted 38 race riots in various cities, and described attacks in which white mobs lynched, hanged, shot, and burned at the stake at least 43 African-Americans. State government proved powerless (or unwilling) to prevent or to prosecute the perpetrators.

The 1920s saw a revival and precipitous growth in membership of the Ku Klux Klan, especially in the southern states, and the perpetuation of horrible racial stereotyping that remained pervasive throughout the 1930s.

The election and inauguration of New Yorker, Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president during the worst depths of the Great Depression brought some relief to African-Americans. While Americans in general were experiencing 24-25% unemployment rates, approximately half of all Black American breadwinners were out of work—a condition explained by attitudes held by persons like those who paraded in Atlanta, Georgia carrying signs that read, “No jobs for niggers until every white man has a job.” To his credit, President Roosevelt saw to it that the federal government provided emergency relief to needy Blacks, mandated that 10% of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) positions were reserved for Black enrollees, and tried to ensure that federal work projects paid American-Americans the same wages as whites.

Fearing that he would alienate the conservative southern “Dixiecrat” wing of the Democratic Party, however, Roosevelt failed to throw his support behind an anti-lynching law, and left it to his outspoken wife, Eleanor, to raise awareness of and support for such causes. The Federal Arts Project program below is one such example of the First Lady’s commitment to civil rights, announcing her visit to the opening ceremonies for the South Side Community Art Center serving Chicago’s African-American community.

Federal Theatre Project director, Hallie Flanagan was an especially strong advocate for Civil Rights. Not only did she enforce provisions for equal pay for African-American workers in the FTP, but she also insisted that audiences for Federal Theatre Productions be integrated and cancelled shows when communities demanded segregated seating. Such enlightened and progressive attitudes were not appreciated by many conservative Southerners like Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat who served on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Dies and other “Dixiecrats” considered such moves to be proof of “Communist” infiltration of the Federal government and his public “investigations” helped discredit the program–the first WPA program to lose its Congressional funding in 1939.



Even as Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in the same period on an unapologetic platform of racial bigotry and hatred, Americans were forced to re-examine their own country’s less than admirable history of racial intolerance as they confronted the threat to world peace posed by Fascism and Nazism. African-American athletes such as Jesse Owens, (the “world’s fastest man”), helped repudiate the myth of the Aryan superman and master race at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, while Heavyweight boxer Joe Louis knocked out Hitler’s champion, Max Schmeling in the ring in 1938.



When the United States entered the war, Joe Louis enlisted, telling reporters that in spite of segregation and racial prejudice at home, he knew that the world would not be a better place for persons of color should Hitler’s forces prevail. Many of the African-American veterans who returned home after victory in the Second World War continued to fight for human rights at home and helped propel the Civil Rights movement forward in the postwar period.

~ by "The Chief" on January 21, 2012.


  1. Reblogged this on THE GRAPEVINE.

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