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Civil Rights Movement Had its Roots in World War I

rved on the front lines for 191 days during World War I, longer than any other American unit. In that time, the Soldiers of the regiment, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters," never gave up any ground it captured.
Source: International Film Service. The National Archives.
Some of the men of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, sailing home on The Stockholm in 1919. Front row, left to right: Private Eagle Eye, Ed Williams; Lamp Light, Herbert Tayl.

As soldiers were fighting overseas during World War I, there was another battle going on back home:  the battle for a better life for African Americans.  Historian Janet Hudson, speaking at a recent symposium on the war presented by Lander University in Greenwood, said even as they chafed under segregation and Jim Crow laws designed to keep them back socially and policially, black leaders saw the war as an opportunity to earn their rights by cooperating with white leaders and supporting the war through volunteering to fight, raising money and other means.

This cooperation paid off when the movie "Birth of a Nation" was set to premier in Columbia.  The film depicted blacks in a negative light and glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and leaders in the African American community didn't want it shown, telling white officials "we've cooperated in every possible way.  You've acknowledged our contributions.  This film will undermine all that." Though it couldn't force the theater owner to withdraw the movie, the city council asked him not to show it, and he agreed.  "That was a significant win," said Hudson.  

At the same time, Claflin University historian Dr. Kathryn Silva said the NAACP  was sending out workers to advocate for equal rights.

But even though black soldiers were distinguishing themselves on the battlefield, fighting with and being decorated by the French, whites - who were  in the minority in South Carolina at the time - were terrified.  They didn't want black heroes coming back from the war and gaining greater rights, for fear they'd lose the control given them by Jim Crow laws.  "So in 1919, 1920 you see black men targeted because they're displaying their patriotism" which could be as simple as wearing their uniforms, said Silva.  "So just by wearing your uniform you could be lynched."  These young men did what older people might not have done, said the professor.  After having experienced respect and freedom in Europe during the war, they said "no" to the mistreatment they received upon their return, and they left - in droves.  This mass exodus to the north for greater opportunity became known as the Great Migration.

Hudson said it's easy to think that the war didn't change things for African Americans.  But both scholars agreed that in reality, the Civil Rights Movement that grew up in the 1940s and '50s actually had its roots in the World War I years.